The doorway that I followed Kowloon John into was a contraption in and of itself, a big and completely circular arch with latticework all around, and great giant dragons for door handles. The hallway inside was just a narrow oil-slick passage between the alley and the kitchen but it too, I could tell by the presence of a swinging bulb, was encrusted in the most ornate fashion with dancing dragonflies and honeybees, fat bellied gods and debauched rats guarding scads of shimmering coins, all carved into the woodwork with the most astounding – though their intent seemed unwaveringly corrupt – craftsmanship. I noticed at some turn or twist in one of the corridors a heightened profusion of web-winged bats, swirling and churning in dense playful swarms, and I found myself wondering aloud at the curiosity of such things. “Fu,” Kowloon kept saying. “Fu fu many many fu” – something which I later learned means, simultaneously, both “bat” and “good luck” in his language – the fruitbat being revered in his homeland for the simple reason that its name seems to rhyme with the world “luck”. And a Chinaman certainly does cherish his luck.
The insides of The Emperor’s Jade Pagoda: Oriental Theatre Stage and Exotic Souvenir Shop and all its connecting buildings were, I quickly found, a rabbit warren of little dark burrows. Every other room was its own kitchen and crammed-to-the-rafters storage pantry and there was not one indoor shithouse any place in sight. Little temporary rat’s-nests of beds were stacked into every closet and on top of every wardrobe as sleeping, I am told, is not living to the Chinaman and is just some necessary yet annoying inconvenience that gets in the way of time spent doing other more important things, ie. eating, fucking and smoking dope.
Speaking of which, I smelled the opium the minute I walked into the place – that thick green earthy scent – it was everywhere. My guide and I finally reached one room, fairly well lit and brilliantly appointed with jillions of paintings and ornamental screens and little decorative tables made out of the precious little bone-jointed wood that is grown back in these Celestial’s homeland and can apparently be had in such great abundance there that, literally, every single one of their domestic appointments were made from the spindly little skeletal stuff, all shiny and black lacquered to an even eerier effect. The ceilings were cluttered with remarkably ornate lanterns, multiple-sided, each face decorated with paintings of pretty little made-up ladies; but with armatures that were fantastically grotesque in nature – more dragons and more bats but also roosters and fat jumping fish, coiling snakes and billygoats, all hewn down to the most maddeningly miniscule detail and flecked here and there with chunks and nuggets of pale green luminous jade and tied off in dripping, streaming, gushing luxuriance with silken scarlet-colored tassels. They reminded me of the severed heads of enemies displayed in the court of some cruel emperor: monstrosities – handsome and exquisite – floating there in mid-air, glowing and smoldering, cloth imitations of fresh blood and sumptuous gore allowed to flow out in a most elegantly diabolical display.
That charming smoky scent – as rich and dark and satisfying as blood itself – lay heavy within this room in particular. And through the fog of it I could see a number of well dressed girls bustling and prattling around leaning into the low-slung divans and little upholstered caves that the Orientals prefer to lie in when they’re smoking up their drugs. Reclining in those recesses, though, were all the fashionable dames and arrogant fops I’d scoffed at in the fairground thoroughfare earlier that day. Even your average well-to-do toffee-nosed tourist, even within this great polished and gleaming spectacle of the Columbian Exposition gets a bit distracted from all the newfangled gadgets and doodads and wants to get him his taste of that rich vibrant Celestial smoke. They’re slummers, to the last one … but, hey, a hard-up junkie shouldn’t complain.
A little painted-up girl in silk and brocade fineries whizzed past with a tray plumb brimming full of little apparatuses and fixings and I then, tugging on Kowloon’s sleeve, pointed desperately to the passing tray, made a grabbing motion and pointed up to the sad hungry questioning look I’d managed to drag up into my face. “No … no for you … … hop-hop here no so stlong … you want stlong? Kowloon make stlong … come come, more more”. And so I followed … haggardly … famishedly … on.
After a couple more changes in direction we arrived at a concrete wall which, with the turn of a secret dial by my host, scraped its heavy stone weight open to reveal, just barely visible in the dusky congested light, the interior of Kowloon John’s Jade Pagoda, the ructious hive of all the fairground’s most seditious activity. From the outside one would have thought that the multi-tiered and scalloped Oriental tower structure was sham, just a caprice, an architectural novelty constructed for the special occasion of the Exposition to give fairgoers a taste for the swooping swagging peculiarly pinch-roofed distinctiveness of old Cathay and probably not much more than a movie set façade. But inside … a thronging disordered hub of a smuggler’s wharf bustled: scuffed wooden crates scrawled with the queer markings that the Celestials use as their script, strung tight with scraps of hemp and stenciled with faraway locales like Hong Kong, Formosa, Nanking, Guangdong and Macao … long low ruddy worktables where the fat unprocessed yellow orbs of pure raw dope are broken open to reveal their sappy honey-like effluence then stewed in kettles over flickering burners until they reduce down to a syrupy molasses and then are dribbled into shallow tin plates and pans where the molten mass is then pounded and kneaded into a gritty paste which is then scorched on a grill and flattened into black little pancakes which are in their own turn boiled until they themselves dissolve, filtered through a strainer, reduced once again, beaten like an egg to a gluey black pap and rolled over and over between finger and thumb to produce those little pea-sized pellets which, when absorbed through the lungs into a man’s system or else gobbled up like bits of bitter chalky candy, can lead to the most remarkably ruinous nights of absolute and transcendent ecstasy …
All this labor was done amongst a mounted clambering mingle-mangle of cauldrons and crockpots, bulging fermentation vessels and copper coiled extravagances belching gasping and snarling steamy blasting exertions, giant flesh-colored clay storage amphorae and iron-hooped casks, cookstoves and blue-flamed torches, janky scales and measuring devices and clattering abacuses … all worked into the most turbulent activity by a toiling grinding workforce of Mandarins, the grayer ones bending wrinkled faces over their worktables and the pale light of their burners, dressed in dusty topcoats and waistcoats despite the stifling heat, each crowned with either musty derby hats or ragged conical straw contrivances and shouting orders at the younger of them, scads of them, the smaller of them – just little boys, really – in red silk coolie uniforms, buttoned up to the neck and clasped with bone-ties across the front, scuttling and scrambling back and forth in those eccentric turret-toed slippers the Celestials seem to find a convenience rather than a nuisance to wear … the heftier of them, barelegged and stripped to the waist, grimy cloths dangling between their legs and exposing their naked haunches, greased with the black soot of the place and the moisture streaming from their steaming bodies, long-tailed queues of black hair wagging behind their bald heads, lurching forth and heaving under their burdens of heavy crates and casks, slogging and slinging, hitching and plodding, driving and dodging their sleek muscled glistening bulks in between the mass farrago of obstacles in Kowloon John’s massive sanctuary of illicit and intoxicating spice …
“Look look here here” my Chinaman guide, halting his tour a moment to survey his empire, gestured forth into the gray darkness and through the haze I could barely make out a collection of even more bizarre-looking characters, two of them standing immobile and unaffected by the hubbub and mayhem around them, as stately as statues in their proud aristocratic robes, taller than any colossus and stupendous in proportion, tiny teacup hats sitting absurdly on the back of their heads, meaty paws hidden in the voluminous silk sleeves they held tightly to their gargantuan chests. Though they were literally pestered by their familiars – scraggly scrambling rabid monkeys that capered and cajoled in their little simian games, nit-picking through the bare scalps of the two behemoths, tugging at their faces and at the tails of their garments, treating them like two mighty king-sized climbing branches – the two towering figures stood, impervious, staunch and smug and as solid as stone … “Ploteck stash ploteck stash, wary special … no egg no egg,” my friend exclaimed and from this I understood that these two finely dressed human pachyderms served as the dope factory’s castrated bodyguards, specially consigned from some distant cruel island where one’s manhood is snipped off for the sake of the greater public good. These creatures are said to be either treacherously conspiratorial or tenaciously loyal: something about the absence of gonadal hormones – aside from lengthening their bones and expanding their girth and strength, the absence of them renders them virtually free of facial and body hair – is said to insight particular forms of lunacy which can either break to the right into, as I say, undying dutifulness or drive left into catamitical perversity and seditious insurrection.
“Look look can see?” And at this I could glimpse beyond, to the very middle of the murky bustling enclosure, past the two obstinate and conceited eunuchs, to a third figure, a little ogre of a Mandarin perched upon a rustic stool, sawing back and forth with a long bow across the strings of a little toy-sized Chinese banjo. The small grotesque creature noted his master’s glance, halted his playing for a moment and spread the hem of his robe to reveal the space between the legs of his chair and what could only barely be seen concealed in the compartment underneath: two glass vials of amber liquid and suspended there, inside, two little spheres of meaty white flesh in each of the two glass jars, like twin globules of gristle and fat floating in a watery broth. “Boss have egg … no can go,” Kowloon explained, and I was then given to understand that the two neutered giants were indeed duty-bound to stay at their posts, magnetized to the stations they held so majestically for they were obligated and enslaved to their cruel taskmaster as he alone held the key to their eventual fate – believing, as most infidels do, that one is never able to get into that Heathen Heaven, the Celestial afterlife, without being in full possession of all of one’s miscellaneous bodily parts, whether chopped off or not – in those two rancid little yellow jars, the severed testicles of the two towering capons.
The show over, the little seated goblin closed the curtains to the hellish view underneath his chair and resumed his violin song with a seedy betel-blackened grin and a nod, sending with the lacerations of his bow swirling ribbons and sibilant threads of whining weedy zephyrousness into the polluted air above him, bowing and scraping along the thin strings a melody that would make any white man cringe, cower, grit his teeth and call to mind the scritching buzzing drone of an insidious insect swarm; but ultimately sounds that, to the Mandarin hoard, are believed to be oh-so soothing, sonorous, relaxing and inspiring and, at least on this occasion, were able to direct billowy strands and winnowing pink and lavender filaments of the stuff up into the thick heavy blue canopy of gossamer’s smoke overhead and revealed – by either a trick of the murky light or its own mysterious volition – a parting of that cloud, the first I’d been able to see, a kind of diminution of the stinking fog and an ever-widening clearing from which I could finally see – again, for the very first time – the gargantuan immensity, the looming vaulting soaring dark magnitude of the pagoda dope factory’s interior.
Hexagonal in structure, the pagoda’s inner sanctum ascended upward in ever smaller mezzanines, each with strangely configured – and also ever smaller – canework apertures, each fit in turn with colored glass casements of curious and eccentric rickshaw design in all the colors from jade green to dirty yellow to crimson red and lit, to a low smoldering flicker, by gaslights secreted away inside. Otherwise, except for these eerily glowing systems of light shedding their capricious colors onto the lofty vapors, the entire abyss of the chamber remained dark.
In each section of the 6 sided structure, and on each and every floor, tiny recesses were nestled – and at 6 sides and 13 floors, you do the math at the plenitude of them all – each and every single one cordoned off into cozy little alcoves by their own whimsical little Oriental balustrades and made precariously accessible by a series of high rickety ladders and connecting bridges and parapets. The whole scene had a teetering tumbledown and tinderbox effect, every support black with sweating mold and bandy-legged to the extreme, every rangy strut compromised to unwieldy frailty, feeble walkways unfolded in over-elongated decrepit happenstance disarray, the entire clumsy cumbersome shamble of the structure strung together and flagged, here and there, with the thin black threads of an old laundry line, so rotten and sickly that it seemed perfectly ready to snap in two but still holding – in looping wobbly peril – the pendulous weight of the sodden rags and grimy undershirts and old newspapers whose burdens it was cursed into bearing.
The aura of the encompassing tableau had the horrifying semblance of a massive spider, scraggly, thin-legged and savagely frail, crouching menacingly over the boiling percolating smoking and heaving mass of human and machinic bustle below…
I find myself at this juncture with a bit of an impasse, at something like a raised-up drawbridge in my narrative when I would like to move my reader and I a little further on down the road of trying to describe the effects of these wretched yet sublime sights and smells on a dropdead unrepentant addict such as myself. I have not erred, necessarily, in describing that first whiff of opium – as many have done before, both poets and cranks – as “charming and smoky” and “thick green and earthy”. And yet, these appellations – as earnest as they might be – hardly account for the aching desirous hankering any dyed-in-the wool druggie gets all up in his bones and surging through his guts at the sheerest little sniff of that spunky musk. I might only be able to express myself more fully by example.
Seamen all over the world – and whalers in particular – can relate to you of a wondrous substance known by the name of ambergris or, alternately, verdigris. By its name one may understand its color, in turns yellowy gray or pale grayish green; but its origins and properties are a bit stranger. Gathered together over time deep inside the bowels of marine dwelling mammals, after once accumulated into a sizable mass it is driven out either through the back passage or forward through the gullet. Cured and rectified by the sun and blanched and congealed by the salty churning waves it is eventually harvested, when the miracle does occur – which is frankly not that often and which makes it even more exceedingly rare and therefore precious – floating midsea or, more frequently but still not so very often, on the remote byways and farflung coasts of islands like the Moluccas, the Maldives or on the palmed beaches of Madagascar where, through its long sea journey of months, years or even decades it takes on that particular character of novelty boxes that one might make from souvenirs of a seaside holiday or, more grotesquely, the encrustational quality of dripping grottos and of parasitic coral. A bricoleur’s delight, in other words, with bits and chunks and accretions of white matter – fish bone, squid beak, the indigestible parts of the deep black ocean’s richest produce – all cemented in slapdash organic profusion into a hardened agglutinated clump.
It is said of this matter that it stinks to high heaven – as one might expect, having been forged in the entrails of a sea monster and pinched out through its backside – and of a particularly pungent earthy salty animalistically foul odor. But once gathered up and taken back and crunched into bits and dissolved within something as simple as a pot of boiling water it will miraculously release its kinship and affection for the dark, the fecal and the unwholesome and brighten itself, lighten, invigorate and revitalize itself into the clearest and most lustrous of sweetnesses and so much so, in fact, that the fragrance-makers’ art can hardly do without out its spiritual agency, providing – as it does – a kind of base tone, a kind of modulating foundation that, depending on how it is dampened or strengthened can either restrain and soften the more powerful notes of jasmine or camphor or patchouli yet, in turn, serve equally to embolden and add character to the more fairy-like strains of gardenia and honeysuckle or even anchor down to substance other more fugitive scents such as hickory and elderberry.
Now, one may ask what all this has to do with the mad cravings of a drug fiend and I will tell you that it is simply this: a man such as myself can hardly get within a mile of an opium den before he recognizes even the slightest hint of that blue haze on the breeze and what it does to him, well, words like earthy and green and smoky and charming are pale, pale adjectives for its stunning allure and its captivating urgent call. To my mind, only the wizardly alchemical processes of verdigris, that arduous transmogrification from the lowest forms of salty shit and filthy ordure all the way far up the scale to the dainty and the bewitching, the airy and the ambrosial and every spot in between, it is the sum of all these things, its complex journey from shadowy black darkness to glittering yellow light, its transition from stubborn hard matter to spectral wispy essence … all of this is what I personally think of when I get me that first big whiff of dope on the breeze.
Kowloon John must have been tuned-in to the effects that all these sights and sounds and smells were having on my poor old junk-starved body for he then brought his hands together with two short claps and almost immediately one of his red jacketed boy peons appeared before me, kneeling at my feet. “If you leddy, my flen …” he gestured off to the right and the little red servant darted over to the far wall, his little fingers clasped together into a foothold, ready to offer a leg up for the ascending climb upwards to the confines of a waiting drug den farther aloft. I said my weary goodbyes and gave my earnest thanks to my host, assuring him that after “just a taste” I’d be back down with perhaps a very beneficial business proposition concerning some jewels I’d recently heisted … and then we, the boy and I, retreated.
The way to my berth was arduous and not without its perils. If it weren’t for the nimble and acrobatic guidance of my little red escort, I could’ve hardly made progress up the grueling execrable heights. On every rickety ladder he’d scramble ahead and heave me up; he’d bound past me on the deteriorating gangways and lead me over its breaches to keep me from slipping and falling into the precipitous chasms below; strongly clasping my elbow or with an arm encircling my waist he’d shield me along those wretched escarpments which had never seen the good use of a handrail and saved me many times from witnessing those dizzying drops that, had I glimpsed them, would’ve surely seized me and drug me down into their treacherous depths below.
My cabin – if it could be called that, being little more than a thin mattress secreted into what amounted to a wooden cavity jerry-rigged into the wall a full 12 stories up from the steaming clamoring opium factory far far below – was destitute but quaint. My porter – BoyBoy, as I soon learned was his name, an appropriate enough name for the soft mischievous face that now hovered in the shadows before me – reaching over the charming little Chinese filigree fretwork decorating the mouth of the cave, pinched the four corners of the sheet in an attempt to smooth it out and then motioned for me to enter. The space was hardly big enough for me to even stretch out my long legs and, except for the green and yellow light barely cascading in from a tiny round leaded window and one of those hard cold ceramic bricks that Mandarins believe are comfortable enough to serve as pillows, the space was entirely unadorned. One got the very strong impression, given its crampedness and the few jangling haphazard hints at eccentric embellishment, that these appointments reminded the little heathens of long voyages spent crammed and stowed away into the holds and nooks of their own Oriental sailing vessels – which they refer to as “junks”, an appropriate enough name, if you’ve ever seen one.
My attendant then relieved me of my hat, my tie, my shoes, socks and tattered old britches – for the best dope trip it’s best to not be too constricted – and lined them all neatly and precisely folded on the outside stoop of my little chamber and then, in his turn, shed himself of his own silk costume, climbed forward stark naked and arranged his plump little nubile body cross-legged at my feet. He then, from a hidden compartment somewhere nearby, brought out the most inspiring kit of hop fixings a man could ever wish for.
And with that I lay back and prepared myself for a journey into sheer greedy delightful fiendishness.
Photos and text: ©Richard Hawkins, 2014.
Model: Israel Oka