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Excerpts from



(APRIL, MAY, JUNE 1877.)


Mrs. Frank Leslie

Chapter XVI.


Theatrical Performances. -- Grotesqueness of the Actors. -- Acrobatic Agility. -- An Opium Den. -- How Opium is smoked. -- Effects of Opium Smoking. -- Use of Opium by White People.

OUR next visit was to the Royal Chinese Theatre on Jackson Street. The drama is one of the greatest luxuries of the Chinaman, who frequents it constantly when in funds; nor does this imply great wealth, since the admission fee is two bits -- twenty-five cents -- at the beginning, fifteen cents toward the middle, and only ten cents near the end, of the performance. This frequently lasts six or seven hours, closing at two or three o'clock in the morning, and a single play requires three months or longer for one exhibition -- an act or two being rendered each evening. These plays are nearly all based upon ancient historical events, the conservatism of the Chinese objecting to any modern innovations, and disdaining all sensational effects. There are no great playwrights in Chinese literature, and the profession of actor is not considered creditable, so that no great exertions toward superiority are made by those filling it. Actresses are unknown, the female parts being filled by men coarsely painted and tawdrily dressed. Nearly all the performance is in pantomime, and when speech is considered advisable it is uttered in a high, harsh falsetto, entirely unlike the human voice.

Entering from the street we passed through a long passage where a Chinaman behind a counter was selling native delicacies, such as figs, dark-looking sweetmeats, sugar-cane, betel-nuts wrapped up in green leaves and decorated with red paint and slices of citron. Inside we found a perfectly bare and undecorated auditorium, the parquette filled with rude wooden benches, a gallery above and another smaller one for women, who are not allowed in the body of the house. The stage was a mere raised platform like that in a lecture-room with a flight of steps at each end descending to the parquette. There was no scenery of any kind, but at either wing a red-curtained doorway, through which exits and entrances are made quite without disguise or ceremony; even when a death is represented, the actor, after going through the contortions and struggles of the last agony, gets up and quietly walks off through one of these doorways, nodding and smiling to his fellow actors or the musicians. The latter sit in a row at the back of the stage, between the two doors, pounding away industriously at the gong or cymbals, or scraping the little Chinese fiddles. They seem to have no method in their madness, but just bang away independently -- each man making as much noise as possible.

When we entered, three actors were upon the stage, going through a stormy pantomime to the accompaniment of the orchestra. The man seemed to be having a stirring scene with his wife, who was aided and abetted by her maid in a most un-Celestial domestic rebellion; finally he gave her a push, closed an imaginary door between them and stood triumphant, while she -- or the man representing a she -- ran up and down, pushed against nothing, beat the air supposed to be the door, until funally both walked calmly off and the scene ended. The curtain at the other end of the stage was then withdrawn, and a warrior stalked forth who might as well have represented a Pawnee Brave as a Celestial hero, for his form was swathed in a mass of indescribable and very gaudy raiment, and his face painted in stripes of brilliant color. He wore clusters of flaps at each shoulder like wings, his head was decorated with pheasant's feathers, and his beard and moustache were fearful to behold. This champion strode across the stage, whirled round and round, stood on one leg, shook his fists, and generally expressed defiance and combativeness until some more warriors rushed in through the other doorway, apparently accepting the challenge, and these were followed by an army of women under the leadership of an Amazon, who was rather the most manly man present. Then these grotesque and phantom-like figures began a series of the strangest evolutions, marching in and out, around each other, backward and forward, all making the same ferocious and monotonous gestures, to the accompaniment of that frightful discord of barbaric sound, until it all seemed more like a feverish dream, the fancy of a lunatic, or the vision of an opium eater than an actual stage peopled with human beings. Each warrior as he entered threw one leg into the air and spun round upon the other; this represented the act of dismounting from his horse; and regardless of the fate of the imaginary charger he plunged at once into the battle, which finally culminated in the most grotesque scene possible to imagine, when ten or a dozen men, stripped to the waist and ranged in a line, turned somersaults across the stage, a row of whirling figures hurled through the air like so many balls, each one flinging himself fully six feet in the air and spinning round like a wheel so fast that the eye could scarcely follow him. Presently the battle seemed to be forgotten, or to have resolved itself into a friendly acrobatic struggle, for the warriors began to vie with each other not only in the length and rapidity of their somersaults, but they jumped over large tables, alighting on the flat of their backs with such a jar that one would expect every bone in their bodies to be broken; but every man leaped up so nimbly as to prove that no harm was done, and directly did the same thing or something as remarkable, with unabated force. Finally the scene culminated in the performances of a half-naked man, with his nose painted of a glaring white, who did everything but turn himself inside out: he tied his legs around his neck, jumped on his elbows, stood on the crown of his head with his arms folded, and propelled himself around the stage on acute angles of his frame without the aid of either legs or arms, until there was absolutely no contortion of the muscles left for him to achieve, and then he left off! Our party, the only Americans in the house, gave him a round of applause, at which the silent Celestials turned and grinned at us in wonder and derision, and we got up and went out. They never applaud or disapprove anything, but sit stolidly and smoke throughout the performance, the women in the gallery also indulging in this luxury, and patronizing the vender of sugar-cane and sweetmeats, who walks about with a basket of these dainties on his head, but does not break the sombre silence by crying his wares.

From the theatre we were taken to visit an Opium Den, as we of the East are prone to call the tabazies, where the Celestial seeks respite from toil and privation and home-sickness in the indulgence of a habit not so horrible after all as drunkenness of another nature; since the opium smoker injures only himself, and the man crazed by liquor is dangerous to his family and the community at large!

Passing through an alley-way, we entered a perfectly dark court where nothing was to be seen but so much to be smelled that the imagination became more painful than the reality could have been. A light twinkled from some windows on a level with the sidewalk, and our guide unceremoniously pushing open the door led us into a small, close, but apparently clean room, filled with the fumes of burning opium -- resembling those of rosting ground-nuts, and not disagreeable. A table stood in the centre, and around three sides ran a double tier of shelves and bunks, covered with matting and with round logs of wood with a space hollowed out, cushioned or bare, for pillows. Nearly all of these were filled with Chinamen, many of them containing two, with a little tray between them, holding a lamp and a horn box filled with the black, semi-liquid opium paste. But although every one was smoking, it was so early in the evening that the drug had not as yet wrought its full effect, and all were wide awake, talking, laughing, and apparently enjoying themselves hugely. The largest of the Chinamen was lying upon the shelf nearest the door, preparing his first pipe. He looked up and nodded as we crowded around him, and then calmly continued his occupation, we watching the modus operandi with considerable interest. The pipe was a little stone bowl, no larger than a baby's thimble, with an orifice in the bottom the size of a pin's head. This bowl is screwed on to the side of a long bamboo stem, and the smoker, taking up a mass of the opium paste upon the end of a wire, holds it to the flame of the lamp until it is slightly hardened, and then works it into the pipe, inhaling strongly as he does so, and drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, where it remains for a moment and then is ejected through the nostrils, leaving its fatal residuum behind; for opium is an accumulative poison, and when once the system becomes saturated with it, there is no release from the misery it entails but death. The tiny "charge" constituting one pipe-full is soon exhausted, and holding the last whiff as long as possible, the smoker prepares another, and another and yet another, as long as he can control his muscles, until, at last, the nerveless hand falls beside him, the pipe drops from his fingers, and his head falls back in heavy stupor, the face ghastly white, the eyes glazed and lifeless, the breathing stentorous, the mind wandering away in visions like those De Quincey has given to the world in the "Confessions of an Opium Eater." Looking at the stalwart Chinaman, with his intelligent face and fresh, clean costume, we tried to fancy this loathsome change passing upon him and felt quite guilty, as he looked up with a twinkling smile and offering us the lighted pipe said: "Havee Smokee?" and when we declined, held out the wire with the little ball on the end for us to smell. As we talked to this man, we were startled by perceiving two persons curled up in the bunk below his shelf, both smoking and watching us with their narrow slits of eyes like crouching wild beasts. They did not speak, but our friend above answered all our questions in a cool, matter-of-course sort of a way, and with an amiable superciliousness of manner. We bade him good-by and went out, his eyes following us with a look and a laugh strangely resembling a sneer. Perhaps, carrying out the proverb in vino veritas, there is something about the first stages of opium intoxication dispelling to customary caution and disguise, for in that sneering look and laugh we seemed at last to get the true expression of feeling which forever haunts the writer as the real meaning underlying the bland, smiling or inane exterior, presented to us by these Celestials.

We looked into another room in the same court much smaller but better furnished, the bunks neatly fitted up with mattrasses and each containing its little tray with the lamp, pipe, and opium all ready for the smokers not yet arrived. Our guide informed us in a mysterious tone that there are yet other opium dens to which access is impossible except to the initiated, where may be found at a later hour of the night young men and women as "white as you are" as he said, and with no drop of Mongolian blood to excuse their participation in this imported vice.

"Not respectable Americans?" asked some one incredulously, and the detective, with a glance inscrutable as the Sphinx, replied:

"That's according to what you call respectable. The women I don't suppose are generally received in your society, but as for the men -- well, a lady would be surprised, sometimes, if she knew just how the gentleman she has danced with all the evening spends the rest of the night!"

"If Asmodeus could visit San Francisco and take us on one of his flying trips over the tops of these houses with the power of unroofing them as we passed, we should see some strange scenes," thoughtfully murmured the poet of the party, and officer MacKenzie, with one of his keen glances, replied:

"I don't know much about flying through the air, but I reckon I can show you as strange and tough a sight if you want to see, if you like to risk it, for the ladies."