In 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.
A new documentary Plague 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. Airing during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the documentary, directed by Li-Shin Yu, features eerie parallels, from confusion over public health guidance to the xenophobic treatment of the Asian-American community. (However, a key difference between the two public health crises is that San Francisco was dealing with a bacterial epidemic versus a viral pandemic the world is battling 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 in Victorian San Francisco, who is featured in the documentary.
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On March 6, 1900, Wong Chut King, a Chinese immigrant and lumber seller, was the first diagnosed case of bubonic plague in the U.S. Because the first case came from a Chinatown resident, the city cracked down and cordoned off the nearly 20,000 residents of Chinatown, devastating local businesses. 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.
The plague crackdown followed a pattern of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. broadly, and in San Francisco in particular. The federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese emigrants from entering the country. Residents in San Francisco’s Chinese quarter were denied citizenship and couldn’t own property. Newspapers regularly featured anti-Asian cartoons.
Ultimately, it was not the racist and violent practices that ended the plague outbreak, but the imposition of basic hygiene and disease control 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. Health authorities embarked on an ambitious public sanitation campaign to clean up city trash to keep the rats away.
“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. More than 120 deaths were recorded over the eight-year period.
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 airs May 24 at 9 p.m.-11 p.m. ET on American Experience on PBS and PBS.org.