The door opens into warm darkness. The air is filled with smoke, its bitter-sweet scent undercut by a faint stink of sweat and bile. An attendant scurries toward you, seemingly out of nowhere, bearing a pipe and a pill of opium.
You settle into the lower level of a two-tiered bunk much like a train sleeping compartment. Declining to close the curtain—that is for those already drugged to either stupefaction or hypersensitivity—you cast your eyes about the room as the first breaths of hot vapor connect with your lungs. Around you are men and women of every conceivable race and class, some silent in contemplation of their private fantasies, others talking to or amongst themselves in strange accents and hushed tones. They coexist in a peaceful single-mindedness that would be the envy of church or state.
This is not a luxurious place, not a picture-postcard place in red and gilt. The wooden walls know neither paint nor plaster; the floor is grimy; the air is close. But to the habitué, it is paradise.
The image of the opium den is often romanticized, probably because few such places still exist. The media are more realistic in portraying other places where drug users gather to get high, such as "shooting galleries" (where addicts gather to inject drugs, usually heroin) and crack houses.
Opium use was known as "kicking the gong (around)", thus explaining the use of that phrase in many jazz songs.
Historically associated with Chinese culture, but not all are from that area. Limehouse, in London Town, was not actually that bad at all (the actual reason for the prevalence of this trope is, to cut a long story short, that in the 1800s the British virtually got everyone in China hooked on opium because the Chinese had a lot of stuff the British wanted to buy, but the British had nearly nothing the Chinese wanted).
Not to be confused with Opus Dei.
Anime and Manga
- In the beginning of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, Alan Quatermain is in an opium den.
- Towards the end he has to enter another one, and nearly relapses.
- The Blue Lotus in the Tintin book of the same name. This being a more upmarket, well-painted example, frequented by businessmen and diplomats.
- The least romanticized version possible appears in Y the Last Man as virtually the entire continent of Australia.
- Peter David's Fallen Angel has an arc where Lee smokes opium in a hookah in Asia Minor's place.
- In Dodgeball, the Mockumentary on how to play dodgeball claims that the game was invented in Chinese Opium Dens.
- Williams from Enter the Dragon met his end in one of these at the hands of Mr. Han.
- Once Upon a Time in America.
- In Brick, the area behind Carrow's Restaurant where Dode and the other stoners hang out is intended to reference this, as evidenced by the Asian-sounding musical cues.
- Both the graphic novel and film versions of Alan Moore's From Hell.
- Thoroughly Modern Millie has one of these that doubles as a prostitution/white slaving ring.
- Harvey Keitel's eponymous (and nameless) Bad Lieutenant visits a latter-day heroin den that otherwise fits the trope.
- In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Anthony passes by one while traveling through London.
- The Oscar-winning French film Indochine: The protagonist is an addict who introduces her younger lover to them (even though he's supposed to be police its traffic). He drags her out of a den at one point.
- Eddie visits one toward the end of 1935's The Cocaine Fiends.
- In Tombstone, Curly Bill comes out of an opium den just before he shoot Marshall White. Later a character picks up an opium pipe in a den that instead turns out to be Wyatt Earp's peacemaker, with Wyatt Earp still attached to it.
- In Inception, the dream-den beneath Yusuf's shop seems intended to evoke this.
- D.W. Griffith's tragedy Broken Blossoms takes place in Limehouse. The Chinese hero, a Buddhist missionary, falls on hard times and takes to the pipe.
- One shows up in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Man with the Twisted Lip". Watson got sent to retrieve another man and finds Holmes there; Holmes must reassure Watson that he's only there undercover as part of an investigation and has not "added opium to the list of my vices".
- Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins in one.
- Appears in at least one of the Fu Manchu stories as a front for the Devil Doctor's activities.
- Robert E. Howard 's Rhomerian "weird menace" novel Skull Face starts with protagonist Steven Costigan (a u.s. veteran of WWI) escaping the nightmares of the Argonne trench warfare in an Opium Den located, of all places, in the Londinese limehouse.
- Jack Black's (not that Jack Black) "You Can't Win" is a brilliant memoir about his experiences as a train-hopping thief. He becomes addicted to opium and writes extensively about his experiences in these places.
- In Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, the detective Fix gets Passepartout drunk and stoned in an opium den in Hong Kong in order to separate him from Phileas Fogg.
- Rudyard Kipling's "The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows".
- The title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray frequents opium dens.
- This amateur story (ads on page may be NSFW) features a futuristic tobacco den.
- Opium dens are depicted in all their squalor in Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose, which is set in California during the age of trains.
- Agatha Christie's "The Lost Mine" on "Poirot's early cases" features one.
- The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman.
Live Action TV
- Doctor Who: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang".
- The Granada adaptation of "The Dying Detective" (though not the original story).
- Highlander the Series: A good friend of Duncan Macleod's spent the better part of an Old West Flash Back in one of these, trying to deaden the panic he'd felt about his role in the neverending Game.
- One appears in an episode of Magnum P.I., in the 1980s(!)
- The "dive" that Sister Clarice frequents (and invites Amanda Greystone to) in Caprica is fairly obviously a Fantastic Opium Den.
- Chuck Bass (who else?) takes refuge at one of these when his father dies, on Gossip Girl.
- Pip sinks into dissolution and decay in Bleak Expectations and ends up in an opium den, thinking it's a Chinese restaurant. "Would you like some complimentary prawn crack?"
- The Meat King's Party mission from Hitman Contracts features an opium den where you can pose as an attendant and serve one of your targets an opium pipe before taking him out.
- The Copper Coronet in Baldur's Gate II features a hidden black lotus den (at least, it does before you clean the place out).
- Oblivion has a Skooma Den. Sweet, sweet Skooma!
- Wizardry 7 has one, and your characters get to participate. If you do, your characters get visited by some kind of Spirit Advisor who gives you a really powerful item.
- Kyo has one in SaGa Frontier. Black X runs its drug operations out of it.
- The Simpsons Halloween episode set in Ripperian London features one as the lair of Monty Burns.
- Futurama's Bender visits one with his friend Fender (it substitutes electricity for opium).
- Talk to the client in the Deerstalker (Turn to page 23)
- Attack the cushions with your sword (Turn to page 45)
- Proposition the attendant (Turn to page 34)