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Borderlands: Downtown Opium Dens Attracted Many 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Downtown Opium Dens Attracted Many

Article first published in Vol. 21, 2002.

By Gretchen Dickey

Imagine, if you will, a time in the late 1800's, strolling down St. Louis Street. Your destination: Hop Sang's Chinese Laundry. You enter this establishment not to have your shirt laundered but to have your daily smoke of opium.


Image caption: 1880s Opium den/Chinese laundry is located in adobe structure to the right of the Times building on the corner of the present day Mills and Oregon Streets.  Photo courtesy of Fred Morales.

When the Chinese laborers finished laying tracks for the Southern Pacific Railroad in El Paso, many remained to work while some established businesses, mostly restaurants, grocery stores and laundries. Chinese opium dens or "joints" were most often associated with the laundries. El Paso historian Fred Morales describes many of El Paso's opium dens as one-story adobe buildings.

Chinese laborers, known as coolies, had come to America bringing their dreams -- and their vices -- to our shores. Even though opium was already used for medicinal purposes in America, the Chinese coolies introduced the recreational use of smoking opium.

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The coolies purchased opium from a network of Chinese dealers known as the Tongs. The Tongs became the middlemen between the Chinese immigrants and their homeland where the opium was grown.

Many different species of poppy exist, but significant amounts of opium are found mostly in the specie, P. somniferous. From seed to flower takes about ninety days. The large beautiful flower blooms from two to four days before the petals drop off, exposing a pod the size of a pea. This pod grows to the size of a small hen's egg. Within this pod hide the poppy seeds from which the juice is extracted.

Chinese peasant farmers then lance these pods to cause a milky white substance to appear. Once it oxidizes with the air, this substance turns to a brown, sticky, gum. This gum provides the base for raw opium.

When European sailors introduced the smoking of tobacco into China, opium use would change radically. Arab traders had introduced opium to China in 700 A.D. Originally eaten, opium had long been used for medical purposes. When the East met the Native American Indian pipe, the art of smoking opium began.

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At some point the people dropped the tobacco and smoked only the opium. The famous Opium Wars in the 1800s between the British and the Chinese forced China to make opium importation legal. By the end of the 19th century, the working classes and rural Chinese had joined the upper classes in adopting the habit. Chinese farmers in other provinces of central and southern China joined those in Yunnan and Szechwan to produce thousands of tons of opium annually.

Authorities on the subject concur that the majority of the Chinese workers coming to the United States were already heavily addicted to opium. During the harvesting of the opium, the peasant worker would lick the knife to keep the gummy resin from building up, causing him to become addicted. In debt to the Chinese merchants who had financed their trip to America and heavily addicted to opium, the Chinese laborers had become victims themselves.

El Paso's opium dens fit right in with the many brothels and saloons. In his book on opiate addiction, David T. Courtwright quotes an Anglo opium smoker as saying, "It's a poor town nowadays that has not a Chinese laundry and nearly everyone of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories]."


Image caption: Traditional bowls excavated by Dr. Edward Staski from El Paso's vanished Chinatown are part of an extensive collection at UTEP's Centennial Museum.  Photo by Kim Prieto

Most often, the men and women associated with the dens were considered the dregs of society. With the arrival of the railroad in 1881, the dens never lacked new customers. By 1886, the cost of an addict's daily supply was 50 cents, when average wages were less than $1 a day.

Opium dens proved to be a lucrative business for the Chinese all along the railroad route. Even a small stop for the S & P Railroad like Lordsburg, New Mexico, had its joint. In a phone interview, Jana Loo Hill, a Lordsburg historian, said that an underground den for gambling and opium smoking existed behind the recently demolished Hollen Hotel.

Dr. Edward Staski, a senior research archaeologist for New Mexico State University, writes, "With the coming of the railroad, came wealth and with wealth came a division of races." Dr. Staski indicated that this division occurred wherever the railroad existed.

At this time, Americans adopted theories like Herbert Spencer's "Social Darwinism." This theory glorified great wealth and excluded all races other than white. Social Darwinism perpetuated strong racist overtones. Little doubt exists that the citizens of our community had preconceived ideas on race.

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In 1881, three newspapers all started publication, the Herald followed by the El Paso Times and then the Lone Star. Political correctness did not enter into journalism then. The papers freely expressed their prejudices toward immigrants moving into El Paso.

We see many derogatory names printed for the Chinese such as "pigtails," "Chinaman," and "the heathen." The newspapers and the good citizens of El Paso were starting to complain about the presence of the Chinese and their dens because they operated in plain view of "decent folks."

Nancy Farrar, author of the monograph entitled The Chinese in El Paso writes that the city council passed an ordinance in March 1882, prohibiting the excessive use of opium, with fines ranging from $5-$25. When this law failed to curb opium use, city council passed another ordinance in July 1882, declaring that "no person shall even visit an establishment where opium is smoked." When this ordinance also failed to stem activity, the newspapers declared war on the opium dens and the Chinese.

By 1883, El Paso had six or seven dens operating in the downtown area. On August 4, a Lone Star reporter wrote that, "El Paso is one of the only cities in this section where the proprietors of Chinese opium dens need fear no fines and no imprisonment; as a natural consequence, the Chinese like El Paso and flock in here in large numbers."

Even though the community of El Paso was concerned about the numerous Chinese crossing the border, the opium joints were not a critical threat as long as only the Chinese smoked opium.

Then on Aug. 30, 1883, a reporter for the El Paso Times sat outside a den, a few doors down west of the paper and observed about a half dozen whites entering the establishment. According to Fred Morales, this den was a Chinese laundry and rooming house located on St. Louis Street (now called Mills) where the Kress Building sits today.

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The Times reporter wrote an article describing the opium dens and proclaimed: As long as the odious habit was confined to the Chinese, who introduced it, the evil effects of it were small, but when it begins to take hold of the people who compose the society which, although we may consider of a lower class than the best people of our town, but which are still [a] useful and respectable element, then it is time something is being done to stop its evils.

Then on Aug. 19, 1885, a reporter from the Lone Star staked out another popular den. The Lone Star reporter saw 63 white men and women enter in one night. The reporter also quoted a police officer as saying, "Some of the best people in town go there." This article outraged the community of El Paso.

Leon Metz writes in his book El Paso Guided Through Time that the area referred to in this article was next to the Bank of El Paso, on the corner of El Paso Street and San Antonio where Sam Hing's Chinese Shop stood.

In his history of opium, Martin Booth speculates the reason the opium dens in America were being closed down had more to do with the fact that the whites were mixing with the Chinese and less to do with the fact that opium was a highly addictive, destructive drug. He states, "The dens were a sign of decadence and contact with the Chinamen, as with other colored races, was seen as socially polluting."

In 1881, at least five Protestant churches opened their door and high-spirited reformers jumped at the chance to preach against the many evils in El Paso, including opium dens. Farrar writes that the El Paso Times reported Rev. George W. Baines, Sr. and others started a drive against the dens.

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The reformers, along with the help of the newspapers, prompted the officials to do something about these dens. On September 11, 1885, the city passed another ordinance, prohibiting the maintenance of an opium joint and outlawing the visitation of such a place.

Although the fines attached to these ordinances increased over time, they did little to decrease activity. By 1893, El Paso still had more dens than any other town in Texas. Farrar writes that the El Paso Evening Tribune poked fun at the city officials' inability to close down these dens.

As much as the dens were a bone of contention in our community, the problem of smuggling Chinese into El Paso was now in the forefront (see story on Chinese immigrants in Borderlands vol. 19). By 1905, the Immigration Service was determined to stop illegal entry into El Paso, so it increased security on the border. In 1911, illegal smuggling of the Chinese came to a standstill.

Whether it was the determination of the Immigration Service or the outcries of a society, the opium dens vanished. There was much speculation that many of these dens went underground much like today's illegal drug trade. They may also have gone underground literally. An article in the Herald stated, "Catacombs existed underneath the ground … a labyrinth of opium dens." Other authorities speculate that many of the dens moved across the border into Mexico, like the saloons, gambling houses and brothels had done.

The scientific proof of El Paso's Chinese community of the 1800s lies in hundreds of boxes in the basement of UTEP's Centennial Museum. Dr. Edward Staski, author of the two-volume study entitled Beneath The Border City, Vol. 2: The Overseas Chinese in El Paso, excavated these artifacts at UTEP's request.

The archeological excavations of three areas downtown produced over 25,000 artifacts. Many of the preserved objects include the clay bowls of the pipes used for smoking opium, the long bamboo stems having disintegrated over the years.

Today, opium, in the form of morphine, is still used for medicinal purposes. Ironically, heroin, also derived from opium, accounts for much of the illegal drug use in El Paso and across the country. Illegal drug use is no longer restricted to any one race or social group. The insidious effects have permeated all races, classes and genders.

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Chinese in El Paso

Paso al Norte Immigration Museum (EPCC Along the Rio Grande project #62)
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