Honolulu’s Highways and Byways–Among the Opium Dens of Chinatown

Pacific Commercial Advertiser/March 16, 1908

Many Whites Among the Smokers—The Kodak Drives All to Cover.

 Fifty white men in Honolulu “hit the pipe” in the opium dives that exist to the number of a score or so in the heart of Chinatown. So one of the Chinese habitués of the joints informed an Advertiser investigator last week. And from the look of the joint where the information was given it was rather easy to believe that any white man who would go there would do anything. This place was in the rear of the row of dirty tenements facing mauka on Pauahi street, near River. Every room in the back of that building on the ground floor except one is an opium joint and on the day of the visit was crowded with Chinese, many of whom were busily inhaling the white fumes from the burning dope or sleeping off their debauches. Tucked away in the corners of bunks, laid out on mats on the floor and even slid out of the limited way under the bunks were poppy-soaked figures, pallid-faced, and in many instances bare-footed and ragged, deep in sleep, dreaming of Elysium, while over and about them swarmed the teeming other patrons and proprietors of the dives.

There were no white men there, at least in evidence. White dope fiends do not expose themselves in the careless way that the Chinese do. Some of them have a remnant of shame left and seek the upper rooms of the dives on their visits, while all of them endeavor to keep out of the way of the police, who pay domiciliary calls very frequently to these places. Chinamen can smoke and drug themselves as they will, but the police arrest whites and Hawaiians found in these joints and lock them up for vagrancy. Then the deprivation of the drug proves to be a thousand times more punishment for them than all the other penalties the magistrate can impose.

There is nothing attractive about an opium dive. Dark, stinking with the exhalations of those who overcrowd the little rooms, floors and windows dirt begrimed and filthy, and everywhere the reek and gurgle of the opium, there is nothing to remind the casual visitor of the fairy tales that are sometimes related of the palaces of Nirvana, where amid Oriental splendor the white slaves of the drug indulge themselves in vice. As a matter of fact the opium fiends among the whites are less fastidious than the Chinese themselves and with even less excuse. The photograph published herewith of the entrances to the dives in the one particular building, gives but a faint conception of the squalor of the place. Prior to the exposure of the camera this alley was full of Chinamen, professional gamblers and others, who ducked for cover as soon as it was seen that a picture was to be taken. It is from among these men that the highbinder class is recruited, sneak thieves bred and criminals made. Most of them are opium smokers, spending their time playing games in the reeking joints during the day, the losing players paying for the pills for the winners. At night they pit their skill against that of the more industrious of their countrymen, fleecing them at the pai-kau or fan-tan tables. All of them are known to the police.

Throughout Chinatown there is scarcely a tenement in which at any time of the day or night some opium smoking is not going on, more or less publicly, and yet the vice is on the decline, or supposed to be. Quite recently an association was formed among the Honolulu Chinese to work for the suppression of opium and many habitual smokers joined and announced that the drug was to be given up. The recipe for some especially noxious tasting brew was distributed around among the smokers and the medicine when taken regularly was guaranteed to cure the habit and stop the poppy-craving within three months. Many Chinamen began to use it, encouraged in their endeavor to break themselves of the habit by their Consul. A good many of them claimed that the dope was actually lessening their desire for the pipe and the demand for the treacly stuff began to fall off. Perhaps it may be unjust to say that the dealers in opium and the proprietors of the dives were responsible, but at any rate about ten days ago a report began to circulate among the Chinese that certain death awaited the ones who persisted in taking this opium antidote. The report, which spread like wildfire among the Chinese, was that news had been received from China that those who had attempted to cure themselves of opium smoking in this way had all died suddenly within three months after beginning the treatment. Throughout the city the antidote was hurriedly spilled into sinks or poured out into back yards and many hundreds of extra punks smoked in propitiation before grinning josses. But hitting the pipe is decreasing because the number of old Chinamen in Honolulu is decreasing. The Hawaiian-Chinese do not to any number indulge in the vice.

This is not because they do not have plenty of opportunity to see plenty of it. In the very thickest of the hop joint section, in the building shown in the pictures here given, a score of bright-eyed little chaps attend a private school. The contrast between the joints downstairs and the little hall of learning upstairs is great. On the one hand grime, slothfulness and vice; on the other tidiness, youth and industry. Below, pigtails and talon-like finger nails; above, closely cropped polls and chubby fists curved to top spinning and marbles. The boys attend this school after the hours of the public schools. They will all be voters here some day.

Down at Pearl City, just across the track from the railroad station, there is a Chinese school in the front room and just through the open door are an opium joint and an opium pipe repairing shop. While at their noisy classes these children can see the dopesters at work.

 Chinese Athletics.

But all opium smokers are not Chinese: neither are all Chinese opium smokers, even among the older ones. Just as many of the young Chinese engage in Occidental sports and train their muscles for field and track contests, so the older ones, some of them, keep up their training along the methods brought with them from China. These methods are heroic and startling and the results are amazing. A course of exercises that will enable a man in the end to poke his forefinger through a half inch board or crack open a cocoanut with his fist amount to something, for their freakishness if for nothing else. There are some Chinamen who can do these things. Others harden the muscles of the forearm by whacking them with sticks, giving themselves welts rom wrist to elbow that would black and blue the haole athlete to a pulp.

To secure photographs of some of these now old men in action is almost impossible. They do their stunts willingly enough for the one who cares to look them up, but their training quarters and gymnasiums are tucked away I cellars or darkened back rooms where snapshotting is impossible and they will not come out into the sunlight and face a camera. One was found the other day who was less modest. This is Pak Chew, who is well known to the police as a scrapper, one whose strength and skill are supposed to be at the disposal of the highest bidder and who figures generally on one side or the other in most of the tong mixups in the quarter. Unofficially he dropped in the other day to see his acquaintances at the police station and posed proudly for his picture.

His particular stunt is to invite anyone who wants to make a punching bag out of his stomach. By constant exercise of the abdominal muscles he has so strengthened these that the hardest puncher cannot even make a dent. Joe Leal, the assistant chief of detectives, failed even to stagger him. Barney Joy once undertook to knock the wind out of the Chink and bruised his knuckles and many of the strong men and pugilists of the city have had like experience with “The Man with the Rubber Stomach,” as Pak Chew delights in being called.

Congested Conditions.

Throughout that section of the city between Nuuanu, and River, and King, and Beretania, each block is a perfect network of connecting buildings. Back in the centers of these blocks only enough ground is left unbuilt on to allow little alleyways, over which, from the second stories and roofs runways back and forth connect the buildings and provide plenty of get-away whenever the police descend on the inmates. These runways are principally used by the Chinese and their building are the ones the most liberally provided with exits. Japanese and Hawaiians share their quarters but do not share their dislike of traveling on the ground when it can be avoided. They all seem to share the dislike for the Kodak, though, and several attempts to secure a picture in and around the swarming tenements only succeeded in driving everyone hurriedly indoors. A snapshot given here in one of the most congested blocks shows only apparently deserted Lanais, although at least fifty Chinese men and women were busied on these same lanais less than one minute before the camera was snapped. The first sight of the picture machine sent them piling helter-skelter behind the slammed doors.

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85047084/1908-03-16/ed-1/seq-5.pdf)