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Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco's Chinatown

Guenter B. Risse

Publication Year: 2012

People and bubonic plague have a long and tragic history. When health officials in San Francisco thought they discovered plague in their city’s Chinatown in 1900, they responded with intrusive, controlling, and arbitrary measures that touched off a sociocultural clash still relevant today. Guenter B. Risse’s history of this epidemic features the tale of desperately ill Wong Chut King, believed to be the initial person infected, and is the first to incorporate the voices of those living in Chinatown at the time. Lasting until 1904, the plague in San Francisco's Chinatown reignited racial prejudices, re-sparked efforts to remove the Chinese from their district, and created new tensions among local, state, and federal public health officials quarreling over the presence of the deadly disease. Risse's rich, nuanced narrative of the event draws from a variety of sources, including Chinese-language news reports and other accounts. He addresses the ecology of Chinatown, the approaches taken by Chinese and Western medical practitioners, and the effects of quarantine plans on Chinatown and its residents. Risse explains how the presence of plague threatened California’s agricultural economy and San Francisco’s leading commercial role with Asia, discusses why it brought on a wave of fear mongering that drove perceptions and intervention efforts, and describes how Chinese residents organized and successfully opposed government quarantines and evacuation plans in federal court. In probing public health interventions in the context of one of the most visible ethnic communities in United States history, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown offers insight into the clash of Eastern and Western cultures in a time of medical emergency.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xii

This book had an unusually long gestation. Beginning in 1987, I delivered a series of historical lectures devoted to the impact of epidemics, including plague. These presentations occurred not only at my own institution, the University of California, San Francisco, but also at the University of California, Los Angeles, Yale University, Loma Linda University, the University of Wisconsin, and in East and West Berlin....

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pp. 1-15

Located at the intersection of powerful American ideologies— race and xenophobia, dread of disease,1 and modern sanitation— this study seeks to enhance our understanding of a singular episode in American public health history: the appearance and management of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown between 1900...

Part I / Before Plague

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1. The People of Tang in San Francisco

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San Franciscans identified him by his Cantonese name: Wong Chut King,1 also nicknamed Chick Ging.2 His sketchy life story suggests that he fit the traditional stereo type of a thrifty, hardworking Chinese migrant whose California dream of riches remained tragically unfulfilled.3 An ordinary middle-aged laborer or “coolie” living...

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2. Guarding Life and the Way of Death

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pp. 40-61

Joyous New Year celebrations marking the arrival of 1900 failed to cheer Wong Chut King, in spite of the monotonous and ear-piercing sound resembling the “grinding of sleepless teeth” created by the Pan Ching Wo pipers on Portsmouth Square.1 For months, he had felt indisposed and frightened by the specter of illness, a sign...

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3. Sanitation, Microbes, and Plague

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pp. 62-85

The coffin shop’s own er, Wing Sun, summoned San Francisco assistant health officer Frank P. Wilson, a nonsalaried police surgeon, to issue Wong Chut King’s death certificate, which was necessary for obtaining a county burial permit. Cultural dissonance and linguistic barriers often complicated such requests. San Francisco health...

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4. Officials, Mandarins, and the Press

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pp. 86-110

In 1900, San Francisco was the largest metropolis west of St. Louis, with a population of 342,782. The city by the bay remained a point of convergence for new arrivals from the rest of the nation and abroad, with nearly 20 percent of its population foreign...

Part II. Plague

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5. Early Scenes of Terror

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pp. 113-139

On Wednesday, March 7, 1900, Chinatown’s early risers, including cooks, waiters, servants, and porters heading for their jobs outside the district, discovered that ropes encircled the space between Broadway and California, Kearny and Stockton streets. Two policemen on every corner demanded that everybody turn around...

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6. The Siege Continues

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pp. 140-166

Since an unvaccinated, and thus unprotected, Chinatown remained a potential plague-infested district in the heart of California, Surgeon General Walter Wyman brought the matter to the attention of President William McKinley. The result was presidential authorization to implement regulations contained in the Act of 1890...

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7. Plague Goes Underground

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pp. 167-191

With demands for Joseph Kinyoun’s resignation growing louder in commercial and Republican po liti cal circles, the embattled federal quarantine officer requested an outside investigation of his official acts in an effort to clear his reputation.1 Walter Wyman obliged, and in late December 1900 appointed assistant surgeon...

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8. Rumors and Realities

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pp. 192-217

Following Mayor James Phelan’s announcement in the summer of 1901 that he would not seek another term, the Marine Hospital Ser vice team operating in San Francisco anticipated changes in their relationship with local health officials. Phelan’s decision came after a bitter two- month strike that pitted the new, antiunion Employers...

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9. National Threat

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pp. 218-243

The Congressional Act of July 1, 1902, establishing the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, stipulated that the surgeon general call conferences if state and territorial health officials so requested. Because eleven states demanded a meeting to discuss the plague situation in California, Wyman arranged a session for...

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10. Sanitarians Claim Victory

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pp. 244-270

After replacing Surgeon Arthur H. Glennan at the helm of the U.S. Public Health Ser vice in San Francisco in May 1903, Rupert Blue kept a keen eye on the po liti cal developments in the city and their potential impact on the joint sanitary venture being conducted in Chinatown and its immediate borders. To everyone’s surprise, Michael...

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pp. 271-275

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., a powerful earthquake awoke the residents in San Francisco. A succession of shocks lasting about a minute twisted buildings, toppling and crashing them, sending clouds from the falling rubble into the early morning sky. A spur of the estimated 7.9- magnitude quake ran up the hill at the southern...

Appendix: San Francisco Plague Cases

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pp. 277-298


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pp. 299-360


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pp. 361-371

E-ISBN-13: 9781421405537
E-ISBN-10: 1421405539
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421405100
Print-ISBN-10: 1421405105

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 18 halftones, 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2012