San Francisco’s Bubonic Plague and the Roots of Anti-Asian Hate

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco noticed a large uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes—with studies surging 567% in 2021. However the roots of anti-Asian discrimination within the metropolis run deep—and may, partially, be traced again to an infectious illness epidemic greater than a century in the past that metropolis authorities blamed Asian immigrants for spreading.

A brand new documentary Plague on the Golden Gate, premiering on American Expertise on PBS and on Tuesday, seems to be at an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Airing throughout Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month whereas the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the documentary, directed by Li-Shin Yu, options eerie parallels, from confusion over public well being steerage to the xenophobic therapy of the Asian-American group. (Nonetheless, a key distinction between the 2 public well being crises is that San Francisco was coping with a bacterial epidemic versus a viral pandemic the world is battling in the present day).

“Racial scapegoating, blaming Asian folks—whether or not or not it’s for plague in Chinatown, San Francisco or COVID in the present day—we see that that’s resurfaced in a extremely tragic method, leading to hate crimes and assaults on folks,” says Marilyn Chase, creator of The Barbary Plague: the Black Loss of life in Victorian San Francisco, who’s featured within the documentary.

READ MORE: Why the Asian-American Story Is Lacking From Many U.S. School rooms

On March 6, 1900, Wong Chut King, a Chinese language immigrant and lumber vendor, was the primary recognized case of bubonic plague within the U.S. As a result of the primary case got here from a Chinatown resident, town cracked down and cordoned off the practically 20,000 residents of Chinatown, devastating native companies. The Chinese language-immigrant group bore the brunt of town’s ham-fisted well being and security measures. Houses have been ransacked, belongings have been burned in an effort to fumigate the world, and town’s anti-infection posse looted outlets and took sledgehammers to home windows. Well being officers additionally gave Chinatown residents a crude vaccine with terrible negative effects—together with taking pictures pains all around the physique and arm numbness—however didn’t administer it to white San Franciscans.

The plague crackdown adopted a sample of anti-Asian racism within the U.S. broadly, and in San Francisco particularly. The federal authorities handed the Chinese language Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese language emigrants from coming into the nation. Residents in San Francisco’s Chinese language quarter have been denied citizenship and couldn’t personal property. Newspapers often featured anti-Asian cartoons.

Finally, it was not the racist and violent practices that ended the plague outbreak, however the imposition of primary hygiene and illness management methods. The town’s 32-year-old well being chief, Dr. Rupert Blue, traced the plague’s origins to fleas that feasted on contaminated rats, after which went on to connect themselves to wholesome people in the hunt for contemporary blood to devour. Well being authorities launched into an bold public sanitation marketing campaign to scrub up metropolis trash to maintain the rats away.

“They went home to accommodate and so they went to civics golf equipment, church buildings, temples and girls’s golf equipment and talked about trash disposal, and the way you must put issues in steel trash bins with lids.” says Chase. “That routine, sanitation, civic hygiene trash assortment, turned extra of the order of the day.” Following that public well being marketing campaign, the final bubonic plague case was recognized in 1908. Greater than 120 deaths have been recorded over the eight-year interval.

Greater than a century later, Chase sees San Francisco’s battle with plague as a “mini morality story,” and infectious illness outbreaks as classes in “humility.”

“We wish to suppose that we’ve made such nice progress and we’re such an enlightened society. However epidemics and pandemics threaten this skinny veneer of scientific enlightenment and humanism, and social justice and progress, if we’re not cautious. So we nonetheless have lots to be taught”

Plague on the Golden Gate airs Could 24 at 9 p.m.-11 p.m. ET on American Expertise on PBS and

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at


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