Opium Dens in Colonial Manila

U.S. soldiers raid an opium den, 1898

U.S. soldiers raid an opium den, 1898

The recent legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado recalls that, in the 19th century, opium use was legalized in the Spanish colony of the Philippines, on the condition that such use was limited only among the Chinese in the colony.  The government embarked on an opium monopoly venture which provided a lucrative venture for the colonials as well as other businessmen who bidded for opium supply and operation of opium dens.

Binondo’s old silk market, the Alcaiceria de San Fernando and which is now the Pedro Guevara Elementary School, used to have a legalized opium laboratory in its midst.  When the silk market closed down, other public opium smoking houses flourished and many of them actually thrived in the vicinity of Binondo where there was a significant Chinese population.  Even Jose Rizal in his novel, Noli me tangere, wrote about the last dissolute days of the character Capitan Tiago, who would be seen frequenting the Fumadero Publico de Anfion, or Public Opium Smoking House, in Binondo.  Rizal’s allusion to this character’s tragic fate  infers on how the law could be circumvented and that Chinese exclusivity to smoking opium was not really observed.  It seemed that the opium venture was very lucrative because public bidding for the operation of opium dens in the Marianas were even advertised in the Manila dailies.  It is worth noting that the Marianas was under  Spain’s Philippine colony.

While some opium houses legally operated on a franchise from the  Spanish colonial government, others operated in the underground which was the case for some  dens in the vicinity of Santa Cruz in Manila.  Raids were reported in the 19th century of illegal dens including the patrons of such houses — Chinese along with some  native prostitutes.  It is not a very far idea that such dens also functioned as opium-brothel houses, a case which was similarly  true in some Southeast Asian cities, especially Singapore.  The issue on opium became a continuing concern for the American authorities who took charge of the Philippine colony after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War.