Tag Archives: opium

The Money Press

March 1859, Victoria

The rain hit the top of the jostling carriage like pounding nails while damp cold penetrated settled inside. It was only the hearty meal and wine he had just enjoyed that kept him from shivering beneath his overcoat and scarf. The motion of the carriage ceased and Alexander Davidson Macdonald heard the driver put down the step before opening the door.  Keeping an eye on his polished leather boots, he descended from the carriage as the driver carefully held an umbrella over his head until he reached the doors of his bank,  “Macdonald and Co. Bankers,” at the corner of two busy streets in Victoria.

His was a relatively small bank and certainly less intimidating than the Bank of British North America, but his clients were hard-bitten gold seekers who had spent weeks or even months on the trail sleeping with their gold tight to their chests.  It was smaller even than the Wells Fargo bank and certainly a lot less structured. He had three employees and one manager, “Captain” John Waddell. The bank itself was curiously empty.

“Afternoon sir,” Waddell said.  “The printer dropped off the banknotes.”

“How did they turn out? Are they in the vault?” Macdonald crossed the room in three long strides.

Waddell followed him with the key in hand. “Most of them are acceptable quality, but I think they were stacked prematurely before the ink was properly dried.”

Macdonald stood aside as Waddell opened the vault.

“There was a complaint this afternoon from a fellow who demonstrated a curious set of gold scales. They reminded me of wood paddles with a single length of bone that was notched out at intervals.”

Macdonald started taking out bundles of notes.  “There will always be complaints in this business. It seems not a day goes by without someone bringing in their own set of scales.”

Waddell carried on. “The scale was so sensitive it could weigh gold powder which came to nothing on our scale. He claimed it was more accurate than the scales at the gold commissioner office in Yale which was why he brought his gold dust all the way to Victoria.  He showed how it worked and I can tell you he had quite the crowd of onlookers as he did so.”

Macdonald looked closely at one of the banknotes and frowned, “surely you didn’t encourage him?”

“Not at all sir, but with all the talk about the new British chartered bank coming to town, I thought it would be best to appear to take his complaints seriously. Besides, he was accompanied by Frederick Marriott.”

“Marriott? Of the Vancouver Island Gazette?”

“The same. I suppose we’ll be reading about that in the next issue.”

Waddell followed Macdonald to his office where he held a couple of the notes up to a kerosene lamp.

“The ink is smudged.  They might past muster in the dark, but I doubt it.”

“Bishop Demers is selling his printing press, sir.  He brought it over from Europe apparently, the type is of extremely high quality.”

“Is he? Perhaps I should make inquiries – we might print our own banknotes.”

It took several days before Bishop Demers could be met, having been away to the interior.

They met for tea and sat in stiff backed chairs while Demers gave several amusing anecdotes about his journey by canoe.  After a considerable length of time, Demers showed him a copy of a newsletter which he had printed using his hand-cranked press.

Bishop Demers printing press

Macdonald held it closely as he looked it over. “This is very impressive.”

“Thank you.  I spent many months translating several phrases into Chinook, French and English as you can see.”

“Could I see the press?”

The Bishop clasped his hands behind his back. “I don’t have the press here anymore. It has been sold to Frederick Marriott. Do you know him? Wonderful man and very generous too.”

Macdonald covered up his disappointment. “I do indeed. It’s been a pleasure meeting with you Bishop Demers.”

Back at the bank, Macdonald ruminated about this turn of luck. What were the odds that the very printer that he wanted would wind up in the hands of a newspaper man who was bent on destroying his very bank?

“Waddell, has Marriott ever done any banking with us?”

“Not at all, he never set his foot inside here except yesterday.”

The rain had ceased the next day and Macdonald decided to go for a walk. There were still very few solid structures beyond the Fort; the rest was a field of tents. It was therefore easy to spot the ramshackle hut that Marriott had made for himself.

Marriott had his back to him and was furiously inking the plate as Macdonald stood at the entrance.

“I’d appreciate if you didn’t block what little light there is,” Marriott said.  “Enter or leave.”

Macdonald stepped inside the pungent smelling room and looked around.  There was a small cot in the opposite corner and a desk on which sat several bottles of ink, a row of nibs and two wooden sticks held together at the end. It was most likely the gold scale Waddell had observed. Macdonald recalled seeing similar opium scales in San Francisco.

Gold scale

Gold scale

Marriott seemed engrossed in his work and when he looked up his eyebrows shot up.

“That’s quite the press you have there.” Macdonald said as he felt his eyes begin to water.

“It helps to spread the power of the words to the masses.”

“Of course.  It must be very costly to order printing paper, I imagine.”

“What are you hinting at?”

“I would like to cover the debt you incurred to buy that press if you will share it with me.”

” You want to put me out of business, that’s what you want.”

Macdonald held out one of his own banknotes, “come around to the bank tomorrow and discuss it with me.”

“I paid fifty dollars for that press,” Marriott said as he looked at the money.

Several days went by until Marriott stopped by Macdonald’s bank.

Macdonald laid out the plan.  Once a month, Marriott would loan the bank the printing press and for this he would be compensated supplies and ink.

“But that would involve moving the press back and forth! It weighs several hundred pounds.”

Macdonald shook his head, “the press has been moved many times and from what Bishop Demers told me, the machine cannot possibly be damaged.  If it does get damaged I will make sure that you are fully compensated.  How would you like to be paid?”

“In gold,” Marriott said.


Bishop Demers’ printing press had a unique history.  Frederick Marriott used it to print Vancouver Island Gazette which lasted a total of two months. He then used the press to print Le Courrier de la Nouvelle Calédonie, the first newspaper to be published in French in BC. Amor De Cosmos, publisher of the British Colonist, bought the printing press and used it for several years. Later, it was sold to George Wallace who founded the Cariboo Sentinel in Barkerville. There are stories of how the press was rescued from the fire at Barkerville, dismantled and carried on horseback to the nearby town of Richfield. Eventually it found its way back to Victoria and is now in a museum.

A Crime in Porcelain

Hanoi 1928

His name was Quang Van Troc and he did the night shift pulling a wooden rickshaw. The nights were bearable compared to the stifling heat of the day and after downing the dregs of the Black Queen he could run all night without noticing any pain.

At times when he ran it was as if he was pulling his own addiction.  It was she who kept him running. Opium. If he had some good pipes his feet flew, barely touching the ground. If he just had a few sous in his pocket then he could only get the watered down dregs that would last him a few hours at the most.

Crimes weren’t an unusual sight in Hanoi especially during the night. People would do anything for a bit of food or money. They would be willing to dust off dirty food, eat around the mouldy bits; this is what he had done.  Troc jogged uphill, the arms of the rickshaw biting into him. He was going uphill, it was dark with the occasional light casting a shadow in front of him. Troc preferred it to be completely dark so he would be guided by the constellations above.  The moon was all he needed. The moon and the Black Queen and sixty sous for renting the rickshaw from the master. His rickshaw was empty. Sixty sous! When he was much younger he would toss that amount from his chubby fingers into a wishing pond. What had happened to him?  His fingers were thin and calloused now.

He had been born into a good home, on his way to becoming a scholar like his parents. What had happened to him?  He knew what had happened to him. Every morning, after he found a safe place to rest, he would go through the events in his life that had brought him to the street. On their own they didn’t seem like so much bad fortune but cumulatively they had a devastating effect. Within a few years, his parents died, he was sent to jail for his political idealogy and the government had sold his parents’ home. His wife was standing in the living room which was almost devoid of all their cherished possessions the day he returned from prison. The jail had made him sick and what objects remained had to be sold to pay for his medicine. His wife left him and went back to her village, never to see him again.

Troc stood there for a while outside the house that was no longer his and then set out what to do. He had some money in his pocket and then it ran out as he helped others who each had a hard luck story worse than his own. There was no work for someone like himself. At first he was self conscious about asking people for rice and shelter, but desperation made him not care and soon he was renting a rickshaw, running in the heat, sweat coursing down his face as he used muscles he didn’t know could be used. He was given opium to help forget the pain. His skin chaffed from the wooden rods of the rickshaw. Who came up with these contraptions?  He knew from his studies that they first came from Japan in the days when merchants had to hurry from place to place. Then the Chinese followed and then the cruel beast came to Vietnam. It was a box from which cheap customers hurled abuse and insults. This was why he learned to like the night shift. He became an opium addict and for some extra money he would transport women to and from their customers, occasionally arranging the time and place for some of them. He was not self conscious anymore.

There was a figure lying in the middle of the empty road and a box lying next to it. Without letting go of the rickshaw, Troc nudged the body with his foot. There was no movement. Bending down a safe distance away he saw by the moonlight that the person, a man, was dead and he wore nice clothes that were stained with his own blood. He was one of the French overseers, probably one of the ones that had beat him when he had dared to ask for more money. Troc heard a sound and turned.  It was the sound of running feet.  He nudged the box and found it was heavy. He picked it up easily in his thin, wiry arms and deposited it in the back of the rickshaw under a canvas.
The man had some money on him and he took that too. The jewellry he couldn’t budge from the man’s fat fingers. In a couple of hours the man would be missing his fingers Troc knew.
Troc thought no more about the dead man until the end of his shift when it was time to turn in the rickshaw. Then he remembered the wooden box. There was an opium dealer who had a safe room he knew. Troc could hear him snoring behind the bamboo mat that served as his door and unloaded the box. As it set it down he heard a sound that brought back memories of his youth. It was the clunk of porcelain. He lifted one of the wooden slats and peered inside. This was indeed fine porcelain. His heart raced as he carefully took out one plate and then another, silently placing them before him. The images of the crane bending over a pond were so familiar. Turning the plate over he almost gasped. The stamp was the same too, all from the same place in Japan his grandfather had talked about.
The bamboo mat lowered and the fat dealer stepped out, yawning, almost stepping on one of the plates.
“Plates? You owe me money, not plates.”
“These are very valuable.”
The dealer grunted, “nice to look at if you’re not hungry. You want to sell them?”
Troc nodded. He was hungry.

Author’s note: I was inspired to write this story after reading “I Pulled a Rickshaw” by Tam Lang, the pen name for the well known Vietnamese writer, Vu Dinh Chi (1900-1986).