Why ‘Opium Den’ is an offensive name

I was in Oxford last weekend. I walked past an Opium Den.

Apparently, it’s a cafe, restaurant and a Karaoke bar.

If you’ve a basic knowledge about the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire, you know that the wars were humiliating, millions of lives were wrecked, and to China, unequal treaties (such as Treaty of Nanking) meant losing territories and dignity.

Is Opium Den a good brand?

Therefore, why using Opium Den as a brand name? If you think the name “Opium Den” is funny, it’s not. This name is offensive. It’s in bad taste.

It triggered me to think about branding. When you decide to have a brand name, what’d be on your mind?

1) Customers: What type of customers are you trying to attract (or not to attract)?

(With an irritating name like Opium Den, are you likely to attract sensible customers who can read?)

2) Image: What business image would you like to be portrayed as?

3) Research: Would you honestly do some homework first before picking your brand name?

4) Distinction: Do you know the fine line between Humour and Bad Taste?

17 thoughts on “Why ‘Opium Den’ is an offensive name

  1. Colline

    I would not think of it as an appropriate name: makes one think of drugs and all the negative things associated with it; not of eating a meal and singing Karaoke.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I totally agree with you Colline. It carries all negative connotations. I was fuming because the sign was ‘in your face’. It’s insensitive. It’s even worse as it’s used by the Chinese themselves, to label their own business with a humiliating past about the Opium Wars, in the west.

  2. Hari Qhuang

    You have so many interesting posts. I think I’m gonna stick around and keep checking out your blog. 😀
    By the way, I do agree with you about the name of the cafe, restaurant and Karaoke bar. It’s a bad idea and very insensitive.
    Maybe the owner got the idea from Sherlock Holmes books. The opium houses in those novels were always run by Chinese people. It made me wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a racist. ( I love his books though…)

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      It opium houses are used to symbolise Chinese, I would think it’s very sad, in 2012. It shows that history is not taught properly.

      I’m pretty sure this particular Opium Den is a Chinese business, Why attach this symbolism to its own people and culture? I’m curious to find out the psychology behind this.

  3. ShimonZ

    I can’t really agree with you, Janet, in this case. Coming as I do, from a far away culture, not very known to English speakers, I have occasionally heard people use phrases that could be interpreted as offensive. In fact, it happened to me many times. But then I realized that they were using those phrases and words in a different context than my own. It could be that those people who labeled their café an ‘opium den’ thought of an opium den as a place where people could enjoy privacy and luxury while surrendering to the highs and pleasures of a mythical drug. They might not even have known about the opium wars. Their image was probably just of immeasurable pleasures. Sometimes, people using words or concepts that mean a lot to us, are using them to mean something else.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      Thank you for your interesting comment. I love having different viewpoints on my blog.

      First of all, I really enjoy your blog since I discovered it by chance.Your posts are culturally stimulating. Your photographs really tell fascinating stories. It’s unfortunate that I’m unable to visit Israel — as Israel is the only country in the world that a Malaysian is not allowed to visit.

      I like your openness in this comment, Shimon. You’re probably right. However, opium is not a mythical drug. Opium was the drug that ruined China (among other things), and as a Chinese Malaysian, I could never see opium den with such a romantic view.

      I feel that a Chinese business in the west should conduct itself in a respectful manner, with a sense of history in mind. I suspect the use of a name like this boiled down to a sense of inferiority and foolishness.

  4. Bill Hayes

    Sometimes, you just have to let these things go. They are not bad people who named this place. The term Opium Den has long since come to mean a parlour of induldgence. A harmless pleasure. People do not always know their history. You have done more by blogging about it than you would by going down there with placards and leaflets.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your feedback, Bill. Perhaps you’re right — people don’t always know about their history. And, perhaps the connotations relating to opium has changed that I’m not aware of. I’m not an expert in Chinese history, but certain things or words still trigger my nerves. Probably I was brainwashed.

      Anyway, karaoke is not my favourite indulgence, so be it an opium den, it’s fine for me.

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I really appreciate that.

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