Month: April 2019

Dream Drugs and Salted Bamboo

The lady bought her supplies of recreational opium over the counter at her regular grocery store in Victoria, British Columbia, a purchase that writer-historian Barbara Hodgson described in a 1999 study entitled Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, was legal.

Kwong On Lung & Co, purveyors of“sugar, rice, tea, opium, groceries & provisions” was licensed to manufacture and sell opium and regular customer Mrs. Tai Chung was old enough to buy her dream drug along with mundane supplies like “salted turnips, salted bamboo shoot, some charcoal and a hundred dollars worth of pork.”

(Source:  https://web.uvic/ca/vv/student/opium)

Whether Mrs. Chung was buying her opium for personal use, or to maintain the needs of a modestly operated opium den in her cellar or a backroom windowless flat remains unconfirmed, but she was buying opium at a fairly expensive clip and private areas for the smoking of the drug were many and for a few years extremely popular.

On February 13, 1885, her “balance due” with Kwong On Lung was $2,489.08. On the 19th she added another $100 for opium, on the 20th another $50, and on March 11th, she added a further $200 to her private poppy juice fund but made a payment of $500 on her “balance due.” She was still $2,702.25 in bottom-line red and, although neither she nor Kwong On Lung knew it, the opium den was just starting to lose its rating as a popular technicolour dream palace.

It would have gone from dream to nightmare much earlier but for the massive introduction of Chinese labour to build Canadian Pacific’s Trans Canada railway. The opium culture thousands of those workers brought with them delayed the decay. In 1884 there were six opium factories in Victoria. Three years later 13 factories were producing 90,000 pounds of opium at $15 a pound with a “bonus” spin-off production of laudanum. Keeping the workers on the job wasn’t easy. Opium the dream-maker helped.

In the “new world,” opium was waning as a voice guaranteeing “happiness eternal.” That it brought peace and wonderful dreams there could be no doubt – but not forever. In fact, not for very long at all. Canada acknowledged the end of opium’s false promise in July 1908 when it joined the USA and banned open sales of opium in North America

Great Britain had a more difficult time banishing the promise of drugged happiness when many of the brightest artists, poets, and novelists of the UK openly embraced, praised, and used opium themselves and in their works had some of their leading characters excusably – even admirably – addicted.

A few that come quickly to mind are Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Barrett-Browning, Coleridge, Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who even had his redoubtable Sherlock Holmes sneaking a nip of laudanum – a by-product of opium – from time to time to improve his brain power.

Dickens gets right into the nasty stuff when he opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an opium den but promotes principal character, Tom Jasper, as a man of integrity and benevolence – and opium addict.

Oscar Wilde, well known for his decadent lifestyle, does seem to condemn it in his Picture of Dorian Gray, but never enough for him to attempt to change it.

And so, here we are in beautiful British Columbia in 2019 with thousands celebrating in our capital city of Victoria the opening of three – more to follow in a matter of days – sparkling new government-licenced stores selling a drug guaranteed to ease pain and bring happy dreams and comfort to all. We don’t have any abundance of official pot dens yet, but can they be far behind government promoted sales?

They tell me marijuana is “safe” and not addictive like opium. And I’m not expert enough to challenge them. But I do know this: the problems I have before I go to sleep tonight will still be there when I wake up tomorrow, however many buds I smoke.

Parliament is Supreme not the Press

When I was ejected from the Speaker’s Corridor back in 2002, fellow denizens of the press gallery looked on with mild amusement. There were no notebooks and microphones at the ready to record my dismissal from the corridors of power. I did, however, detect a snicker or two as I was escorted past an assembling scrum.

It mattered not to the legislature dress code cops that my shirt was white and freshly laundered, my slacks grey and neatly pressed, my hair combed, my shoes shined, my manner courteous – and my neat wind-breaker carried the Union Club crest. Alas, cleanliness may well be next to Godliness, but in the BC Legislature precinct, it goes for naught unless enhanced with jacket and tie.

Grumpily, I moved along the corridor to then-Clerk George MacMinn’s office seeking temporary refuge and maybe a little tea and sympathy.

“George,” I said, “this is outrageous. I’ve just been tossed out of the Speaker’s Corridor … never in 30 years have I …”

“Why?” interrupted George.

“Because I’m not wearing a jacket and tie.”

“Quite right then, wouldn’t you say? Dress code says shirt, tie and jacket. You’re in violation. Quite proper they should ask you to leave.”

No sympathy and no tea either, but I did manage a free cup of coffee before making a run for the exit stairs and freedom. Clown or curmudgeon, makes no difference when the codes and rules authorized by the full Legislature are at risk. I could have staged a sit-in, have demanded then-Speaker Claude Richmond relax the rules to accommodate an ageing scribe. But that would have gained me less sympathy than I received from the Clerk MacMinn and could have led to my physical removal from the precinct, possible arrest and possible charges of showing contempt for the legislature. All three options would have been available had my dress code whimpers slopped over to be construed as contempt for the legislature.

That institution packs a lot of muscle; it has vast powers to protect itself from intruders, royal or common. And, it reserves the right to toss all media out on its collective ear if the spirit so moves it. Not that it will do that in this day and age. We reporters of things political have wangled our way so deep into the system that we’re an unelected part of it. We know the pols need us, can’t function without us – and on occasion, we push that relationship to the limit. But we need to tread this status with care because ancient rights, historic powers are still in play

The centuries have brought significant changes in the tolerance of politicians for the press. There was a time when it was against the law to distribute outside parliament anything that had been said or written inside. In 1640, a fellow named “Overton, the stationer” was ordered to kneel and beg for mercy in the British House of Commons because he had “falsely printed an Order of the House, without the authority of this House.”

Called before the assembly, Overton knelt in quivering repentance as “Mr. Speaker told him that his offence was of a high nature to presume, upon his own authority, to print any Order of this House, and not only so, but to misprint it …” Poor Overton, he’d not only broken the rules; he had also botched the print job.

Then there was Lord Digby who had printed and distributed copies of a speech he had given in the house. Like Overton, he was called to account and forced to listen as: “The Commons resolved that no Member of the House shall either give a copy or publish in print, anything that he shall speak here, without leave of the House.” Digby’s pamphlet was ordered to be burned “publickly (cct) by the hands of the common hangman.”

Remnants on the ban imposed by the first parliaments on any note taking in the public galleries remain to this day. Only in the press gallery can accredited reporters take notes – and even they have to do their scribbling sitting behind the Speaker and therefore out of sight of, and technically unknown to him.

It may seem silly to hold on to such ancient rules in an era when gavel-to-gavel proceedings are televised; when verbatim reports are flung around the world via the Internet virtually minutes after they are spoken. But maybe we need little reminders that parliamentary democracy was as hard a won thing as the freedom of the press to write about it. We media types need to remind ourselves that while we have earned the right to criticize the institution and its inhabitants, we also have the responsibility to defend its ancient right to make the rules which govern daily proceedings and define standards of conduct and dress, and protect the institution itself from interference, whether by an attention seeker wearing a clown suit or a Royal wearing a crown.

Parliament is supreme, not the press. It makes its own rules from dress code to procedure – and authorizes the Speaker to make sure they are carried out. And it has the power to punish those who choose to challenge its authority.

Many readers will remember the incident during Premier Bill Bennett’s government (1975-1986) when the RCMP, with an approved court order, bugged the telephones in cabinet minister Jim Nielsen’s legislature office, his constituency office and his home – and how all hell broke loose when the bugging was discovered.

Motions were made accusing the RCMP of showing contempt for the legislature. A committee was struck to investigate, and it was agreed that the RCMP, even though acting under a court-approved wiretap, was indeed “in breach of parliamentary privilege.” In more recent times, the highest judicial authority in Canada has ruled that the internal workings of parliament are for parliament alone to decide. And that goes for everything from dress code to rules relating to contempt of the legislative assembly.

The centuries have brought many parliament-press compromises, but it should never be forgotten that when we asked fellow citizens to take a seat in our legislature, we gave them our iron-clad guarantee that they could go about their business without impediment; that they were free to speak without fear of retribution or interference and free to establish whichever rules they thought best for good conduct. Those who report on parliamentary affairs must choose carefully between criticism and contempt. Criticism should be tolerated, always encouraged; contempt, which could threaten the foundations of parliamentary rights and privileges, should always be denied.

Twenty years ago, Christopher Jones writing about “the Press Gallery” in his book The Great Palace said: “Both ladies and gentlemen of the Press are still there strictly against the rules, for those thunderous resolutions which say it is a high crime for the Press to intermeddle with Parliament are still, theoretically, in operation. In 1971, the House did finally decide that although they would not actually enforce the rules, neither would they scrap them. Journalists, therefore, remain part of Parliament, but not in Parliament. It is a compromise both sides find works very well indeed.”

And should continue to work well as long as it is understood who makes the rules and has the untrammeled right to enforce them. Which means that, while I find the dress code a little stuffy, I’ll wear a jacket and tie.

When The Last Train To Town Was 10pm

When 90 stalwart citizens gathered at city hall on a damp February evening in 1906 to consider a proposal that Victoria, British Columbia was now ready and willing to form a branch of the burgeoning Canadian Club, it was a group in a hurry.

Not because there was any desperate need to get Victoria draped in new Canadian national finery, but because as the chairman for the evening explained as he called the meeting to order … “many in attendance had already purchased tickets for a Victoria Musical Society concert scheduled that same evening at the Victoria Theatre with famed violinist Arthur Hartman,” the featured attraction being accompanied by Adolphe Borshke on piano.

I mentioned that concert in my blog a short time ago quoting The Daily Colonist review of Hartman’s performance. It is worth repeating with the added information that the crowd of 90, having elected a club president and executive, then rushed over to the theatre to hear Mr. Hartman “playing selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians (East or West not known) … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city.”

There was a wonderful footnote to the review. It read: “Adolphe Borschke showed an almost equal command of the piano.” Yes, well, what’s the old saying about faint praise?

Tickets, by the way, were 50 cents and $1.50 – the same price as tickets for the next Victoria Theatre production of “Susan In Search of a Husband” and a week later, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – a musical extravaganza featuring two brass bands, ponies, bloodhounds, wagons drawn by handsome Shetland ponies, beautiful electrical effects PLUS EVE AND HER GOLDEN CHARIOT (capital letters in all the adverts). And, it could all be seen for free in a street parade before the show. I searched the files but never could find an explanation of the role EVE played in helping Eliza cross the ice.

The 90 founders of Victoria Canadian Club needed all the theatre entertainment they could afford in the winter of its birth. The Daily Colonist tells us the winter of 1906-07 was “bitter” with several feet of snow and severe delivery problems. No worries over still-to-be-invented, installed, toppled hydro power poles; no natural gas pipelines to be disturbed by landslides or protests.

With homes and businesses heated by wood stoves and furnaces, Victorians had wisely stockpiled enough wood and coal to keep themselves warm – but only as long as it could be delivered.

Once the snows climbed beyond a few inches in 1906-07, delivery failed. Ice bedded beneath snow made it impossible for natural horse-power to haul coal or wood, and the internal combustion automobile with all its evils was still a virtual unknown.

Victoria survived, as does still the Canadian Club. And, theatre and arts continue to entertain – not that we haven’t lost a few valuable qualities of life with the passage of the years. But this is not a lament for the loss of “the good old days” when some citizens had to occasionally break up and burn furniture to keep the kitchen stove generating warmth.

But it is to regret that, with all the comforts we expect and demand today, we have let slip away some comforts we once treasured –

lost by bad government decisions or our own carelessness.

We can read in the newspapers of the day that in the winter of 1906-07, “Colwood and Langford Lakes were deep frozen with special trains running from Victoria to Langford to accommodate the skaters, with the last train home at 10 p.m.” (Do I hear you whisper Colwood crawl?)

The Colonist waxed lyrical: “The scene in the late afternoon was exceedingly pretty, for the sunset, visible over the tall fir trees, almost equalled any to be seen in Italy and this all with the effect caused by the glow of many campfires against the dazzling white of the snow. Every rank of life from town was represented in the happy throng.”

When the snow disappeared, the people switched to special theatre entertainments and “BC Electric ran special trams to the Japanese Tea Gardens on the Gorge and doubled the schedule for the Gorge Festival.” Of the event, the Colonist reported, “the green foliage of the pine trees was lighted by numerous festoons of electric bulbs, here and there booths gaily illuminated with Chinese lanterns at which ladies – immaculately clad in white – dispensed flowers, candies and other commodities to eager buyers while in the background played the band of the Fifth Regiment.”

I wrote about the Gardens last week and the recent decision of Esquimalt Council to consider restoration of the Japanese Gardens as a future project. I hope they do and that I live long enough to catch a BC Transit bus out there and back.