When the bubonic plague hit Honolulu and San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, officials in those cities quickly did what they had been doing for decades: they vilified residents of Chinese descent.
Since the mid-1800s, Asian communities in the United States have been among the scapegoats of public health crises, underscoring stereotypes, deepening discrimination and prompting harsh treatment. While the plague itself did not wreak much havoc in Honolulu or San Francisco in 1900, the rapid xenophobic response of governments did, wreaking havoc on Asian communities, which were largely but not exclusively, Chinese immigrants.
In Hawaii (native spelling: Hawai’i), where the government ordered ‘controlled’ burns in Honolulu’s Chinatown to prevent the spread of infection, a fire tragically raged out of control, leveling the neighborhood and causing massive homelessness. The incident remains, after Pearl Harbor, “the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history”, according to historian James Mohr, author of Plague and Fire: Fighting the Black Death and the Fire in Honolulu’s Chinatown of 1900—“and one of the worst disasters ever unleashed in the name of public health by American doctors anywhere.”
The plague arrives in a climate of partiality
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As plague fears grew in both cities, they inflamed an already searing climate of deep anti-Asian sentiment. Anxious local health authorities, hearing of “plague ships” arriving from Asian ports, rushed to judge that the disease would naturally spread directly to local Chinatowns, then marked by poverty and overcrowding. In doing so, they relied on a widely held stereotype that Chinese immigrants were “unclean.”
Such generalizations reflected animosity that had been building for nearly half a century, says Jonathan HX Lee, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. From the time Chinese immigrants began pouring into America, fleeing their country’s Opium Wars and lured by the promise of the California Gold Rush, they were seen by white workers as competition for jobs. Restrictive and discriminatory laws began to proliferate at the local, state, and national levels, culminating in the United States Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited new and old Chinese immigrants to the United States from obtaining citizenship. At that time, many Chinese communities across the United States, but especially in the West, experienced spasms of mob violence.
“So when the plague happened, it kind of reignited, heightened, and intensified anti-Chinese feelings,” Lee says.
Bubonic plague hits Honolulu
In December 1899, a year after the United States annexed the Kingdom of Hawaii, a Chinese accountant in Honolulu’s Chinatown was diagnosed with bubonic plague. This led the territory’s board of health to place Chinatown under a military-enforced quarantine, trapping thousands of people in an eight-block space patrolled by armed guards. The city subjected residents of the community to dehumanizing treatment at disinfection stations, including being stripped, fumigated and physically inspected in public.
Other actions included spraying homes in Chinatown with chemicals, burning private property, closing Honolulu’s commercial ports and authorizing a special commission to investigate the outbreak and make recommendations. . His final statement reflected a common prejudice of the time: “The plague lives and breeds in filth, and when it arrived in Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.”
However, the quarantine was lifted five days later after Health Board officials recorded only three cases, two of which were later reported as misdiagnosed. But when they lifted the quarantine, the plague began to spread, infecting 12 people in 19 days, killing 11.
In response, the Board of Health ordered several controlled fires in Chinatown starting on New Year’s Eve in an attempt to eradicate the plague. But on January 20, 1900, winds caused one of the out-of-control fires, decimating the entire community: some 38 acres of densely populated structures that accounted for one-fifth of Honolulu’s buildings, writes Mohr. Miraculously, no one died in what became Honolulu’s Great Chinatown Fire, but the conflagration left at least 5,000 people, or nearly an eighth of the city’s total population, losing their homes. , their businesses and personal assets, according to Mohr. With the plague still looming, the new homeless people were taken to detention camps, where they were held under armed guard for weeks.
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The plague moves to San Francisco
The disease appeared in San Francisco in March 1900, with the same culprits suspected in Hawaii: plague rats arriving on merchant ships from Asia. It wasn’t the first time the city scapegoated Chinese immigrants: From 1875 to 1876, a smallpox epidemic prompted health officials to order the fumigation of all homes in Chinatown, even though the disease continued to spread thereafter.
Epidemiologist Joseph J. Kinyoun was one of the few medical professionals who saw bubonic plague coming. Kinyoun, a pioneering bacteriologist, had heard of the plague outbreak in Honolulu and knew that ships carrying the disease would come to San Francisco. He was the first to confirm that the plague arrived in March 1900, after killing a Chinese immigrant named Wong Chut King.
Local government officials closed Chinatown to prevent any food or people from entering and leaving the area, trapping some 25,000 to 35,000 residents and denying most the chance to work, but later lifted the quarantine due political and economic pressures. Additionally, the governor—as well as local and state officials—denied the plague outbreak and refused to implement the recommendations of Kinyoun, whom they falsely accused of fabricating the plague.
But, while San Francisco’s Chinatown was finally sanitized and the plague was deemed eradicated in November 1908, the government’s denial of the outbreak left at least 280 people infected and at least 172 dead.
How Communities Rebounded
Despite being vilified and losing homes, businesses and property, residents of the Chinese communities in Honolulu and San Francisco still found ways to come together against it all.
In San Francisco, Lee says, organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in San Francisco raised money to hire lawyers to fight laws targeting Chinese people at the time.
And with city officials refusing to provide health care to Chinese Americans, due to the racial stereotype that they were inherently sick and dirty, community leaders funded their own hospital, the Tung Wah Dispensary, which eventually became the Chinese hospital.
In Honolulu, Douglas Chong, president of the Hawaii Chinese History Center, says the community rallied almost immediately once everything was burned and cleared to rebuild the area.
“The Chinese people who survived the fire were extremely resilient,” Chong said.