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


When health officials in San Francisco discovered bubonic plague in their city’s Chinatown in 1900, they responded with intrusive, controlling, and arbitrary measures that touched off a sociocultural conflict still relevant today. Guenter B. Risse’s history of an epidemic is the first to incorporate the voices of those living in Chinatown at the time, including the desperately ill Wong Chut King, believed to be the first person infected.

Lasting until 1904, the plague in San ...

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

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When health officials in San Francisco discovered bubonic plague in their city’s Chinatown in 1900, they responded with intrusive, controlling, and arbitrary measures that touched off a sociocultural conflict still relevant today. Guenter B. Risse’s history of an epidemic is the first to incorporate the voices of those living in Chinatown at the time, including the desperately ill Wong Chut King, believed to be the first person infected.

Lasting until 1904, the plague in San Francisco's Chinatown reignited racial prejudices, renewed 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 reports and 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 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.

By probing public health interventions in the setting 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.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Anyone interested in the history of public health...will love this book.

— Elizabeth Schexnyder

Watermark - Elizabeth Schexnyder
Anyone interested in the history of public health... will love this book.
Journal of American History - Alexandra Minna Stern
Risse's impressive book provides the most detailed examination of the political, cultural, and medical landscape in which a deadly plague appeared in San Francisco and became associated with Chinese bodies and Chinatown... Risse deserves much credit for adding a great deal of nuance and texture to our historical understanding of plague and politics in early twentieth-century San Francisco.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine - Myron Echenberg
The author, a well-known historian of medicine long resident in San Francisco, has impeccable credentials to tackle one of the most complex and tortured episodes in the history of American public health. He does not disappoint.
Journal of the History of Medicine - Lisa A. Mix
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... 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... This book is more than merely the story of one plague epidemic. It is also a good source for the history of the Chinese immigrant experience in American, early twentieth-century San Francisco politics, and California history... Scholars in variety of disciplines will find much of interest and avenues for further exploration in Risse's important book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781421405100
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2012
  • Edition description: 20
  • Pages: 392
  • Sales rank: 466,187
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

A physician and historian, Guenter B. Risse is professor emeritus of the history of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. His previous books include Hospital Life in Enlightenment Scotland and Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I Before Plague

1 The People of Tang in San Francisco 19

A Migrant from Taishan 19

Framing Chinese Space 22

Lifestyles and Governance 27

Politics and Violence 34

2 Guarding Life and the Way of Death 40

Wong's Illness and Folk Religion 40

Cultivating Vitality 44

Shelters and Dispensaries 50

Corpses and Bones 56

3 Sanitation, Microbes, and Plague 62

Issuing Death Certificates 62

From Miasma to Germs 67

Sanitation in Chinatown 70

Third Plague Pandemic 76

The Final Diagnosis 81

4 Officials, Mandarins, and the Press 86

San Francisco and Its Health Officials 86

The Lords of Chinatown 91

Partner or Foe? The Governor and the State Health Board 95

"Warriors of Epidemics": The Marine Hospital Service 99

"Playing with Ink": Western and Chinese Journalism in San Francisco 103

Part II Plague

5 Early Scenes of Terror: March-June 1900 113

Roping Chinatown: First Plague Diagnosis and Quarantine 113

New Deaths: Searches, Vaccinations, and Fear of Detention 121

"Wolf Doctors" Hunt for Plague 127

Turmoil: Another Quarantine and a Federal Lawsuit 133

6 The Siege Continues: June-December 1900 140

Federal Quarantine of California: A Political Blunder 140

Valuable Real Estate: Planning Chinatown's Removal 146

Plague Diagnoses: A Quarrel between Experts 152

Tarnished Image: Plague, Boxers, and Reformers 160

7 Plague Goes Underground: 1901 167

Expert Opinion: Adventures of a Federal Commission 167

Persona Non Grate: The Ouster of Kinyoun 174

Odd Bedfellows: The Federal, State, and City Cleanup 179

Hide and Seek: Tracking Sick and Dead Chinese Residents 184

8 Rumors and Realities: 1902 192

San Francisco Stand-off: Mayor versus Health Board 192

No Plague: "Ostrich" Policies under Fire 198

Federal Officials Target People and Rats 205

"Beating the Tiger": A Mandarin's Downfall 211

9 National Threat: 1903 218

Is San Francisco Infected? Health Conferences and Railroads 218

Leaders under Pressure: A Shift in Health Policies 224

Real Estate and the Plan to Raze Chinatown 230

Chinese Cooperation: Joint Sanitary Inspections 237

10 Sanitarians Claim Victory: 1904-1905 244

Puppet Show: San Francisco's New Health Board 244

Dawn of a Public Health Fraternity 249

Targeting Rats: Poisons and Demolitions 254

The Oriental City Project 261

Pyrrhic Victory 267

Epilogue 271

Appendix San Francisco Plague Cases 277

Notes 299

Index 361

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