Friday, November 27, 2009

On opium

Image of opium smokers in the East End of London, 1874. From the Illustrated London News, 1 August 1874. This image is in the public domain and is sourced from the Wikimedia Commons.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Yesterday was about what might be on the menu for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, should Hong Kong have a Thanksgiving.

The conclusion which we came to was opium; opium would be the menu, not just on it.


(Besides the sweetly scented silver derived from the trade, of course.)

Well, lots of great things, like opiate alkaloids, are found in the resin of a few of the plants in the Papaveraceae family.

Today's post continues revolving around Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Opium resin is what you start with.

You get opium resin by lightly slicing the pod of an opium poppy, while it is still on its stalk and attached to the plant, and collecting the white, latex resin that oozes from the cuts.

This resin, collected and dried to a paste, is not a pure, distilled chemical but, rather, a dark smörgåsbord of active ingredients.

The three principal ingredients, from the perspective of a drug taker or a drug seller, are three opiate alkaloids: morphine, narcotin, and codeine.

Morphine, narcotin, and codeine comprise a trinity of soporific delight; a draught of the waters of Lethe without having to get by Charon. Or Cerberus. At least, that is what the seller will tell you...

First though, the naming, as names are so important to poets.

A structural image of morphine's molecular shape.The principal alkaloid, by quantity and effect, in the sticky opium cocktail, is morphine, C17H19NO3.

A structural diagram of morphine is over on the right.

I won't trouble you with diagrams for the next two important opiate alkaloids, Narcotin (C22H23NO7) and Codeine (C18H21NO3).

But, for the fancy bio-linguists out there, the black tie IUPAC names for these three compounds are:

Morphine: (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-

Naroctin: 6,7-dimethoxy-3-(4-methoxy-6-methyl-7,8-dihydro-5H-[1,3]dioxolo[4,5-g]isoquinolin-5-yl)-3H-2-benzofuran-1-one


Codeine: (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-3-methoxy-17-methylmorphinan-6-ol

If you are going for any kind of poetry creation, however, I'd recommend staying informal.

It's hard to do a haiku, for example, with any of these fancy IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) names.

At least, not while sober.

And sober is not what one stays if you smoke opium.

Technically, of course, opium is not smoked; it is not burned, or it shouldn't be burned. That would be a bit of a waste.

Opium, in an opium pipe, is vapourized.

The smoky fumes, cooling in the long, inclined chamber of the pipe before they reach your mouth, are then inhaled.

I've never done it, but the chemistry and physics of the act are obvious from the engravings of opium dens, and from opium pipes which I have seen in both public and private collections.

Yesterday, we went over the numbers as per the quantity of opium that was being shipped to China even before the British had secured Hong Kong as a port.

A port, you see, was handy.

With a port, like Hong Kong, you could load up on opium in Calcutta and come to Hong Kong to revictual. Further, you could make appropriate arrangements to meet your Chinese distributor somewhere in China.

Who wanted to arrive with tens of thousands of pounds of contraband opium and hang out with the pirates while you try to contact your contact... and then receive cash?

That would be a poor risk management plan...

Further, long range meteorological forecasts were not so reliable. Who wanted to arrive and find out that a tropical storm, or, worse, a typhoon was blowing through the region?

No, a port was a good thing.

A port permitted opium sales to skyrocket, which permitted opium production in India to skyrocket, which in turn allowed British Imperial revenues to skyrocket, too.

Don't just take my word for it. Look at this lovely graph.

(y) tons of opium versus (x) date

Graph and data showing global production of opium, measured in Imperial tons, plotted on a time scale from 1800 to 2000. This graph and data are in the public domain and are sourced from Wikipedia.
As usual, the information on all images is found by rolling your mouse pointer over it. But, for speed, the vertical axis measures global opium production measured in tons. The horizontal axis measures years.

So. What did this mean for for China?

By 1906, 27% of the adult, male population of China was addicted to the lovely cocktail of morphine, narcotin, and codeine found in opium.

Of course, by 1906, the British were, mostly, out of this game.

Most of the opium required to supply 27% of the adult, male population of China, in 1906, was home-grown.

(34,000 imperial tons were produced in China, by Chinese, by 1906, versus Chinese consumption of 39,000 imperial tons.)

But the problems of this many addicts, in China, led to massive social and economic unrest.

By 1911, the unrest would be political, too, as the Qing Dynasty would be overthrown and, in 1912, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek would become the President of the Republic of China.

Folks across Asia have bad, and recent, memories of rampant drug addictions.

So, generally speaking, there are significant penalties for being caught with drugs. Especially at entry and exit points...airports or seaports.

(The pessimist would say this is to help safeguard local monopolies in distribution, export, and import. I, of course, would never think such thoughts.)

And here is where the story of the day comes in.

Back when your humble scribe used to live in Taiwan, a very long time ago, an English chap came to Taiwan on business.

He knew about the concept of giving gifts, to help generate better relationships with people.

So he brought a dried flower arrangement.

(I know. I don't think he knew much about giving gifts, or relationships. But, I guess, he tried. Or maybe his secretary hated him.)

So what?

That arrangement contained a dried poppy.

Not, I hasten to add, an opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.

Just a regular, run of the mill poppy.


It took weeks for him to be sprung from prison on Green Island.

Green Island has a prison and not much else.

This is a prison where, then at least, your family and friends had to send you food if you wanted to maintain a vaguely appropriate caloric intake.

Or, if you wanted to try to bribe the giant rats so that they wouldn't nibble on you nose or gnaw on your shins when exhaustion overcame you.

Now there was a man who, I am sure, would have wanted a long, deep draught from the waters of Lethe, or from our unholy trinity of opiate alkaloids, when he was finally released.


Don't mess around with things you shouldn't.

And be thankful for everything that you do enjoy.

But, try to not need opium.

Things could always be worse.


P.S. I am thankful that you are reading. Go figure. That surprises me every day.

P.P.S. Why does your humble scribe know anything about opium?

I have taken on the alter-ego of an Akkadian scribe...

And Sumerian pottery was being decorated with opium poppies before cuneiform was fully developed as a script for language, not just for accounting for profit and loss.

It's in my collective memory, if not my blood (thank goodness). Take care.

For music, today, Karl Marx thought this stuff was the opiate of the masses; I am quite happy to imbibe an opiate like this.

This is the first movement in an Armenian liturgical concert.

Click to hear 'Where are you, oh Mother' by Isabel Bayrakdarian iTunes



Cloudia said...

Vapor! Who knew...Medical MJ folks sometimes use Volcano (tm) vaporizers so as not to smoke their medicine...

Glad you get high on ideas!

Aloha, Sober Scribe

Comfort Spiral

BTW: Were you the unhappy traveler with the dried flowers?

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Cloudia,

It gives me the vapours just thinking about it!

As to whether I was the traveller from an antique land...

Lord no, I was the one picking my chin off the floor when the British Trade and Cultural Office (Britain's quasi-embassy in Taiwan--as they don't recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state) "duty officer" told me about his most recent compassionate case.


Fireblossom said...

Anyone who casually quotes "Ozymandias" is all right with me.

*sigh* all of these sound just lovely to me, which is why I can't touch them.

Cerberus, though, I'd like to meet. I bet I would have him rolled over on his back for a belly scratch in no time ;-)

Teresa said...

Dear Scribe,

The versatility of you Sumerians, ancient Akkadians, or whoever else you are channeling is truly amazing.

From yesterday's cultural, historical, economic lesson, we have now moved onto pure and applied chemistry, physics with a dash of trade, politics and law thrown in. And all while drinking the waters of Lethe, breathing the vapors of morphine, narcotin, and codeine, and recovering from surfeits of tryptophan (well some of us). How do you do it? (Will reading your blog qualify us for membership in Phi Beta Kappa?)

I enjoyed today's selection from the opiate of the masses. And I will start rummaging through boxes to find the Hakka song. I have a feeling that you might have visions of hairy crabs dancing in your head after all these vapors.

Do give my regards to Pommes. Tell him that I love him dearly, but I insist he be nice to you. After all, you write the words the make the whole world sing, or was that someone else?


Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Fireblossom,

Well that's alright then. :)

I agree, the cocktail sound luscious. Even more so when you read Keats and Tennyson on opium. All the more reason I can't touch the stuff; I am sure I would find it far too enjoyable.

Cerebus' understudy is Pommes. You are more than welcome to scratch his belly; he loves it.

Dear Teresa,

The exact same comments could be made about your extensive, insightful, erudite comments scattered farther in the e-verse than even Killroy's markings.

And your blog spans just as much, if not more.

As per Phi Betta Kappa, I am sure you are already a member.

If you do find the Hakka song, I would love to hear it. What is the premise, what is the moral, and in what circumstances is it sung, and by whom?

Take your time on answering. I am sure that you have far more important things to do. I hope that essay turned out to your liking, the other day. I have no doubts that it turned out well, but I hope that you were happy, or accepting of it.

12 months to go, Teresa, and then we get to host you! :)

Tschuess to you both,

Teresa said...

Dear Chris,

The Hakka song is a folk song, and the version that I have heard was sung by children from a "Hakka culture class" in Taiwan. It's a story or ballad type of song. I think we have it on video tape, which means I need to search the internet to see if there is a file online. My husband found quite a few Hakka language sites recently, so I'll ask him.

As to the Phi Beta Kappa, yes, I am a member and need to renew. I was hoping we could start our own e-chapter, as the topics you come up with are ever so much more entertaining than their usual gaggle of pedantic speakers. It seems a waste of money to fund them in such tight times.

As for the essay, I'm not sure which one I was working on. I have three final papers in various stages of "doneness" (none to the well-done stage, yet). But this semester the professors all want to meet to discuss our drafts, so I am waiting for professorial input before going off on tangents, since, in some circles, time is money. And we wouldn't want to waste it, especially when we are saving pennies for airfare to Hong Kong (and presents for Pommes so he won't claw me).

So today is just finishing off the last 11 lines of my translation of Mozi's "Universal Love" and e-mailing it to my professor. Mozi makes some good points, but really beats them into the ground by over-repetition. Those ancient Chinese certainly were NOT advocates of a "light" touch and subtle writing. At least Mozi sure wasn't.

Then, I'll work on blog posts and search the internet for Hakka folk songs. It will be a good day for digesting holiday repasts. And since I was celebrating Thanksgiving American-style, I did eat yesterday.


BTW, do you think I can certify myself as a charity, dress up as an elf, and stand on a street corner some place ringing a bell to collect more pennies for the "fly Teresa to Hong Kong to meet Pommes the Wonder Cat and his pillow-plumping servants fund"? (At least the prisons in California are not quite as barbarous as the one on Green Island, if I happen to get caught...)

Richard said...

Opium, ah. Dreamy, but drunken - didn't care for it. Hash laced with opium, yes, dreamy but wired. Back in the day - as they say.

Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies - part 1 of a trilogy. Excellent read, and a chapter long visit to an opium factory in Calcutta.

Somewhere in my trunk I have a one character play. It's Cerberus - his three heads arguing over possession of some hero's thigh bone. Nasty creature, nothing to recommend him but his viscousness. Not too long ago I was visiting a toy store and was taken by a collection of mythological figures in molded rubber - there it was, three heads and all. I purchased it, of course.

murat11 said...

Brother: You do the late great Terence McKenna proud with your vegetative perambulations. I am nearly thirty years past my recreational experiments, but TM's odes to DMT almost had me willing to take the plunge off my little red wagon. Instead, I took delight in listening to him talk about his own journeys to the land of the elves, as he also mapped out the peregrinations of the Strange Attractor.

In deference to my computer's own recent delight in setting off an alarm any time I try to watch a YouTube video or listen to music tracks, I must sadly pass on Isabel's track, though she is currently my favorite opera singer: her album of Gomidas songs blows me away. We've managed to get Bocelli and Placido to Tres Leches in the past few years. I'm hoping that Bayrakdarian will soon be on that list. As my wife is an American-born Armenian, the music is even sweeter.


Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Teresa, Richard, and Murat

Hello folks. Thank you for your comments. I'm not really up to writing a big response right now.

But, Teresa, if you find the Hakka Song, I'd be keen to include it.

Richard, I haven't read that book, but I'll have to look it up. And I would love to see any play you have written, performed. I have a suspicion that you might give Tom Stoppard a run for his money...

and Murat, if you enjoy my perambulations, then I am thrilled. I would have been interested to have met T.M., he certainly had interesting perspectives. Although your comparison, while flattering to me, might not be fair to T.M....

I have not heard her Gomidas album, yet. I know of it and have been meaning to pick it up. Next trip abroad... HMV Hong Kong will not be stocking that, sadly.