Journal of Asian American Studies 6.2 (2003) 209-210
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History Book Prize Awardee
Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown, by Nayan Shah (University of California Press, 2001).
Award Committee: (chair) Lon Kurashiga, Moon-Ho Jung, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
The selection committee would like to award the 2002 Association for Asian American Studies History Book Award to Nayan Shah for Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown. There were many worthy nominations for this award, testifying to the strength and breadth of the field of Asian American history. However, our committee believes that Shah's work stands out from the rest.
In Contagious Divides, Nayan Shah offers a brilliant and complex analysis of the connections among public health reforms, conceptions of citizenship, racial formation, and normative domesticity. Focusing on San Francisco and its relationship to the ghettoized community of Chinatown from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, he examines how political and civic leaders used the language and technologies of medical science to create a liberal state apparatus to sanitize the modern city. Contrary to scientific claims of detached objectivity, public health reform movements mobilized the resources of the state and civic society to create, monitor, and enforce racial, class, gender, and sexual boundaries. In other words, the efforts to protect the health of the public relied upon culturally loaded, not value-free, conceptions of who constituted the citizenry of the public and what approaches should be used to evaluate and regulate health.
Adept at analyzing hegemonic discourses that articulate and enforce social norms, Shah also creatively uses behavior, rumor, and ethnic newspapers to expose the ways in which non-elites responded to both white and Chinese leaders and [End Page 209] articulated their own ideas about healthcare. In addition to an interest in uncovering the subjectivity and resistance of marginalized individuals, Shah identifies the possibilities of alternative forms of intimacy and social relations through the concept of "queer domesticity." The phrase encapsulates a "variety of erotic ties and social affiliations that counters normative expectations . . . of respectable middle-class, heterosexual marriage," such as "female headed household networks to [male] workers' bunkhouses and opium dens" (13 and 78). Because conjugal families and in particular maternal figures are normatively entrusted with the responsibility for inculcating civic forms of behavior, the lack of nuclear families excluded Chinese from American citizenship. In response, Chinese American leaders not only employed western medical science but also promoted normative concepts of domesticity to argue for their inclusion as deserving citizens. Their agenda consequently reinforced the marginalization of individuals outside of nuclear families. Shah's critique is particularly valuable, because heterosexual normativity continues to shape discussions of family and citizenship even in the most recent scholarship on Asian American history.
Contagious Divides offers a nuanced and rich study that illuminates how public health reform and the modern liberal polity rests upon and reinforces racialized, gendered, and sexualized conceptions of citizenship. Shah's work reminds us that embedded in a movement to perfect and protect the public was a process that insisted on the dichotomization of the "normal" from the "aberrant" (252). Public health reforms from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century relied upon and in turn promoted social divisions that marked some individuals as deserving of protection and others of marginalization and exclusion. Contagious Divides builds upon a wealth of pioneering scholarship on San Francisco Chinatown and succeeds in further advancing the boundaries of the field of Asian American history. Because of Shah's admirable ability to illustrate so clearly the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, our committee believes that Asian Americanists (as well as scholars outside of our discipline) will be referring back to the book's original framework, rich documentation, and theoretical implications for years to come.
Ohio State University