Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Our Family’s Own Secret - Opium Addiction

     The book “Zigong Salt Merchants” (自流井盐业世家) was edited by Liu Fuyoung (刘复洋) and published in 1995, written by sixteen salt business history experts. Liu compiled information about ten giant salt merchants. The book said that there was a Guan Ja Wan (官家湾) which means “Guan’s Family Bay,” where the salt merchant giant ‘s founding father Yan (颜昌英 1789-1870) helped bury the corpses of the homeless around the city, including my ancestor's land in Guan Ja Wan. The local story went that as Grandpa Guan was burying the dead, he found that one dead man was actually still alive. When I traveled to China, I could not locate where this had happened. I called my oldest uncle, who said that he never heard of such a place. He was the only one in our family who stayed in the salt industry and even he was too young at the time to remember anything.
     There were two pages close to the end of the book which reviewed the Guan brothers’ business transactions. I learned about how my grandfather and his second oldest brother Guan Wei Xin (官维新) sold their four salt refineries from Ai Ye Street 艾叶街韭菜嘴四炭巴灶 to Liu Yizhou (刘瀛洲) and made him the next giant of the salt industry in 1935. It also stated that at the time that Yu Suhui (余述怀) had already owned land, so Liu was very careful about this tricky transaction. He had learned his lesson from his previous acquisition; he brought a lot of gifts when he went to see Yu with Guan’s brothers. My grandfather’s brother Guan Wei Xin told Yu that in order to pay our family’s massive debts, he and his brother (my grandfather) had to sell their four salt refineries. Through a middleman, they found Laio, a small merchant from out of town as a buyer. They hoped Grandfather Yu (respectfully calling him Grandfather) would give his consent for the transaction and he would pay him rent afterward. Yu was happy to see all the presents and did not have any objections about Laio, who was a small, unknown merchant; the deal would not threaten his own salt business. In the end, it was the Guan brothers who signed over all the papers to Liu Yizhou (刘瀛洲).
     The site Liu obtained from us was located on the banks of the Xuing River (旭水河畔) with expansive open land and good transportation. The river (旭水河) had three hundred years of history transporting salt, timber, and coal, connecting to the Yangzi River and beyond. During the 1930s, seventy percent of the Zigong’s salt was exported from this location (from History of 民国荣县志). Boats came and went both day and night. It was an ideal place to expand and set up a salt production business. He applied for permits and moved a few more salt refineries that he acquired a few months before to this location (韭菜嘴). Along with others, he finally got his wish after fifteen years of hard work and fighting. He became a giant salt merchant.

     Liu Yizhou (刘瀛洲) was born in 1894 and lost both of his parents at the age of four. He was taken cared of by his poor grandparents. Yu Suhui (余述怀) was born into a poor family with many children in 1881. His father died and their neighbor Zhou (邹候生) helped bury his father. He then moved into his sister’s family’s home and learned to read and write while helping out at their grocery store for about three years. He had a fight with one of their customers and ran away to his uncle hoping that he would keep him. His uncle threw him out due to his bad temper. He had to return to his sister’s home. His sister’s husband thought he was a strong boy with a bright future. He introduced him to his nephew who had a daughter. This daughter had a black birthmark on her face, so it was very difficult for her to find a husband. Since Yu Suhui (余述怀) had nothing, by marrying her, he received seventy copper coins. He had to borrow from her family members to reach 250 copper coins, which allowed him to buy a small shop. 
     Yu Suhui (余述怀) bought our land, which might have been named Guan Ja Wan (官家湾). Later on, Liu Yizhou (刘瀛洲) bought our business. His family eventually took over my grandfather’s and his brother’s salt refineries. Looking into the Neijing local maps, I discovered fourteen places named after the Guans (官斗村, 官斗丘, 官斗山, 官斗山村, 官房咀, 官家坝, 官家冲, 官家沟, 官家湾, 官家岩, 官帽塘, 官山上, 官氏祠, 官塘.). My family’s farm is located in Guan Jaba (官家坝).
     After a few generations of a comfortable upper class life, my grandfather’s Xuian generation could not compete with hungry newcomers. Still, I have not found out what happened to Tai Ba (my grandfather’s oldest brother). He had salt wells and refineries, Young Tong Salt Well (永通井). I assumed that the Yan family obtained them, since he worked for them later in his life, as did all my other members of Guan.
     I have tried to get hold of any of the sixteen authors who wrote The Zigong Salt Merchants (自流井盐业世家). My contact at the Zigong Salt Museum said that all except one have already passed away.
     After digging though the salt history of Zigong, I learned that opium was a huge problem in the rich salt merchant’s family. It brought down so many businesses and broke families apart. I asked my oldest uncle if my grandfather used opium, since my grandmother told me some had in our family. He said he was not aware of his father using opium. I asked him about his father; he did not have anything to say about him except that he spent his days at home, disabled. My grandmother told me he gave every penny he earned to my grandfather. He told me he did not give his money to my grandfather; he gave it to my grandmother instead. Without my grandmother, our family would not have survived. He told me that it was his youngest uncle who had used opium. That was why the youngest uncle could not hold a stable job and his wife and two kids left him. He did clean himself up after 1949 when the Communists took over, the Maoist revolution ended drug addiction QUICKLY. Mao's revolutionary armies defeated the oppressors' armies in 1949. THREE YEARS LATER, in 1952, there were no more addicts, no more pushers, no more opium poppies grown, and no more drugs smuggled in. In only three short years China went from 70 million drug addicts to none. and he ended up working for the government's land reform. He died in 1957. We lost contact with the two Guan kids.
     After my uncle told me that he was not aware of my grandfather ever using opium, I had another dream. In my dream, I walked into a crowd. It looked like someone had died. I could not recognize anyone except my grandfather. He was in pain and in very bad shape. He said the person who beat him was the one he did not expect. I passed by the crowd. Somehow, in the back of my mind in my dream, the person who beat him up was my grandmother. I walked into a grand house with a huge empty hall and a shiny hardwood floor. I turned right into the kitchen, where my oldest uncle’s wife was. I approached her, since she was standing by the window looking out into the distance. I asked her who beat my grandfather up. She whispered into my ear, “go ask your uncle.” I thought she meant her husband, my oldest uncle. I turned around, and my youngest uncle was sitting behind us on a long sofa. I did not question why he was there, even though he had died quite a few years ago. I walked over to him and sat down. I asked him who beat his father; he told me he wished he could tell me, but he was too young and was not born yet. I could not figure out what my dream was trying to reveal to me.
      I called my mother again about this, and told her my dream and some of the things my uncle had told me were not known by her. I asked her again that if my grandfather had used opium. She said that she was very young and really did not know what was going on. She did remember, however, that maybe she was still in grammar school. Some officials came to her home and she was scared. They found her father’s opium pipes and accessories. It was the period when China was trying to ban smoking of opium and her father was taken away for a few days. He was probably smoking opium before, but not anymore; an older family member might have gone along to help her father. They took him away and wanted to check that he was really clean. My mother did not think her father was smoking opium at the time. He kept all his pipes and accessories, because they were still worth a lot of money. The official took them away and gave them nothing. Bingo! I knew it. Opium had to have played a big role in losing the salt well, rental, and rice businesses. I have always been told and believed that my grandfather worked too hard at his salt well, then contracted arthritis and became paralyzed. Now, that might not be true anymore. I still did not know how he became disabled.
This is the only surviving photo from before 1949 which my oldest uncle managed to keep; he had to burn the rest of the photos and books because of the Cultural Revolution. Sadly, my uncle is not even in the photograph.  In the front are my grandparents, and behind them from the left my youngest uncle Jubiao, my youngest aunt Juhua with her girl scout neckerchief, and my mom Jufen. My mom was wearing shorts in the photo; however, I never remember my mom wearing shorts. My mom is the only one of this group still alive today. My uncle died at age 57 and my aunt died at age 53, on the same day two years apart (one from a severe allergic reaction to eating shrimp, and the other from a traffic accident).

Opium smoke pipe and accessories

      My oldest uncle remembered only a little about his grandfather Ting Lao (廷僚公). He remembered that his house was really huge. My mother could not remember him, but did remember a little of her grandmother Liu (刘) from Neijiang (内江). Her family owned the big family courtyard (东兴镇七拱子刘家三重大院) . Her grandmother was like a queen in the family. Her meals were prepared especially for her and presented to her. Everyone else had to wait until she finished before they could eat. She remembered standing while they watched her eat her meal. She did not offer any food to her. After talking to her grandmother, my mother went back to her own home to eat.
     Her grandmother’s funeral in Weiyuan ( 威远)was so big that the whole town mourned her passing. Her mother was very upset, because her daughters did not get special memorial gifts after the burial.. As usual, she felt like they were second-class citizens in the family.
     Family order was very strong. My grandfather’s oldest brother, Tai Ba, was the second in the family after his mother, then the second brother Sai Ba. My grandfather was the 3rd. He did not have much to say about anything. He did not really know what was going on. Of course, opium did not help either.
     I should have known opium was the main reason for my family’s downfall; people died. The four giant salt merchants went down the same way. That was why my grandmother said she hated the British the most. They forced opium on China and the result was the destruction of many families and businesses. In the 1830's it was estimated that all men under forty smoked opium. The entire Chinese army was addicted to the drug. Opium affected all classes of people, from rich merchants to Taoists. Our Guan family was holding its own; opium had not affected the family in the 1830s. It was not until the early 1900s, during our 4th generation in the salt business that the family went down. My grandmother must have had a mental breakdown after she lost her first son. Maybe that was why she did not remember and she did not tell me. My uncle eventually ended up in the care of the Church. Maybe she was the one who beat my grandfather so bad that he could not walk anymore. One of her brothers, Xia, was a doctor, famous for his expertise on Chinese traditional herbs; he was also masterful at resetting broken bones. People were willing to walk days to see him. He would treat them for free if they did not have money. My grandmother also knew how to reset broken bones, just in case any of her children suffered any fractures. She could make her husband disable if she wanted to.
      I heard about the Opium War in a history lesson from high school; it was so far away in coastal China and so long ago. It just passed in one ear and out the other. I did not grow up with anyone with a drug problem or even hear about drugs. Drugs and alcohol were simply not problems while I was growing up. I learned how destructive they could be after I came to the US. Now it hit home and really hurt. My siblings and I could have not existed at all. I needed to look for information about opium.

Documentary: Addicted to Pleasure - Opium (BBC Documentary Series