The Underworld of the East

Being Eighteen Years Actual Experiences
of the Underworlds, Drug Haunts and Jungles
of India, China and the Malay Archipelago
by James S. Lee
Introduction by Mike Jay
London: Green Magic (2000)
pp. 170, vii – xxi
ISBN 0953663116

As the title and subtitle together suggest, this unusual book is an authentic record of personal experiences (taking place between 1894 and 1912) written by a man who travelled extensively and who possessed an interest in investigating certain hidden strata both of foreign cultures and of the mind itself. Originally published in London in 1937, this is the first reprinting of this frank, explicit and detailed record of the author’s adventures including his prolonged and wide-ranging experimentation with drugs of many kinds.

James S. Lee first travelled to the East in the year 1894 as a twenty-two year old mechanical engineer, having accepted a position with a mining company at a remote location far up on the northern frontier of India. While working there, he contracted malaria, a common enough occurrence in the tropics, to be sure, but one that proved for him to mark a turning point in his life.

During his treatment for the disease by the company doctor, an Indian physician or “Babu,” Lee was given an injection of morphine which immediately checked his fever and all its accompanying symptoms. Lee thereafter persuaded the Babu to provide him with a syringe and tablets of morphine so that he might administer the medicine to himself as needed.

Even after his fever abated Lee continued the practice of injecting morphine, doing so at the end of a day’s work for the sake of the pleasant sensations that the drug occasioned. At length, however, he found himself addicted. Consulting the Babu, Lee received from him insights into the use of drugs which became Lee’s guiding principle for the next many years. The operative principle of drug use, according to the Babu, is and ought to be that of balance and counter-action. Systematic alternation or careful combination of drugs is, in the Babu’s view, the key to avoiding both addiction to a particular drug and the pernicious effects upon the body caused by the repeated operation of single drug.

Cured in this way of his morphine addiction, Lee embarks on a study of the various other drugs (legally) available to him, employing them variously as a febrifuge, a sedative, a stimulant, an analgesic or a soporific. But the chief reason for Lee’s continuing experimentation with drugs is the inner adventure that they afford him, the novel types of sensation and imaginative experience with which they furnish him. Lee’s highest interest in the drug experience is the glimpses it sometimes yields to him of what Wordsworth called “unknown modes of being,” the brief encounters he experiences with a reality beyond the limited empirical one that comes to us through our senses and understanding.

Lee is scrupulous and systematic in his combination and alteration of drugs, avoiding extended use of any single drug, remaining attentive to his physical condition, carefully correcting at once any adverse symptoms that he detects. And as he frankly admits: “The study of the effects of different drug combinations became for me a fascinating hobby.” Intrigued by the drug-induced visions he experiences, Lee explores with keen interest the strange and rich visual world of images deriving from the subliminal mind.

The mystery and multiplicity of the external world also attract and intrigue the author who spends his periods of leave from the mine in exploring the cities and the countryside of India. Lee possesses the instincts and the eye of true traveller, interested in and responsive to a range of experiences, places and persons. In Calcutta and Benares, Lee explores the narrow streets thronged with humans of every sort and condition – beggars, lepers, merchants, magicians – and the markets offering for sale hundreds of exotic commodities from exquisitely crafted objects to foul heaps of rags. The palaces and temples, the squalid hovels and human warrens, the extremes of luxury and poverty, -- all are examined and investigated by the author. Certainly, though, Lee is most keenly intrigued by the underworld of India, the secret brothels of the native quarters where erotic dances are performed and opium is smoked.

Later, Lee secures a position as engine-wright (soon promoted to chief mechanical engineer) for a newly established coal-mining concern on the island of Sumatra in the Malay Archipelago. It is just the sort of employment that best suits him, a job that will permit him to explore further the mysterious East. Faced in the Sumatran jungle with Herculean endeavours, Lee sustains himself with his drugs and continues his experiments, gathering local plants and roots said by the natives to be psycho-active. In this way, he makes the discovery of a drug whose properties prove so agreeable and useful to him that he names it “the elixir of life.” This previously unknown drug seems to be a universal antidote, nullifying entirely the effect of any other drug, returning the user at once to normal mental and physical condition and producing “a feeling of perfect happiness and content.”

Building a railroad terminus in the most remote jungle, constructing a reservoir and a system of running water for the new settlement that grows up around the terminus, supervising an army of Chinese contract labourers, Lee meets all of these practical obligations. For the author, the two different worlds of experience, -- the inner world of revery and vision, and the outer world of endeavour and activity – are entirely compatible and complementary.

Following this job, Lee works again in India, then on the Gold Ghost of Africa, in Rio de Janeiro, and finally for a period of seven years in Shanghai, China. In transit to and from his various employments and while in residence in different countries, Lee undertakes to explore the underworld of every city in which he finds himself. In Singapore, Naples, Port Said, and Colombo, in London, in Nagasaki, Tokyo and Yokohama, and most extensively in Shanghai, the author visits the local dives and brothels, observing the local customs and practices pertaining to drugs and, of course, sampling the local wares.

With the descriptions of his remarkable experiences in Shanghai, Lee’s account of his life ends, though he informs us that in 1913 he returned to England, and that with the passage of the Dangerous Drug Act in 1919, he abandoned forever the use of drugs. Lee concludes his remarkable book by promising the reader that he will write a second volume of his adventures, which is to include an account of his journey across the United States, his return to England, and his “strange experiences during the war years.” Most regrettably, this intended second volume never appeared.

A good portion of the appeal of The Underworld of the East derives from the agreeable authorial persona that is conveyed in the book. Lee has an alert, inquiring, unorthodox mind. His philosophical, social and cultural reflections are often acute. And there is a touch of the poet about him. There is thus an engaging blend of personal excitement and careful observation to the fashion in which Lee conducts his idiosyncratic researches into the underworlds and subcultures of the East; and a lively, fertile combination of awe and practicality to the manner in which he takes up the riddles of cosmic teleology, human destiny, and related issues.

Another attraction of The Underworld of the East is the author’s account of his strange, rich visions: the fantasies and phantasmagoria he experiences while under the influence of various combinations of drugs – visions of terror, beauty and mystery, vivid scenes that haunt the mind of the reader. Such passages run through the book like a vein of brilliant mineral matter. Apart from Thomas De Quincey’s classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater, I know of no other work with quite the same hallucinated charm. Lee can evoke in the mind of the reader the sounds and sights and smells of curious scenes long lost, and can take the reader with him into mysterious, unknown inner realms. The common theme of Lee’s adventures – both in the physical world and in the world of the mind – is that of a quest for new perceptions, new perspectives, and a corresponding questioning of the various artificial structures, the narrow cultural codes and parochial social habits, by blind adherence to which humans forfeit their potential for more extensive, more comprehensive vision.

This book has long been a great favorite of mine. (I am fortunate in owning a copy of the original 1937 printing.) My compliments to Green Magic for rediscovering and republishing this lost classic of metaphysical adventure.


Gregory Stephenson grew up in Colorado and Arizona, but has lived in Denmark for many years. He has written extensively on literature of the post-war period, including studies of the writers of the Beat Generation, J.G. Ballard, and Robert Stone. He currently teaches at the University of Copenhagen.