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A key factor in the negative image of the Chinese was their association with opium. Poppies, the source of opium, were introduced to China in the late seventh century by Turkish and Arab traders. Over the years, opium use became so pervasive in China that in 1836 the Chinese government banned the drug, confiscated and destroyed it, closed dens where it was smoked, and executed dealers. The Opium War (1839-1842) was triggered when the Chinese attempted to enforce the opium prohibition against British merchants. China was defeated and forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking (1842) which granted extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese law) to foreign nationals , allowing the opium trade to flourish.

The United States in the nineteenth century had no drug laws, so opium was sold openly on the streets and opium dens were legal businesses. It was estimated that in 1876 San Francisco’s Chinatown was home to over 200 opium dens and over 3,000 addicts, mostly Chinese. Despite its legality, a high import duty was placed on the product, but that only encouraged smuggling.

Sources consulted:

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)

Dictionary of Asian American History, ed. Hyung-Chan Kim (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986)

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