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Drug Use on One 'Night on Earth' in 1929

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Authors: Ritesh Kumar Jaiswal, Halea Ruffiner, Judith Vitale

The movie Night on Earth of 1992 raises several questions pertinent to writing global history: What can we learn about the tangential meeting and drifting apart of ordinary people in taxies or elsewhere? Are their lives in different world regions disconnected from each other, or are their experiences, which occur at precisely the same time, comparable due to wider encompassing formations? Using five vignettes of creative non-fiction, we explore the fate of people who use drugs in different places on one night on earth in 1929, marked by crucial transformations in global industrial productivity and work regime, to consider these questions. The vignettes reflect the papers and discussions of a conference on “Drugs and the Industrial Situation” held in Zurich in August 2022.

Saïgon: The opium smoker

In 1929, stepping into the opium factory of Saïgon, close to the river, the visitor might have had the impression of being transported back in time to the dying mills of the early nineteenth century: dark rooms, heavy smell in the air, muffled noise. Nevertheless, the description of the opium factory of Saïgon by the French doctor Angélo Hesnard suggests that industrial operations had evolved since the beginnings of factory work. The processing of raw opium, which was imported in cakes from Benares, into opium suitable for smoking took three days, and was not conducted by women and children, but two teams of skilled male Chinese adults. The equipment included modern two-layer copper pans, basins, pumps, mechanical stirrers, cylindrical containers, and precision machines for the packaging of the product. The factory in Saïgon was one of the last of its kind due to the gradual suppression of opium smoking in China and Taiwan—Istanbul, Ghazipur, and Taipei had switched to morphine production. From the factory the opium was distributed to licensed vendors. Behind the doors of a green pavilion, the visitor could have peaked into a murky hall. Among other emaciated coolies and heavy merchants, with a greyish complexion, one man lay stretched out on a camp bed. The silence allowed him to take a rest from work.

Selangor: Toddy, samsu and the Indian migrant at the rubber plantation

Ramasamy, a 19-year-old man with skin and bone evidently sinking, was among the 87,000 Indian labourers assisted to migrate from Tinnevelly in Madras to work on the Selangor rubber plantations in British Malaya in 1929. On his arrival, he experienced that the wages, working, and living conditions promised by the kangany intermediaries were empty assurances. Homesick, depressed with strenuous long working hours and poor health clubbed with his inability to save and remit to his family due to impending advance debt and irregular and low wages, he was pushed towards alcoholism. He generally received toddy from the kangany-owned liquor shop on the estate, the cost of which was further deducted from his wages. He had also mortgaged a silver anklet, a memory of his wife, at a Chinese pawnshop to buy samsu which was illicitly distilled on a large scale by the Chinese and whose manufacture or sale the British government was unable to suppress. On the pretext of “inefficiency” at work, Ramasamy was often punished and showed several abrasions over his body. Delusional, he often thought of returning to his wife and 2-year-old daughter and his small plot of rice land in his village. Out of despair while debt-ridden and drunk, Ramasamy along with his friend Nallapan plotted to bolt the estate in the middle of the night. However, the estate security caught them off-guard. They were punished with flogging with rattan and stick. Nallapan survived with 26 scars on the neck and shoulders and 22 on the buttocks and legs but given the feeble state of Ramasamy’s body, he was not able to undergo the severity of the flogging unleashed upon him. Unnamed and unmarked, his body was buried between a row of coconut trees, the usual place of sepulchre for the estates, with his unfulfilled dreams and half-empty samsu bottle.

Debe: The sugarcane worker, cannabis, and rum

The sugarcane worker took a deep breath, savoring the warm and sweet burning sensation the rum had sent down the back of his throat. The voices of men he had known for decades filled the night air, weaving through the rustle of the sugarcane he now grew in addition to rice and corn and plantains, to sell to the mills. After indenture in Trinidad, they all continued working on the plantations during harvest season. Between growing and selling their own food and wage labor, they made ends meet. Years back, he had grown ganja to supplement the family income, a skill which his father had brought with him when he crossed the ocean, before the English imposed a tax and it became unprofitable and then illegal to grow in 1916. Still, he thought, he was doing all right now. He had gone from Debe to San Fernando and bought new clothes and some rum along the way in preparation for the upcoming occasion. Socially, rum served the same purpose as the passing around of the chillum, but the effect of the drink was different. A friend cracked a joke, spirits were high because a wedding had been announced, and a glass of water was pushed into his hands to wash down the rum.

Tokyo: The geisha and morphine

One night, the geisha Harukoma discovered the black stains on the body of her mate Shizuka. She recognized them as the marks of morphine injections. Shizuka, was born as Satō Kie in Otaru in Hokkaido. She lost her father as a child and was sold as a geisha by her mother. When she suffered severely from endometritis, as she was working in a brothel in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, she received injections to cope with the work and became a morphine user. The brothel owner falsified her medical certificate to get her transferred. When she switched workplace, she brought a year’s supply of morphine with her. However, as the morphine was running out, she began selling her kimonos and borrowing money to pay for injections at the nearby hospital. When she used up her savings, she bribed the nurses with goods from the haberdashery and stole money from her customers. She also stole kimonos from the other geishas to sell them for money. One morning, a few days after Harukoma’s discovery, Shizuka was no longer in the brothel. Harukoma opened Shizuka’s chest to see if she might find any of her kimonos and discovered that it was filled with empty bottles of morphine. There was a magazine and a picture on top of the empty bottles. The magazine was the one Shizuka used to read and cry over. Flipping through the pages, Harukoma found a story about a girl addicted to morphine. The picture was of Shizuka’s late father.

Zurich: The dropout and multiple drug use

In 1929, Friedrich Glauser was accused of forging a morphine prescription. At that time, he was already known to the authorities. Expulsions from schools, abuse of ether and chloroform, and an attempted suicide marked his youth. In 1918, two years after his graduation from school, he was incapacitated for dissolute living. Glauser received his first morphine injection for a cold but stated to have fallen into the opiate habit in search for dissipation in Zurich during the First World War. He was not intoxicated by alcohol and did not appreciate the taste of ether. A therapy with cocaine against his morphine addiction led to delusions of persecution. While serving in the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, 1921 to 1923, he discovered hashish. As a result of changing legislation, Glauser exchanged subcutaneous morphine for opium tinctures. His repeated admissions to clinics were ordered not because of the use of narcotics per se, but because of the forgery of prescriptions and the diagnosis of moral imbecility. In the clinic of Münsingen, his psychiatrist Max Müller, fascinated by Glauser, helped him publish his first poems and novels from 1925. He treated him again between 1930 and 1931. Glauser is remembered as one of the most original novelists of Switzerland.

So, what can we learn from these individual stories? While in 1992, foreign migrants, lower-class women, and rural poor, who came to the big cities, sought careers, and fulfilling relationships, during the Great Depression of 1929, the most vulnerable members of society were hoping to earn enough for subsistence. As states propagated industrial hyper productivity, factory workers, indentured and day laborers, prostitutes, and dropouts endured exploitation, poverty, and illness, by getting high on one night on earth. But with the advent of prohibition, access to previously legal drugs was increasingly difficult. The underprivileged were not only marginalized due to class and race concerns, but also stigmatized as deviant. As we consider individual fates, it becomes clear that similar styles of life are not only the result of contingency, but also global disciplinary regimes then and now.


Feature image: “Cocaine dreams”, in Umehara Hokumei, “Sekai ahen kidan,” Gurotesuku – Grotesque 2:4 (1929).


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