Chinese Whispers: The darker side of the Lawrence nightlife

Visiting a Chinese Camp Part 5

Today Les and Maisie conclude their tales of the Lawrence Chinese Camp by taking us into the darker underbelly of the nightlife – the camp’s opium den. As with all of the other Chinese Camp posts, the broken English is deliberate and reflects spoken Chinese.

We obtained flasks of wine for all and took some towards that door. Yon made a secret knock and the door opened. The gloomy, confined, windowless, smoky room beyond the door smelled toxic; sour and sickly. Yon whispered, “Let me do the talking.”

The wrinkled guardian was addressed as ‘Sook-sook’. He looked us up and down fearing we were sent by the police. We showed him the wine. Yon gave him a nod and said, “we have drinks to share”. Sook-sook replied, “You sharing drinks, your first pipe, free. After that each pipe cost ten shillings, low grade – five shillings, dry pellet one shilling, stay all night no extra!” We saw old and young men lying curled on their sides smoking opium pipes. Other unconcious bodies lay there too trapped under the spell of the resident ghost.

Opium smokers in the East End of London, 1874. From the Illustrated London News, 1 August 1874. Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Sook-sook said. “Most come here to escape their suffering. I sell three types of opium; dark dried opium blocks in small tins, brown liquid opium in bottles and expensive snuff opium. All opium is addictive, destroys their soul and changes into other poisons that hide in their body.”

Opium paraphernalia from Vietnam. Image in the public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Yon’s next remarks were a surprise, “some men come here and feel revived after smoking, some snort very expensive medicinal opium blended in China. A small bottle is heated and the spout is inserted into the nostril and snorted.”

Sook-sook explained that men injured in accidents on the goldfield need small mouth doses to heal faster. “Big problem is when they start shaking and need more. The only way to tame it is by smoking. There are abandoned men living alone in huts after their energetic workmates have moved on. To them opium smoking is more important than food. When they cannot afford either, their body is overtaken with hallucinations and cravings. They spend their last days receiving sips of tea from passing miners or charitable Europeans until they die”. Sook-sook said, “I see Chinese man come with English lady, nobody care if they have baby. English men and women come here, all have good time.”

Description of European women in the opium dens of Australia’s goldfields. Patea Mail, Volume 1, Issue 5, 28 April 1875. Article accessed via Papers Past.

In the gloom, we saw Ah Yow, (the man we first met here in the Chinese camp). He ‘patted’ our pockets with his hand, but his mind and body are divinely separated by the opium. The air became unbearable and Sook-sook remarked, “You not look too well, now time for free smoke, make body relax, feel happy. Suck smoke slowly, beginners often get sick.”

We clutched Yon’s arm and told him we needed fresh air, we had seen enough! Exiting the den required great care as it would be easy to trip over somebody. After waving to Sook-sook, he raised his arm and said, “Me remember, – free smoke next time!”

Out in the fresh air, the door-keeper was snoozing against the large dog. Yon pressed his forehead, awakened him and asked, “Good business tonight?” He stood up and spoke, “Always good business if you not gamble or smoke, only stupid customers come to lose their money and waste their life.” We asked him about the dog and he said it was his. He added, “Dog freely roam camp, keep bad people away. Make lot loud noise when police try sneak in.”. He sounded a wise man who only spoke ‘survival’ English aided by hand and body movements. We asked him about the people we’ve met here in the camp, and the future on the goldfields.

He replied, “Ah Bok very kind man, already wife in China but away much long time, nephew always sick, tell lies, asking money, see doctor. He and Missy happy.” We asked, “What about Ah Yow?” He shook his head and said, “Very sad, work hard, gave Jesus Don [Rev Alexander Don] one sovereign take for wife in China. One year later Don return sovereign, wife not found. Opium help him forget.”

We asked about Sook-sook. He paused, clicked his knuckles and adjusted his pigtail before replying. “That not his name! Chinese use that name for ‘uncle’ when real name not known. One day he move to city, become herb doctor, open bigger den.” “Me? Get boat to China, see grandson but not when dog still living.”

Yon spoke. “If store becomes unprofitable I’ll close it and work on the new roads and railway. I have no family to go home to. Some will go home poor and some have gone home dead. A few had the opportunity to naturalise and may have smarter plans.”

Chinese names among those ‘naturalised’ into New Zealand society. Note that this naturalisation was only possible in the early days of colonisation – the Chinese were denied naturalisation from 1908 to 1951. Otago Daily Times, Issue 3313, 18 September 1872. Accessed via Papers Past

We let Yon summarise, “This camp is not eternally filled with suffering and misery. There’s life and bewilderment to be discovered. To those brave men who travelled to this foreign land seeking wealth to feed their family in China, it is all but a dream. They live here bonded by kinship, hard work and endless hope. In time, our voices will fade, the camp will crumble, but by chance, somebody, just somebody, may come and tell our stories.” Yon concluded, “At sunrise everybody must leave this den and face the world they’ve tried to escape from.”

Time too, for visitors like us to leave… And did we leave empty handed? You be the judge.

Traditionally, departing Chinese visitors leave with a gift, our visitors are likely to have been no exception to this…
Photo: Leslie Wong.

Les and Maisie Wong, 5th March 2020

Here ends Les and Maisie’s exploration of life in the Chinese camp for now. Don’t forget to check out Chinese Whispers parts 1-4 in the archives for more info!

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