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  • Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Guenter B. Risse
  • Lisa A. Mix, M.L.A.

public health, quarantine, medical racism, immigration

Guenter B. Risse. Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. xii, 371 pp., illus., $39.95.

In Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Guenter Risse presents a thoroughly researched, nuanced analysis of events surrounding the outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco from 1900 to 1904. While much has been written about this epidemic (e.g., Susan Craddock, City of Plagues, 2000; Howard Markel, When Germs Travel, 2004), Risse’s book is a significant addition to scholarship in this area. It places the epidemic in a broader context, and it adds a unique perspective that focuses on the effects on the residents of Chinatown of the plague and the public health response to it.

Risse examines the plague epidemic from several angles, dissecting the myriad aspects that played out: political, medical, scientific, social, economic, and cultural. He weaves a complex and engaging narrative by telling stories of individual people: plague victims, local physicians (both Chinese and western), San Francisco and California politicians, residents of Chinatown, businessmen, and government officials from both the United States and China. Politics takes center stage as Risse examines the motivations of these various factions as they often worked at cross-purposes. He tackles the daunting task of explaining why these factions and their conflicts mattered and how their interactions affected events over the course of the epidemic.

The discussion of friction between San Francisco’s white residents and the citizens of Chinatown is especially fascinating. Risse argues that calls to raze Chinatown and remove its residents in the wake of the plague were motivated by racism and economic interests as much as by health concerns. For years before plague cases surfaced, Chinatown had been decried for its filth and “bad smells.” Real estate developers had long had their eyes on this prime property in the heart of the city. The appearance of plague cases escalated these sentiments. While San Francisco’s Chinatown was not burned to the ground (as had happened to Honolulu’s Chinatown during an earlier [End Page 678] plague outbreak), quarantines were imposed, and many Chinese lost homes or personal property in the postplague renovations.

According to Risse, these local conflicts paralleled concurrent tensions on a larger scale between the United States and China. Indeed, his description of the economic tensions between the two countries seems timely today. For American protectionists, the “specter of closing iron foundries in Pennsylvania, cotton mills in Massachusetts, and furniture factories in Michigan were part of a frightening scenario if Asian trade boomed” (161).

Risse offers great detail describing the complex network of relationships within the Chinese business community and that community’s relationship with both the local authorities and the Chinese government. Commerce, indeed much of life in Chinatown more broadly, was controlled by a group known as the “Six Companies,” an entity that became a key player in negotiating with San Francisco officials and U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) officers on procedures for inspections, disposing of bodies, and quarantines.

The book draws upon a wide variety of primary sources, including contemporary accounts from local newspapers (both English and Chinese language), health board reports, correspondence, contemporary medical journals, and government sources such as the records of the USPHS. These sources, especially those from the Chinese community, are key to presenting a multiplicity of viewpoints, helping the reader understand the motivations behind the events.

Contemporary accounts from local newspapers and medical reports inform much of the narrative, bringing the reader into 1900 San Francisco, capturing the flavor of day-to-day life in Chinatown, and making the stories of the plague more immediate. The Chinese-language newspaper, Chung Sai Yat Po (Chinese Western Daily), was a particularly important source. During the plague outbreak, it became the prime organ of communication for Chinatown residents, encouraging them to organize against racism, as well as providing advice and instruction for coping with regulations and quarantines imposed by government health authorities. As a primary source, it brings...