Introduction

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Centuries ago, somewhere in the East, the art of vaporizing the milk of the poppy began to take shape. A very particular sort of smoking pipe evolved, along with the tools and the rituals associated with tending it. And throughout its history, this practice has been praised, cursed, politicized, lyricized, and demonized.

The reality of an opium den was simple: a room where opium was smoked, as a rare indulgence, a regular pastime, or an intractable habit. However, society’s image of an ‘opium den’ – particularly in the West – was awash in the mysteries of the incalculable, ranging from wanton, luxurious excess to degraded slavery. (The thoughts of an individual opium smoker on the matter seemed of little interest to those documenting and arguing ‘the opium question’.)

History has left the reality of the opium den behind, but the image, like a dream, still lingers in our memory. The only tangible remnants from the dens of the past are the pipes, tools, and other relics associated with smoking opium. They offer concrete yet enigmatic reminders of a world-within-a-world gone by.