When Chinese Americans Were Scapegoated for Bubonic Plague

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When 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 villainized residents of Chinese descent.

Since the mid 1800s, Asian communities in the U.S. have been among those scapegoated for public health crises—underscoring stereotypes, deepening discrimination and prompting harsh treatment. While the plague itself didn’t wreak much havoc on its own in Honolulu or San Francisco in 1900, the governments’ swift xenophobic response did, causing devastation for Asian communities, which were comprised largely, but not exclusively, of Chinese immigrants.

In Hawaii (native spelling: Hawai’i), where the government ordered “controlled” burns of Honolulu’s Chinatown to stave off spread of infection, one fire raged tragically out of control, razing the district and causing mass homelessness. The incident remains, after Pearl Harbor, “the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history,” according to historian James Mohr, author of Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown—“and one of the worst disasters ever initiated in the name of public health by American medical officers anywhere.”

Plague Arrives Into a Climate of Bias

As plague fears grew in both cities, they ignited an already smoldering climate of deep anti-Asian sentiment. Anxious local health officials, hearing about “plague ships” arriving from Asian ports, rushed to judgment that the disease would naturally spread directly to local Chinatowns, then marked by poverty and overcrowding. In doing so, they leaned into a widely held stereotype that Chinese immigrants were “unclean.”

Such generalizations reflected an animosity that had been building for nearly half a century, says Jonathan H.X. Lee, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. From the time Chinese immigrants first began flocking to America, fleeing their country’s Opium Wars and drawn by the promise of the California Gold Rush, they were viewed by white laborers as competition for jobs. Restrictive and discriminatory laws began to proliferate on the local, state and national level, culminating in America’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned new Chinese immigrants from the U.S. and barred existing ones from obtaining citizenship. During this era, 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 refueled, heightened and intensified anti-Chinese sentiments,” says Lee.

Bubonic Plague Hits Honolulu

In December 1899, one year after the U.S. annexed the kingdom of Hawaii, a Chinese bookkeeper in Honolulu’s Chinatown was diagnosed with the bubonic plague. This led the territory’s Board of Health to put Chinatown under a military-enforced quarantine, trapping thousands of people within an eight-block space patrolled by armed guards. The city subjected the community’s residents to dehumanizing treatment at disinfection stations, including being stripped naked, fumigated and physically inspected in public. 

Other actions included spraying chemicals throughout Chinatown homes, burning private property, closing off Honolulu’s trade ports and authorizing a special commission to investigate the outbreak and make recommendations. Its concluding statement reflected a common bias of the time: “Plague lives and breeds in filth, and when it got into Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.”

However, the quarantine was lifted five days later after Board of Health 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, with 11 deaths.

In response, the Board of Health ordered multiple controlled fires in Chinatown beginning on New Year’s Eve to try and eradicate the plague. But on January 20, 1900, winds caused one of the fires to roar out of control, decimating the entire community: some 38 acres of densely packed structures that accounted for one-fifth of Honolulu’s buildings, writes Mohr. Miraculously, no one died in what came to be known as the Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire, but the conflagration caused at least 5,000 people—nearly an eighth of the city’s overall population—to lose their homes, businesses and personal possessions, according to Mohr. With plague still looming, the newly homeless were marched 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 as those suspected in Hawaii: plague-ridden rats arriving on trade ships coming from Asia. It wasn’t the first time the city had scapegoated Chinese immigrants: From 1875 to 1876, a smallpox epidemic caused health officials to order the fumigation of every house in Chinatown, even though the disease continued to spread afterwards.

Epidemiologist Joseph J. Kinyoun was one of the few medical professionals who saw the bubonic plague coming. Kinyoun, a pioneering bacteriologist, had heard about the plague outbreak in Honolulu and knew ships carrying the disease would come to San Francisco. He was the first to confirm that the plague arrived in March 1900—after it killed a Chinese immigrant named Wong Chut King.

Local government officials shut down Chinatown to prevent any food or people in and out of the area, trapping some 25,000 to 35,000 residents and denying most the ability to work—but later lifted the quarantine due to political and economic pressure. Furthermore, the governor—along with local and state officials—denied the plague outbreak and refused to implement recommendations by Kinyoun, who they falsely accused of fabricating the plague.

But, while San Francisco’s Chinatown was eventually sanitized and the plague was deemed eradicated in November 1908, the government’s denial of the outbreak left at least 280 infected and at least 172 people dead.

How the Communities Bounced Back

Despite being vilified and losing homes, businesses and belongings, residents of Honolulu and San Francisco’s Chinatown communities still found ways to rally against it all.

In San Francisco, says Lee, organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in San Francisco raised money to hire lawyers to fight back against laws targeting Chinese people at the time.

And with the city’s public officials refusing to provide Chinese Americans with healthcare, due to the racial stereotype that they were inherently diseased and dirty, community leaders funded their own hospital, the Tung Wah Dispensary, which eventually became known as the Chinese Hospital.

In Honolulu, Douglas Chong, president of the Hawaii Chinese History Center, says the community mobilized almost immediately once everything was burned and cleared to rebuild the area.

“The Chinese people who lived through the fire were extremely resilient,” Chong says.

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