Ah Sing was buried on Sunday in Bow Cemetery. According to an old acquaintance of the dead Chinaman, Ah Sing was 'buried most comfortable.' According to Mrs. Ah Sing, or Mrs. Johnson, as she is called more frequently, Ah Sing's troubles, of which he had more than he ever told her about, she said, are over, and he is now, she feels certain, where opium is not a necessity, and where 'that blessed cough of his' will trouble him no more.
Though born in the Flowery Kingdom, Ah Sing was not laid to rest to the hollow and hungry sound of the tom-tom. No sweetmeats or paper ornaments were laid upon his grave, and no appeals were made to any Joss on his behalf. For many years Ah Sing professed to be a Christian. Whether or not he became addicted to reading the Bible before his business of providing opium for those who cared to 'hit' the pipe took unto itself wings, does not seem clear. There is no doubt, however, that recently he read his Bible with commendable regularity.
Upon her return from the funeral on Sunday, Mrs. Ah Sing referred with undeniable satisfaction to the strong bond of affection that had existed between Ah Sing and his Bible. She was dilating upon her husband's taste in literature when a neighbour, who had also attended the funeral, interrupted her with the remark that she was sure the deceased 'must have known the third chapter of John by heart.'
Did she know why Ah Sing took especial pleasure in reading this particular chapter? The sorrowing neighbour intimated that she was not willing to certify under oath to her knowledge, but she felt certain it was because Ah Sing received more enlightenment from this chapter than from the rest of the Bible combined. She hastened to add that it was extremely difficult to get the better of Ah Sing in a religious discussion, as he knew 'to a dot' the object of life, and she had often seen him clasp his hands and heard him beg his Heavenly Father 'to take 'im 'ome.'
It has been claimed since Ah Sing's death that his opium den was immortalised by Dickens in the first chapter of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' Ah Sing was always very proud to relate that his den had been visited by the great novelist, and Ah Sing's widow says that such a visit was made. Dickens, in 'Edwin Drood,' certainly describes the court in which Ah Sing lived, but he describes the proprietor of the opium joint as a woman, as so hideous a woman that she could hardly have been Ah Sing's wife, for the latter is to-day mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and rather pleasant-looking. In the story this woman refers to 'Jack Chinaman t'other side of the court' as the only person in the vicinity who, besides herself, possesses the true secret of mixing opium, adding, with an eye to business, 'but he can't do it as well as me.'
This woman could hardly have been Ah Sing's wife, though she lived in New-Court, Victoria-street, E., for about thirty years, and would have been there to-day, probably, if the old rookeries in which she and Ah Sing lived, and, in a manner, thrived, had not been pulled down a couple of years ago to make room for a school building. The circumstance that Dickens's opium mixer referred to 'Jack Chinaman t'other side of the court' seems to point to Ah Sing's widow, for she rented Nos. 2 and 3, while he rented Nos. 6 and 7 in New-court.
Her houses, she said on Sunday, were not used for opium dens, but boarding-houses. She was explaining that her boarders were generally numerous in 'the old times,' when the mourning neighbour added, 'They were coloured men, you know, sir.' Neiother the interruption nor the unexpected colour of Mrs. Ah Sing's boarders seemed of consequence to the widow, but, in compliance with the wish of the mourning neighbour, she explained that all her baorders were seafaring men, and generally Lascars. Nearly all of them smoked opium, and they were always accommodated 't'other side of the court,' where Ah Sing was the presiding genius. In those times he was known to his intimates, the mourning neighbour said, as the 'dear old boy.'
Though Mrs. Ah Sing had no recollection of seeing Mr. Dickens, she is quite certain, she said on Sunday, that Mr. Dickens had visited her husband's place. 'Lots of gentlemen' were in the habit of visiting it, she said. Rubbing her hand across her forehead, as if the action would carry memory back to the old time, she turned to the sorrowing neighbour and said: 'You remember, Mrs. Godfrey, how many people did come to the old place.' Mrs. Godfrey blessed her ''art,' and said she should think so, indeed.
Then she proceeded to inform the visitor that the West End was largely represented, quite frequently, at Ah Sing's. As if to remove the last lingering shadow of doubt touching the exact part of London from which these visitors hailed, Mrs. Godfrey said many of them came in cabs. She remembered that one party of gentlemen had been brought to Ah Sing's by a police-inspector, and that the party, including the inspector, had enjoyed the visit exceedingly. She shook her head and swayed her body slowly, but impressively, as she contrasted the'good old times' with all subsequent periods. her allusions to the 'persons' who removed the old buildings and thus destroyed a once flourishing industry, though not complimentary, were entirely fit for print. She even went so far as th hint that perhaps they couldn't ''elp it.'
Having been ousted from his famous den, AhSing tried hard to find a habitation in which his industry could be prosecuted successfully. In this he failed. In the last few years of his residence in New-court he had lent instead of made money. His boarding-houses put no money in his coffers.
The boarders probably spent all their spare cash in smoking opium, and were penniless when settling day came. Ah Sing seems to have had considerable faith in coloured human nature. When a boarder obtained a berth aboard an outgoing ship, and said he couldn't pay up until the ship returned, Ah Sing would take a due bill and say no more about it, except in Chinese, which his wife did not understand, her ignorance undoubtedly saving her from much bother.
There is a piece of paper now in the possession of Ah Sing's widow which she thinks tells exactly how much he was owed by boarders whose ships failed to come in. He told her once that he had lost £700 through boarders. She thinks the piece of paper tells the story, but as the story is written in Chinese, it tells her nothing, and nothing is about what she has to live upon. Unable to prosecute his calling under conditons greatly changed from the period in which he made money, Ah Sing lost hope and energy. Without money he could not procure a place near the docks, and most of the opium dens are now to be found in their vicinity. At l3l Cornwall-street, where he died, there was no accommodation for opium smokers: there was also no opium.
Ah Sing had been an opium smoker from his boyhood days. Under the influence of religion, it is claimed, he made several attempts to put the pipe behind him and have none of it. He never quite succeeded, until a couple of days before his death but his success should be attributed to physical weakness rather than mental strength.
The mourning neighbour said that nobody thought Ah Sing would not recover from his cough until 'he went off his smoke.' She was afterwards good enough to explain that by 'off his smoke' she meant that he could not enjoy it, and added that when Ah Sing could not enjoy a smoke of opium, he must have been in a very bad way indeed.
Well known as Ah Sing had been in and around New-court, very few people in or about Cornwall-street were aware of his existence. Few people there knew that he had coughed himself away last Sunday, or that his body had lain in the Cable-street mortuary for a week.
The funeral was such a modest affair that it attracted no attention. The mourners numbered only five. These were Mrs. Ah Sing, the mourning neighbour, and her three daughters. They drove to Bow Cemetery at two o'clock, and in less than an hour were at home again. Ah Sing, dead, looked like a Chinaman, but was without the queue. He had cut that off many years ago, but twice had allowed it to grow - once for a trip to Germany, and again on a trip to France. Why he had not made these visits with cropped poll his widow could not say, except that the persons who had hired him to make the trips had stipulated that he must have a full-grown queue. At the time of his death his hair was short enough to have prevented an ordinary barber from expressing a desire to cut it shorter.
At the grave the burial service of the Church of England was read. Ah Sing had so wished, thereby showing that he had not renounced the worship of Joss purely for commercial reasons. His virtues and his trials were comfortably discussed over a hearty meal late on Sunday afternoon by the mourning neighbour and some visitors who had called to condole with Ah Sing's widow. More than once the mourning neighbour thanked Heaven that Ah Sing had been 'buried most comfortable, poor dear, by Mr. Arthur Bradford, of Cannon-street.'
This, too, was agreed to without a word of opposition, and after a hearty meal the mourners, individually and collectively, expressed the opinion, at the same time defying contradiction, that a more devout Christian than Ah Sing had not been buried in Bow Cemetery since the latter was a mere infant.
New Court, Victoria Street, where Ah Sing is said to have lived was just to the east of St. George's-in-the-East churchyard between Cable Street and St. George Street (previously, and more famously, the Ratcliffe Highway). The 1873 Ordnance Survey map shows that you entered New Court through a narrow covered alley between the houses of Victoria Street and then turned left into a short cul de sac.
According to the journalist writing here, Mrs. Johnson rented Nos. 2 and 3 while her husband, Ah Sing, rented 6 and 7. They are said to have lived there 'for about thirty years' until the place was pulled down 'a couple of years' before Ah Sing's death. Out of curiosity I checked the 1871 Census. I found a John Johnston, aged 45, baker, born in Amoy, China, and his wife, Hannah Johnston, aged 39, tailoress, born in Bath, Somerset, both living at no. 6. I wasn't sure if this was the Ah Sing of the article (being less than candid about exactly what he was baking) until I found this entry in Dickens's dictionary of London, 1879 : an unconventional handbook:-
Opium Smoking Dens.-
The best known of these justly-named 'dens' is that of one Johnstone, who lives in a garret off Ratcliff-highway, and for a consideration allows visitors to smoke a pipe which has been used by many crowned heads in common with poor Chinese sailors who seek their native plesure in Johnstone's garret. This is the place referred to in the 'Mystery of Edwin Drood' (see also RATCLIFF-HIGHWAY). A similar establishment of a slightly superior - or it might be more correct to say a shade less nauseating - class is that of Johnny Chang, at the London and St. Katharine Coffee-house, in the Highway itself.
The handbook is by a Charles Dickens; as the famous author died in 1870, I presume this is his son. So it would seem that John Johnston on the Census really was Ah Sing and that the journalist must have misheard his widows's name.