Emily Hahn (1905- 1997) on “The Big Smoke”

Image from Good Reads, retrieved April 2nd, 2013.

From “The Big Smoke” (1950):

I had learned what was so pleasant about opium. Gone were the old romantic notions of wild drug orgies and heavily flavored dreams, but I didn’t regret them, because the truth was much better. To lie in a quiet room talking and smoking- or, to put things in their proper order, smoking and talking- was delightfully restful and pleasant. I wasn’t addicted, I told myself, but you had to have a bit of a habit to appreciate the thing. One used a good deal of time smoking, but, after all, one had a good deal of time. The night clubs, the cocktails and dinner parties beloved of foreign residents in Shanghai would have palled on me even if I’d kept up drink for drink with my companions. Now I hardly ever bothered to go to these gatherings. Opium put me off drinking, and people who didn’t smoke seemed more and more remote, whereas smokers always seemed to have tastes and ideas compatible to mine. We would read aloud to each other a good deal- poetry, mostly. Reading and music and painting were enough to keep us happy. We didn’t care for eating or drinking or voluptuous pleasures…
One day… I drew up a table of the smokers creed:

  1. I will never be an addict.
  2. I can’t become addicted. I am one of those people who take it or let it alone.
  3. I’m not badly addicted.
  4. It’s a matter of will power, and I can stop any time.

Any time. Time. That was something that had lost its grip on me. It was amazing how watches varied their rate of running, sometimes galloping, at other times standing still. To keep up with my job, I had to look at my watch often; it had a trick of running away when I didn’t notice, causing me to forget dates or arrive at appointments incredibly late. I appeared sleepy. I know this from what outsiders told me about myself- “You need sleep,” they would say- but I never felt sleepy, exactly; inside my mind was unusually clear, and I could spend a whole night talking without feeling the need of rest. This was because I was an addict. I admitted it now, and was pleased that I could feel detached. We opium smokers, I reflected, are detached, and that is one of our advantages. We aren’t troubled with unpleasant emotions. The alcoholic indulges in great bouts of weeping sentiment, but the smoker doesn’t. You never find a smoker blubbering and blabbing his secrets to the opium seller. We are proud and reserved. Other people might think us drowsy and dull; we know better. The first reaction to a good long pull at the pipe is a stimulating one. I would be full of ideas and as I lay there I would make plans for all sorts of activity. Drowsiness of a sort came on later, but even then, inside my head, behind my dropping eyes, my mind seethed with exciting thoughts.
Still, I couldn’t ignore the disadvantages. If I had, I would have been unworthy of the adjective “detached.” Being an addict was awfully inconvenient. I couldn’t stay away from my opium tray, or Heh-ven’s, without beginning to feel homesick. I would think of the lamb in the shaded room, the coziness, the peace and the comfort with great longing. Then my nose would start to run and I was afraid somebody from the outside would have the sense to understand what was the matter with me.

-pp. 109- 110, Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on The Drug Experience by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (2000)

Read complete text of "The Big Smoke".

Emily Hahn, opium, The Big Smoke
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