From Collectors Weekly, an interview with Steven Martin about his new book, Opium Fiend. Martin collects opium paraphernalia and got addicted to the stuff (the collectables and the opium) while living and collecting in SE Asia.
In 2001, I was working as a fixer and translator for a good friend of mine, Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist for the Asian edition of Time. He wanted to do a story about the remnants of opium smoking in Laos, which, at the time, was the only country in the world where you could see opium smoking in the traditional Chinese manner-that is, with a pipe that’s designed to vaporize the drug and a lamp as a source of heat and all the crazy, little tools and accoutrements. Through some weird quirk of history, this sort of opium smoking was eradicated every place else, but Laos still had the traditional public opium den that anybody could walk into, recline, and have an attendant prepare opium for them to smoke.
Actually, Karl’s story was more about the backpackers who were coming to Southeast Asia and causing a resurgence of opium smoking, especially in Vang Vieng, just north of the capital, Vientiane. This one little town was a must-stop on the backpackers’ circuit. Karl, who had at one time been addicted to heroin when he was living in New York City, wanted to do the story, but he didn’t want to get anywhere near the opium, obviously. While I was hired to translate and set up interviews, he asked me to smoke the drug so he could observe and write the details into his story.
It wasn’t the first time I had smoked opium. When I was traveling in the Southeast Asia mountains, the villagers would often invite me to smoke opium with them. But I had never really given it much thought until I did this story. Unlike the tribal kind of paraphernalia I had seen in the mountains, these Laotian dens were using the traditional Chinese accoutrements. After we visited the den, we went back down to the capital. I told Karl, “Hey, why don’t I take you to an antiques shop I know about that has opium pipes? It might be an interesting souvenir.” He ended up buying one, and I thought, “Why don’t I get one, too?”