photo: 1900 Chinatown fire in Honolulu
In Honolulu, a fire started by health authorities in an effort to "sanitize" the city's Chinatown in 1900 raged out of control, destroying much of the city. Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen via Wikimedia Commons

During a plague outbreak in 1899, officials in Honolulu quarantined and burned the city’s Chinatown. Some Covid-19 talk today echoes their rhetoric.

In June 1899, the steamer Nippon Maru arrived at Honolulu carrying one passenger who had died during the trans-Pacific voyage. The Hawaii Board of Health immediately quarantined the ship for a week as a precaution against the bubonic plague, which was then ravaging much of Asia. The freighter departed for San Francisco without further fatalities, but rats and fleas aboard the ship managed to break the quarantine. In December, plague took a first victim in Honolulu’s crowded Chinatown.

The epidemic that reached Honolulu had originated in China in the 1870s, spreading slowly until it reached the commercial cities of Guangzhou and then Hong Kong in 1899. Steamships may not have been as fast as modern jetliners, but they still linked Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas into a global economy — and a global disease network. Honolulu, booming as a Pacific entrepôt, was especially determined to fend off what many saw as an Asiatic threat.

Disease outbreaks are often racialized and made vehicles for nativist beliefs and ethnic hatreds. In 2020, some commentators continue to misleadingly and dangerously call Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the “Chinese flu” — a term that has helped to trigger anti-Asian harassment in the United States and Europe. That rhetoric has been encouraged by some conservative political leaders: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy prefers “Chinese coronavirus,” while Mike Pompeo insists on “Wuhan coronavirus.” President Donald Trump has frequently vowed to defend Americans against a “foreign virus.” As this March 17 tweet from a CBS reporter indicates, other, less-veiled terms appear to be circulating at the White House.

Racism was even more blatant at the turn of the 20th century. Noting that white people in Asia were less likely to contract plague than were locals, so-called experts attributed the difference to inherent racial superiority and proper European habits rather than economic advantage and colonial privilege. Historian James Mohr, author of the 2004 book Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown, described how one Honolulu resident spoke for many when she optimistically wrote that “plague seldom attacks clean white people.”  

Asian immigrant communities in the cities of the American West in that era were already viewed as exotic nuisances, easy to romanticize for tourists and easy to raid in vice crackdowns. Police officials could stand four-square for virtue by raiding opium parlors and back rooms where Asian gamblers played fan tan while ignoring more-numerous gambling joints and saloons with white customers. Tour guides in San Francisco manufactured a fake narrative of danger and depravity, leading visitors on rambles through Chinatown basements and hiring local residents as fake denizens of opium dens. Novelist Frank Norris titled an 1897 article about San Francisco’s Chinese neighborhood “The Third Circle,” in a reference to Dante’s seven circles of hell, and called the neighborhood a “noisome swamp.” The very existence of Chinatowns in cities like Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco gave residents of European heritage the thrill of confronting the “other” while remaining firmly in charge.

It was a short step from seeing Asians as a social threat to fearing that the segregated communities in which they lived — undeniably crowded and unsanitary in many cases — posed physical dangers as sources of disease. These fears came to a climax in Honolulu, whose “Chinatown” housed 3,000 Chinese, 1,500 Japanese, and 1,000 Native Hawaiian residents in densely packed two-story wooden buildings, backyard shacks, and shanties with little fresh water and terrible sanitation. When plague appeared in December 1899, public health officials first quarantined the neighborhood, responding simultaneously to concrete epidemiological concerns and to fears that Asian residents might contaminate the entire community. Hard-working Chinese and Japanese saw the action as one more example of race-based discrimination. In a blog post for Oxford University Press last week, Mohr observed:

Since the early victims were Chinese, ugly cries arose for the destruction of all Asian neighborhoods on the pretext that they seemed to be breeding grounds for plague; blaming victims and increased hostility toward minorities had been hallmarks of health-related panics since ancient times.

The Board of Health also attempted to sanitize with fire, burning buildings where plague victims had died. On January 20, 1900, a controlled burn roared out of control, consuming a fifth of Honolulu’s buildings and the homes of 5,000 people. White residents who had come to gawk at the fire also gathered with baseball bats and pick handles, to ensure that the fire victims ended up in tightly controlled refugee camps.

The Honolulu fire was a particularly vivid illustration of how Americans apply racialized assumptions of disease transmission, but many others can be found throughout the 20th century. In some cases, public health panics disguise other motives. The Board of Health in Reno, Nevada, razed most of that city’s Chinatown in 1908 in the name of cleanliness and morality, conveniently making land available for redevelopment. When bubonic plague appeared in Los Angeles in 1924, authorities quarantined the Mexican-American neighborhood south of downtown, destroying hundreds of homes in the name of sanitation. In his book Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, historian William Deverell writes that “the destruction of these homes and shacks was part of an overall plan,” in which Mexican-American residents were first declared to be public health nuisances so that no compensation would need to be paid.

The Reno and Los Angeles actions had the same effect as the destruction of black Tulsa in 1921, eliminating competition and promoting real estate development, minus the murdering mobs. And it’s not a long reach from the real public health threats of plague to the metaphorical disease of “blight” that disproportionately afflicted African-American and Latino neighborhoods in the urban renewal era.

Unlike Reno and Los Angeles, the actions in Honolulu were ill-fated but not explicitly malign. Burning Chinatown was a tragic accident, not a plan. The disaster reflected ignorance as well as racism: Unfamiliar with plague, health officials deployed quarantine measures that had worked against cholera a few years earlier, unaware that the diseases are transmitted differently. After the fire, the plague slowly subsided, although it appeared at Kahului on Maui, where another small Chinatown was burned in February. Some Japanese and Chinese residents rebuilt on the ashes, but many dispersed into other parts of Honolulu. The U.S. government eventually provided partial compensation for property losses.

At the same time, officials could not escape their belief that racial minorities and outsiders were responsible for spreading the “foreign bacillus” from China among white Americans. Among certain leaders, that same reflexive understanding seems to be alive and well today.

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