San Francisco’s Bubonic Plague and the Roots of Anti-Asian Hate
Itn the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco saw a massive uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes—with reports surging 567% in 2021. But the roots of anti-Asian discrimination in the city run deep—and can, in part, be traced back to an infectious disease epidemic more than a century ago that city authorities blamed Asian immigrants for spreading.
New documentaryPlague at The Golden Gate premiering on American Experience on PBS and PBS.org on Tuesday, looks at an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The documentary was aired during Asian American Heritage Month and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Li-Shin Yu directed it. It features disturbing parallels from the confusion surrounding public health guidelines to the xenophobic treatment given to Asian-American communities. However, there is one key distinction between these two crises: San Francisco had to deal with a bacterial outbreak and the viral pandemic that the rest of the world faces today.
“Racial scapegoating, blaming Asian people—whether it be for plague in Chinatown, San Francisco or COVID today—we see that that’s resurfaced in a really tragic way, resulting in hate crimes and assaults on people,” says Marilyn Chase, author of The Barbary Plague, the Black Death of Victorian San Francisco The documentary features who they are.
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Wong Chut King was a Chinese immigrant who worked as a lumber seller. He became the first person to be diagnosed with bubonic plague in America. The Chinese-immigrant community bore the brunt of the city’s ham-fisted health and safety measures. Homes were ransacked, belongings were burned in an effort to fumigate the area, and the city’s anti-infection posse looted shops and took sledgehammers to windows. Health officials also gave Chinatown residents a crude vaccine with awful side effects—including shooting pains all over the body and arm numbness—but didn’t administer it to white San Franciscans.
In San Francisco, the anti-Asian racism that was prevalent in America led to the plague crackdown. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the federal government in 1882. It prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Residents in San Francisco’s Chinese quarter were denied citizenship and couldn’t own property. Anti-Asian cartoons were often featured in newspapers.
It wasn’t the violence and racism that stopped the plague from spreading, but basic hygiene and disease prevention techniques. The city’s 32-year-old health chief, Dr. Rupert Blue, traced the plague’s origins to fleas that feasted on infected rats, and then went on to attach themselves to healthy humans in search of fresh blood to devour. To keep rats away, health authorities launched an ambitious campaign for public sanitation to clear up trash in the city.
“They went house to house and they went to civics clubs, churches, temples and women’s clubs and talked about trash disposal, and how you should put things in metal trash bins with lids.” says Chase. “That routine, sanitation, civic hygiene trash collection, became more of the order of the day.” Following that public health campaign, the last bubonic plague case was diagnosed in 1908. In the span of 8 years, 120 deaths occurred.
More than a century later, Chase sees San Francisco’s battle with plague as a “mini morality tale,” and infectious disease outbreaks as lessons in “humility.”
“We like to think that we’ve made such great progress and we’re such an enlightened society. But epidemics and pandemics threaten this thin veneer of scientific enlightenment and humanism, and social justice and progress, if we’re not careful. So we still have a lot to learn”
Plague at The Golden Gate This program will air May 24th at 9-11pm ET. ET on American ExperienceOn PBS, and PBS.org
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