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The Points Interview: Diana L. Ahmad

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

For our eleventh Points Interview, we do something new–take our first visit to opium in historical scholarship.  We’re pleased to do it through an interview with Diana L. Ahmad, whose book The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-Century American West (University of Nevada Press) has just appeared in a new paperback edition.  The Opium Debate explains the extent to which the response to smoking-opium/opium smoking influenced the policy world of Chinese exclusion–and does so in a very carefully researched study.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-

Diana Ahmad, The Opium Debate

When people think of the Chinese in the nineteenth-century American West, they often visualize a man with a long queue wearing traditional clothing working as a cook and housekeeper, like Hop Sing in Bonanza.  Others might think of Chinese launderers in the mining towns or laborers building railroads, such as the Central Pacific.  The thousands of Chinese men who moved to the United States came as sojourners with little intention of remaining in the country. Instead, they hoped to earn enough money to help their families economically, and then return home.  As a result, few Chinese women accompanied the workers to Gam Saan (Gold Mountain or San Francisco).  With the lack of Chinese women available to form families in the West, a few of the men occupied their time in vice activities, such as gambling (games akin to lotteries), Chinese prostitution, or smoking opium.  It must be remembered that FEW of the men smoked opium, but that did not matter to the Anglo-Americans who noticed that the “sporting classes” of whites began to visit the opium dens in Chinatown by the 1870s.  Then children started to go to the dens, and soon the middle class visited them.  Because the mid-to-late nineteenth century middle and elite classes believed in Victorian values, smoking opium threatened their standards and beliefs.  Women needed to remain in the homes and smoking opium attacked the values they held dear, including purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness.

As a result, campaigns to eliminate smoking opium began in Western communities, such as Virginia City, Nevada, Butte, Montana, or Portland, Oregon.  Cities, towns, territories, and states passed ordinances and statutes banning the substance; however, like today, outlawing narcotics was easier said than done.  As a result, the anti-opium smoking groups turned to campaigns to end Chinese immigration thinking that if the Chinese population dwindled, the amount of drugs would decrease as well.  Basically, they hoped to get rid of smoking opium by preventing the purveyors of the poppy from moving to the United States.

The movement to end Chinese immigration focused on two parts, economic and social.  Chinese laborers often worked for less money than Anglo-American workers, and union workers were fearful for their jobs.  Chinese prostitution and opium dens threatened the perceived social standards of the United States.  Ending Chinese immigration, they believed, would end the drug problem, as well as the sex trade and labor competition.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I think that historians might find the impact of smoking opium on the legal and social development of the American West far greater than earlier imagined or studied. In histories of the Chinese experience in the American West, there are often a few sentences devoted to opium dens, yet few have discussed it.  It was not the intention of those authors to study opium smoking; they had other missions to accomplish.

Smoking opium’s history involves the economic, political, legal, and social histories of the United States.  Reactions to the Chinese were influenced by the opium trade.  The links between Victorian values and smoking opium’s impact on them is also of great interest, as is the development of American drug law.  The development of American laws regarding vice activities reflected an anti-Chinese bias.  Alcohol, gambling, and prostitution were often only regulated, not banned, as in the case of smoking opium.

Police and court records provide a gold mine of information regarding views of the Chinese (and others) and contemporary newspapers and magazines give substantial information about opium smoking.  Getting access to the police and court records often entails visiting the police stations and attics where the records are kept, instead of archives and historical societies.  As such, the research is great fun and very rewarding, but time consuming.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What is most interesting to me is that things have not changed much regarding drugs.  Yes, the types of drugs have changed, as has their availability, but the desire to blame foreigners for America’s drug problems seems to have remained the same.  Blame the Chinese in the 1870s-1880s for smoking opium, the Mexicans for marijuana in the 1930s, the Southeast Asians for opium and heroin in the 1960s-1970s, and the Columbians for cocaine in the 1990s-2000s.  Blaming outsiders is not a new idea historically, but it remains fascinating to me, nonetheless.  What is also interesting is that sex is so often tied in with drug use, or at least it is considered tied to drug use.

I also found it interesting that opium dens appeared to be everywhere in the nineteenth century United States, not just in the West.  Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City claimed many opium dens.  Also, most of the dens had a Chinese connection, sometimes decorated with an entirely Chinese motif in dens operated exclusively for Anglo-American women.

Even today, movies and television shows stress the exotic and erotic nature of an opium den.  Sex and drugs continue to sell well to American audiences.  Perhaps, it is simply morbid curiosity.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from The Opium Debate are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would like to see someone discover a treasure trove of diaries and letters written by Chinese men and women from the 1870s and 1880s.  Alas, I could not use them, as I do not read Chinese; however, it would be fantastic to learn the thoughts of the people who ran or visited the opium dens.  How did they view their roles?  What did they think of Anglo-Americans visiting the dens?  How did they view the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act?

I would also like to understand the business of running an opium den.  How did they do it?  More precise information about the Chinese triads and their role in the dens and drug business would be great to see.  Again, information from the Chinese side is most desirable.

Fortunately, a few Western communities are having archeological digs in the Chinatown areas of their towns, such as in Butte, Montana.  The information gathered from them about the dens, as well as other facets of Chinese life, will help understand the role of the Chinese in the development of the United States.

BONUS QUESTION:  Let’s give up on the idea that Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book.  In the audiobook, who should provide the voice for The Opium Debate?

I think Clint Eastwood would be great.  He has the tone of voice I think would be perfect for a western topic!  If not him, then David Carradine, but largely only because of his role in the television show Kung Fu, that featured an entire episode devoted to opium dens.

Several years ago, The History Detectives, a PBS series, had a segment on a scale that someone thought was used to weigh opium.  I was the talking head for about sixty seconds.  A couple of years later, when I was in Hong Kong at the Happy Valley Race Track, two Australians RECOGNIZED me and even told me what I said!  I was amazed!  People actually paid attention!  So, perhaps, Ken Burns might want to do a movie after all!


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