When the British flooded China with opium in the nineteenth century to correct a trade imbalance due to their strong reliance on imported Chinese tea, it was legal to smoke the drug in the UK and it was grown in significant quantities there. Shocked by the number of addicts created, however, the Qing government imposed a ban and rightfully seized the drugs. The British government objected to this seizure and used its military power to seek redress. By January 1841, British forces had commanded the high ground around Canton and had defeated the Chinese at Ningbo. By the middle of 1842 they had occupied Shanghai. In August 1842, the Treaty of Nanking brought an end to the war and the Qing government agreed to allow Britain to make Hong Kong a crown colony, ceding it to the British “in perpetuity” to provide British traders with a harbour where they could unload their goods.
At the time of the Treaty of Nanking, China’s population was over 400 million, of whom at least 2 million were opium users. By 1881, the country’s population was less than 370 million, of which as many as a third made regular use of the drug. Chinese domestic production had grown rapidly in response to the increasing demand.
The British parliament finally forbade the shipment of opium to China in 1911, the year the Manchu government fell, but opium smoking continued until the Communist regime took power. In Hong Kong itself, the practice was difficult to eradicate. At the time of my novel, it was common-place and an indulgence for rich and poor alike. Nowadays, opium-smoking in China is a tiny fraction of what it once was and in Hong Kong, it has been replaced by more modern drugs.
In the 1960s, my parents bought an antique opium bed, made for two people to lie side by side and smoke together, and it graces the family home even today. We don’t smoke opium on it, I hasten to add, but it’s a beautiful piece of furniture and makes a comfortable sofa, with plenty of cushions.