- The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth Century American West
Nothing is more central to the historical study of drug use and policy than the Chinese and opium. The China opium trade was a model of how long-distance drug commerce developed under the imperial system. The ensuing globalization of opium smoking through the Chinese diaspora provoked precedent-setting bans in countries as far distant as Australia and the United States. Most critically, the growing concern over opium in late Qing China inspired the diplomatic conferences that took the first, halting steps toward international narcotic control.
Diana Ahmad moves the discussion of the Chinese and opium in a new direction. She argues that opium smoking, a vice that disgusted and alarmed the middle class, led to political pressure to both suppress opium dens and to exclude the Chinese from American shores. The dominant metaphor was one of contagion. [End Page 469] To control the disease, it was necessary to do something about the carrier, the Chinese, as well as the pathogen, the smoked opium. The pressure intensified during the 1870s, as it became obvious that white gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, and demimondaines were picking up the practice. Ahmad cites one journalistic account—much of the book is based on newspaper and court records—claiming that Virginia City, Nevada, already had 150 white smokers by 1876. These included both men and women, the latter a particular sore point for those repulsed by the specter of interracial sex. Worries that curious young people would surrender honor and health in the "haunts of filth" (p. 56) touched the deepest nerve of all: the need to protect vulnerable youth.
Local ordinances against opium dens followed, along with anti–opium smoking statutes in several western states. Ahmad makes three essential points about these measures: they imposed the heaviest burden (especially in terms of imprisonment) on the Chinese; they did not stop opium smoking; and they did not represent a national solution. Federal exclusionary legislation was therefore doubly attractive—it would stop the influx of male Chinese laborers and their bachelor vices, and it would strike at the cultural and demographic root of the opium-smoking problem. The 1882 Exclusion Act was a "twofer," anti-opium as well as anti-Chinese. Congress enacted a second and more direct measure in 1909, when it replaced stiff tariffs on opium prepared for smoking with an outright ban. Thereafter, the drug's importation and use persisted as a completely illegal activity within a committed but aging subculture whose members would, for reasons of cost and convenience, gradually abandon the pipe for the needle.
Ahmad's argument that opium control was an important motive for Chinese exclusion is clear and convincing. I have noticed a corroborating shift from concern over prostitution to concern over opium in the anti-Chinese literature of 1850s through the 1870s. Yet it is worth asking whether exclusion would have occurred regardless of the opium dens. What makes this an interesting counter-factual is the status of male Japanese immigrants. They came later, in the 1890s, and worked mainly in California agriculture. The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907–8, an exchange of diplomatic notes curtailing passports for Japanese laborers, ended immigration of this type. Yet Japanese immigrants did not smoke opium. Restrictions on their entry suggest that racial and economic considerations were also primary for the Chinese. Ahmad is surely correct, though, that opium smoking exacerbated and symbolized the Chinese immigrant threat, which many nineteenth-century Americans likened to the spread of a particularly noxious disease. [End Page 470]