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The Opium Monopoly




In January, 1917, we found ourselves at Singapore, a British dependency, situated at the end of the Malay Peninsula, and one of the greatest seaports of the Orient. We were stopping at the Hotel de l' Europe, a large and first class hotel. The first morning at breakfast, the waiter stood beside us, waiting for our order. He was a handsome young Malay, dressed in white linen clothes, and wearing a green jade bracelet on one wrist. We gave him our order and he did not move off. He continued to stand quietly beside our chairs, as in a trance. We repeated the order-one tea, one coffee, two papayas. He continued to stand still beside us, stupidly. Finally he went away. We waited for a long time and nothing happened. At last, after a long wait, he returned and set before us a teapot filled with hot water. Nothing else. We repeated again-tea, coffee, papayas. We said it two or three times. Then he went away and came back with some tea. We repeated again, coffee and fruit. Eventually he brought us some coffee. Finally, after many endeavors, we got the fruit. It all took a long time. We then began to realize that something was the matter with him. He could understand English well enough to know what orders we were giving him, but he seemed to forget as soon as he left our sight. We then realized that he was probably drugged. It was the same thing every day. In the morning he was stupid and dull, and could not remember what we told him. By evening his brain was clearer, and at dinner he could remember well enough. The effects of whatever he had been taking had apparently worn off during the day.

We learned that the opium trade was freely indulged in, at Singapore, fostered by the Government. Singapore is a large city of about 300,000 inhabitants, a great number of which are Chinese. It has wide, beautiful streets, fine government buildings, magnificent quays and docks-a splendid European city at the outposts of the Orient. We found that a large part of its revenue is derived from the opium traffic-from the sale of opium, and from license fees derived from shops where opium may be purchased, or from divans where it may be smoked. The customers are mainly Chinese.

I wanted to visit these Government-licensed opium shops and opium dens. A friend lent me two servants, as guides. We three got into rickshaws and went down to the Chinese quarter, where there are several hundred of these places, all doing a flourishing business. It was early in the afternoon, but even then, trade was brisk. The divans were rooms with wide wooden benches running round the sides, on which benches, in pairs, sharing a lamp between them, lay the smokers. They purchased their opium on entering, and then lay down to smoke it. The packages are little, triangular packets, each containing enough for about six smokes. Each packet bears a label, red letters on a white ground, "Monopoly opium."

In one den there was an old man-but you can't tell whether a drug addict is old or not, he looked as they all do, gray and emaciated-but as he caught my eye, he laid down the needle on which he was about to cook his pill, and glanced away. I stood before him, waiting for him to continue the process, but he did not move.

"Why doesn't he go on?" I asked my guide. "He is ashamed to have you see him," came the reply.

"But why should he be ashamed?" I asked, "The British Government is not ashamed to sell to him, to encourage him to drug himself, to ruin himself. Why should he be ashamed?"

"Nevertheless, he is," replied the guide. "You see what he looks like-what he has become. He is not quite so far gone as the others-he is a more recent victim. He still feels that he has become degraded. Most of them do not feel that way after a while."

So we went on and on, down the long street. There was a dreadful monotony about it all.

House after house of feeble, emaciated, ill wrecks, all smoking Monopoly Opium, all contributing, by their shame and degradation, to the revenues of the mighty British Empire.

That evening after dinner, I sat on the wide verandah of the hotel, looking over a copy of the "Straits Times." One paragraph, a dispatch from London, caught my eye. " Chinese in Liverpool. Reuter's Telegram. London, January 17, 1917 Thirty-one Chinese were arrested during police raids last night on opium dens in Liverpool. Much opium was seized. The police in one place were attacked by a big retriever and by a number of Chinese, who threw boots and other articles from the house-top."

Coming fresh from a tour of the opium-dens of Singapore, I must say that item caused some mental confusion. It must also be confusing to the Chinese. It must be very perplexing to a Chinese sailor, who arrives in Liverpool on a ship from Singapore, to find such a variation in customs. To come from a part of the British Empire where opium smoking is freely encouraged, to Great Britain itself where such practices are not tolerated. He must ask himself, why it is that the white race is so sedulously protected from such vices, while the subject races are so eagerly encouraged. It may occur to him that the white race is valuable and must be preserved, and that subject races are not worth protecting. This double standard of international justice he must find disturbing. It would seem, at first glance, as if subject races were fair game-if there is money in it. Subject races, dependents, who have no vote, no share in the government and who are powerless to protect themselves-fair game for exploitation.

Is this double-dealing what we mean when we speak of "our responsibility to backward nations, 1) or of "the sacred trust of civilization" or still again when we refer to "the White Man's burden " ?

Pondering over these things as I sat on the hotel verandah, I finally reached the conclusion that to print such a dispatch as that in the " Straits Times" was, to say the least, most tactless.

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