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Opium Den

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She messed around with a bloke named Smokey
She loved him, though was cokey
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong around
— "Minnie the Moocher", Cab Calloway

The door opens into warm darkness. The air is filled with smoke, its bitter-sweet scent undercut by a faint stink of sweat and bile. An attendant scurries toward you, seemingly out of nowhere, bearing a pipe and a pill of opium.

You settle into the lower level of a two-tiered bunk much like a train sleeping compartment. Declining to close the curtain — that is for those already drugged to either stupefaction or hypersensitivity — you cast your eyes about the room as the first breaths of hot vapor connect with your lungs. Around you are men and women of every conceivable race and class, some silent in contemplation of their private fantasies, others talking to or amongst themselves in strange accents and hushed tones. They coexist in a peaceful single-mindedness that would be the envy of church or state.


This is not a luxurious place, not a picture-postcard place in red and gilt. The wooden walls know neither paint nor plaster; the floor is grimy; the air is close. But to the habitué, it is paradise.

The image of the opium den is often romanticized, probably because few such places still exist. The media are more realistic in portraying other places where drug users gather to get high, such as "shooting galleries" (where addicts gather to inject drugs, usually heroin) and crack houses.

Opium use was known as "kicking the gong (around)", thus explaining the use of that phrase in many jazz songs.

Historically associated with Chinese culture, but not all are from that area. Limehouse, in London, was not actually that bad at all (the actual reason for the prevalence of this trope is, to cut a long story short, that in the 1800s the British virtually got everyone in China hooked on opium because the Chinese had a lot of stuff the British wanted to buy, but the British had nearly nothing the Chinese wanted).


Not to be confused with Opus Dei.

See also Friendly Local Chinatown and Yellow Peril.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Lau runs one of these in Black Butler. The audience and Ciel enter it briefly at the beginning of, predictably, the opium arc.
  • Granny Hao, Minnie May's old associate and underworld contact runs one of these off screen in Gunsmith Cats. She also provides all sorts of highly effective Chinese herb remedies as a side business, that rival synthetic drugs in their effectiveness.

    Comic Books 
  • In the beginning of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, Alan Quatermain is in an opium den.
    • Towards the end he has to enter another one, and nearly relapses.
  • The Blue Lotus in the Tintin book of the same name. This being a more upmarket, well-painted example, frequented by businessmen and diplomats.
  • The least romanticized version possible appears in Y: The Last Man as virtually the entire continent of Australia.
  • Peter David's Fallen Angel has an arc where Lee smokes opium in a hookah in Asia Minor's place.

  • In DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, the mockumentary on how to play dodgeball claims that the game was invented in Chinese Opium Dens.
  • Williams from Enter the Dragon met his end in one of these at the hands of Mr. Han.
  • The Doctor Mabuse films feature a few ones. The titular Doctor finds his victims there, among corrupt millionaires and aristocrats.
  • Once Upon a Time in America begins and ends with the guilt-ridden protagonist Noodles seeking solace in an opium den.
  • In Brick, the area behind Carrow's Restaurant where Dode and the other stoners hang out is intended to reference this, as evidenced by the Asian-sounding musical cues.
  • Both the graphic novel and film versions of Alan Moore's From Hell.
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie has one of these that doubles as a prostitution/white slaving ring.
  • Harvey Keitel's eponymous (and nameless) Bad Lieutenant visits a latter-day heroin den that otherwise fits the trope.
  • In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Anthony passes by one while traveling through London.
  • Indochine: Eliane is a hard-driving plantation owner in Vietnam who likes to unwind by going to an opium den and getting high. She even introduces her younger lover to them (even though he's supposed to be police its traffic). He drags her out of a den at one point.
  • Another French film set in colonial Vietnam, The Lover, has the title character, a Chinese playboy, seeking solace in an opium den after his family force him to break off his affair with the Girl (an underage French girl) and enter an arranged marriage.
  • Eddie visits one toward the end of 1935's The Cocaine Fiends.
  • There's a scene in an opium den in the action film Tian Di, where the opium is imported by the corrupt military. Even a child is seen smoking on a joint.
  • In Tombstone, Curly Bill comes out of an opium den just before he shoot Marshall White. Later a character picks up an opium pipe in a den that instead turns out to be Wyatt Earp's peacemaker, with Wyatt Earp still attached to it.
  • In Inception, the dream-den beneath Yusuf's shop seems intended to evoke this.
  • D.W. Griffith's tragedy Broken Blossoms takes place in Limehouse. The Chinese hero, a Buddhist missionary, falls on hard times and takes to the pipe.
  • Blind Woman's Curse: A Japanese Yakuza boss has one of these where comely topless women smoke pipes, and apparently are used as prostitutes by the boss's nooks.
  • The Mountie: After accidentally killing a child, Grayling became an opium addict. A flashback shows him being roused by the hostess and led out of the den.

  • One shows up in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip". Watson got sent to retrieve another man and finds Holmes there; Holmes must reassure Watson that he's only there undercover as part of an investigation and has not "added opium to the list of my vices".
  • Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins in one.
  • Appears in at least one of the Fu Manchu stories as a front for the Devil Doctor's activities.
  • Robert E. Howard 's Rhomerian "weird menace" novel Skull Face starts with protagonist Steven Costigan (a u.s. veteran of WWI) escaping the nightmares of the Argonne trench warfare in an Opium Den located, of all places, in London's Limehouse.
  • Jack Black's (not that Jack Black) You Can't Win is a brilliant memoir about his experiences as a train-hopping thief. He becomes addicted to opium and writes extensively about his experiences in these places.
  • In Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, the detective Fix gets Passepartout drunk and stoned in an opium den in Hong Kong in order to separate him from Phileas Fogg.
  • Rudyard Kipling's "The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows".
  • The title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray frequents opium dens.
  • Opium dens are depicted in all their squalor in Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose, which is set in California during the age of trains.
  • Agatha Christie's "The Lost Mine" on "Poirot's early cases" features one.
  • In the Sally Lockhart novel The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally goes to an opium den to buy some opium for Mattthew.
  • Darius goes to one regularly in The Phantom of Manhattan.
  • An illegal opium den is depicted in the comic novel The Fairy Gunmother (original title: La fée carabine) by French author Daniel Pennac. It appears in a flashback set in the 1950's in Paris and is frequented by war veterans and high-ranking government officials

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: In "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", Chang retreats to one to smoke opium to dull the pain as he dies after his leg is torn off by a giant rat.
  • The Granada adaptation of "The Dying Detective" (though not the original story). Another one appears in both versions of "The Crooked Man."
  • Highlander: The Series: A good friend of Duncan Macleod's spent the better part of an Old West Flashback in one of these, trying to deaden the panic he'd felt about his role in the neverending Game. He eventually moved on to other drugs as the decades passed, and was a cocaine addict when Duncan was forced to Mercy Kill him.
  • One appears in an episode of Magnum, P.I., in the 1980s(!)
  • The "dive" that Sister Clarice frequents (and invites Amanda Greystone to) in Caprica is fairly obviously a Fantastic Opium Den.
  • Chuck Bass (who else?) takes refuge at one of these when his father dies, on Gossip Girl.
  • In the second season of The Borgias, Juan Borgia starts to frequent an opium den in Rome on the advice of his physician to cope with a leg wound and an STD. The drugs only seem to heighten his paranoia and mental breakdown.
  • In the series The Knick a Chinatown opium den is a favorite haunt of Dr. Thackery.
  • The Murdoch Mysteries episode "Pipe Dreamzz" initially opens in a rather nice room belonging to a white Orientalist professor, where he and his his students smoke opium. Later it features an opium den in Ontario's Chinatown, where one of the students ends up after the professor realises she's addicted and cuts her off.
  • In Dracula, members of the Order of the Dragon Ancient Conspiracy go to a 19th-century London opium den, where a pair of Seers sell their services. Whether their liberal use of the product helps them in their scrying or is just a pastime is left unsaid, but Dracula gives them a nasty Poke in the Third Eye for their intrusion either way.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "Ripper", Dr. Jack York spends most of his evenings getting high on absinthe and opium in an opium den. Since it doubles as a brothel, he often has sex with the prostitutes who work there.

  • Many a Cab Calloway song takes place in or refers to an Opium Den, in which Minnie the Moocher and Smokey Joe 'kick the gong around'.
  • Men at Work: The last verse of "Down Under" has one of these.
    Lying in a den in Bombay
    With a slack jaw, and not much to say
  • Rush: The travelers in "A Passage to Bangkok" from 2112 visit a few of these.
    Wreathed in smoke in Lebanon
    We burn the midnight oil
    The fragrance of Afghanistan
    Rewards a long night's toil

    Print Media 
  • One Charles Addams cartoon depicts one of these in all its usual squalor, with a sign prominently posted on a wall stating its officially regulated occupancy limits.

  • Pip sinks into dissolution and decay in Bleak Expectations and ends up in an opium den, thinking it's a Chinese restaurant. "Would you like some complimentary prawn crack?"

  • The Crucifer of Blood: After Ross is murdered, St. Claire takes refuge in an opium den. This is where the killer catches up with him.
  • One is mentioned briefly in the musical Ride the Cyclone during "Noel's Lament" (a parody of the usual Bad Girl Song) as part of the tragic downward spiral of the glamorous, bohemian prostitute of post-war France that Noel wished he could have been (instead of a lonely teenager working at a Taco Bell in a dying mining town in Saskatchewan).
    Noel: So now I sell my love for opium
    In some rat-infested Chinese dive.
    At night I burn myself with cigarettes
    Just to somehow prove I'm still alive!
    Eight months later I catch typhoid flu.
    Cast out, I see the ugly light of day.

    Video Games 
  • The Meat King's Party mission from Hitman: Contracts features an opium den where you can pose as an attendant and serve one of your targets an opium pipe before taking him out.
  • The Copper Coronet in Baldur's Gate II features a hidden black lotus den (at least, it does before you clean the place out).
  • The Elder Scrolls has a few similar establishments for the local Fantastic Drug, Skooma:
    • Oblivion: There's a skooma den in Bravil, a down-on-its-luck city with some reputation as a Wretched Hive. Clientele include a few Addled Addicts and the local Count's son, and it's an open (and widely disliked) secret among the locals.
    • Skyrim Dawnguard Expansion has the Redwater Den, which has a dark secret: the house skooma is drugged, and the proprietors haul unconscious victims to a jail cell in the basement to be turned into Vampire Thralls.
  • Wizardry 7 has one, and your characters get to participate. If you do, your characters get visited by some kind of Spirit Advisor who gives you a really powerful item.
  • SaGa Frontier: The Wutai-esque town of Kyo has one. Black X runs its drug operations out of it.
  • In the now lost Playdom interactive game Blackwood and Bell Mysteries, when the group goes to Hong Kong, they have to search for clues in one of these.
  • In Fallen London, "prisoner's honey" is a fantastic version of opium, complete with shady and scandalous honey-dens.

    Western Animation 

Do you:
  • Talk to the client in the Deerstalker (Turn to page 23)
  • Attack the cushions with your sword (Turn to page 45)
  • Proposition the attendant (Turn to page 34)

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


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