Inside San Francisco’s Plague-Ravaged Chinatown, c. 1900
A City on the Edge
Shortly before midnight on March 6, 1900, three men gathered at a coffin shop in Chinatown to examine the body of a 41-year-old Chinese man who had died earlier that day. The police surgeon, a city health official, and a young bacteriologist palpated the corpse’s swollen lymph glands and found a small sore on his thigh. Piercing the skin, they drew blood and lymph fluids and placed drops of them under a microscope. With a stain that made the germs turn pink, they saw clusters of short, rod-shaped bacteria swimming under the lens. It looked like bubonic plague.
Confirming that suspicion would take days, but city officials leaped into action. That night, the Board of Health ordered a quarantine of Chinatown. Under the cover of darkness, some 35 police officers spread out around 12 square blocks. They strung ropes across key intersections and blocked foot traffic and wagons from coming in or out. Only police and health officials were permitted to cross the barriers; supplies to the quarter, at least at first, were passed under the ropes. Chinese who tried to leave the area were blocked by officers carrying nightsticks and pistols.
Most San Franciscans learned of the quarantine the next morning. Some read about it in the newspapers; others pieced together the story on their own after their servants, cooks, and porters failed to show up for work. The chef at the Palace Hotel struggled with the breakfast service, because a dozen or more of his Chinese employees couldn’t get past the barricades to reach the kitchen. The Chinese who supplied hotels and restaurants from their gardens outside the city were unable to leave Chinatown to harvest their long beans and mustard greens. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle condemned the quarantine as having been too hastily imposed: “The central telephone in Chinatown was kept busy for hours making connections for angry citizens who were trying to get trace of missing servants.”
A quarantine rope strung across Stockton Street prevented the Mission Home’s residents and staffers from reaching Chinatown’s main shopping area. The cable cars that normally rattled past Portsmouth Square on the Sacramento—Clay Street line were halted, and ships heading back to China left without passengers from Chinatown. Some people found their way in and out of the blockaded area by descending underground to pass through the connecting cellars of houses or by quietly traversing rooftops.
One of those interlopers was a nine-year-old girl named Leung Kum Ching, who slipped past the quarantine on March 8 to seek help for her gravely ill sister. The two girls were orphans who had been cared for by a Chinese family. When one of the girls had grown sick, the family grew anxious. They might have believed that her illness was an imbalance of yin forces or a possession by evil spirits. They certainly feared that she might die inside their home and release sat hei, or “killing airs.” So they placed her outside, near the entryway to another building, and left her alone to die. Running for help and ignoring the shouts of a policeman stationed nearby, her sister found her way to the Mission Home and begged for assistance. There she met Cameron, whose spirits were restored after a period of rest at La Puente and who was even more determined to carry on the work of her late friend and mentor, Margaret Culbertson.
Cameron agreed to follow the young girl to her sister but first had to slip past the quarantine lines herself. A few years earlier, Cameron had cared for the wife of an herbalist who had a shop just outside the sequestered area. After hearing the story of the abandoned girl, the herbalist allowed Cameron to climb up onto the roof of his building through a skylight. She then crossed several roofs until she found another opening that allowed her to descend through a building and out onto the street, inside the quarantined area. Normally clothed in a high-necked shirtwaist and an ankle-length dark skirt, Cameron instead tried to blend in by disguising herself in dark Chinese clothing. The rainy weather cooperated: she hid her shiny clouds of reddish-brown hair beneath a black umbrella.
She found Leung’s sister stretched out on three wooden chairs on the street. After making sure the girl was still alive, Cameron left her and reversed her route, making her way back to the Mission Home, where she telephoned the Board of Health. A doctor answered and helped arrange for an ambulance. Cameron and the home’s Chinese translator, Yuen Qui, rode with it through the blockade. After examining the girl and diagnosing her with acute appendicitis, a condition that can be fatal if left untreated, the doctor allowed her to be taken outside the quarantine zone and into a bed at the Mission Home. Within hours of arriving, the girl died “among friends,” as recorded in the Mission Home’s logbook. Three days later, she was buried in the Chinese cemetery.The rumors of controversial mass inoculations had “plunged the town into disorder…”
With loyalty born out of Cameron’s quick efforts to try to save her sister, Leung (who became known as Ah Ching by residents and other staffers) moved to the Mission Home. As one of the home’s staffers wrote in dense scrawl in the logbook, “Little Ah Ching wished to remain with us, so letters of guardianship were secured and she became a member of the Mission Family.” Eventually, she joined Cameron on rescues as a translator, before returning to China as a kindergarten teacher, where she worked in a mission school in Shanghai.
As feared, the 41-year-old man who perished on March 6 had indeed carried bubonic plague. The day after the existence of the bacteria was confirmed, the US surgeon general in Washington, DC, shipped almost 2,000 doses of an antiplague vaccine to San Francisco. He promised to send 13,000 more soon after.
The surgeon general had prescribed a mass vaccination program in Chinatown, even though the vaccine itself—first introduced to the public only three years earlier, in 1897—was known to sometimes cause severe side effects. With risks of pain, high fevers, and even death from getting the shots, many Chinese vehemently opposed being vaccinated. Some doubted its efficacy, while others mistrusted the white healthcare workers who administered it.
Cameron, who by then had been appointed the Mission Home’s superintendent, urged her girls to get the shot, which contained heat-killed plague bacteria. But some of them were terrified when the white doctors pulled out their syringes and asked them to roll up their sleeves. Immunizations such as these were novel, and it is unlikely any of the residents had received one before. One of the Chinese girls at the home grew so panic-stricken at the sight of the needle that she jumped through a second-floor window to avoid it, shattering her ankle. Brothel owners used such instances of girls fleeing the missionaries to instill fear: “See what they do to you at the Mission. They starve you and beat you until you are glad to get out.”
Other Chinese hid from the health-care workers to avoid the dreaded vaccinations and circumvented their efforts by removing and hiding plague victims’ bodies. They were hoping to avoid autopsies to confirm the cause of death, a practice that offended the Chinese, who believed that cutting into a corpse might prematurely release the soul before the proper funeral rites had been performed.
Some residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown knew or had family members affected by an outbreak of bubonic plague in Honolulu’s dense Chinatown a few months earlier. Health authorities established a quarantine, posting armed guards to keep people in and out, and controversially, in January 1900, set a planned fire that raced out of control. Gusting wind blew embers from the controlled area to other parts of Chinatown: the fire burned for 17 days and destroyed 4,000 mostly Chinese and Japanese homes.
San Francisco’s Chinatown was similarly under siege. Bubonic plague had arrived in the city on fleas feasting on the blood of rats, just as it had probably arrived in Honolulu. The outbreak began—in a dreadful irony—in the Chinese Year of the Rat. The quarter faced an onslaught from worried city and national health officials, some of whom suggested fire as a way to cleanse the neighborhood of the plague and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the city. Fortunately, they chose less drastic methods in San Francisco and avoided setting too many controlled fires, perhaps sobered by Honolulu’s tragic experience.
If there was any doubt that San Francisco’s Chinatown was in crisis, the smell of bonfires and chemical disinfectants drove that home. City workers burned refuse on the streets, scattered lime powder against buildings in a kind of chemical snowstorm, and flushed sewer lines with strong disinfectants. From their perch on the upper slopes of Sacramento Street, the Mission Home’s residents would have seen white plumes of chloric smoke rising from the streets below them and closed their windows to block the stench of the chemical vapors, along with the quarter’s burning garbage, from coming inside.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the Call covered the story extensively, and an enterprising reporter for the Examiner even went so far as to get himself injected with the plague vaccine to catalog its side effects. (“I was slightly dizzy, there was a ringing in my ears and I felt I was drifting into a stupor from which I did not particularly care to rouse myself,” he wrote, adding that about eight hours later he began feeling better.)
Chronicling the quarantine from inside Chinatown itself was Ng Poon Chew, just starting his new life as a San Francisco newspaper editor. After moving north from Los Angeles, Chew had struggled to find a landlord outside Chinatown willing to rent an apartment to him and his large family, which included four children and an infant by that time. So he rented quarters on the outskirts of Chinatown, near other Chinese Christian families.
He went to work in Chinatown and, at age 33, founded one of the first daily Chinese newspapers in the United States. Printed in the lucky color of red, its first issue rolled off the presses on February 16, 1900, making its debut barely three weeks before city health officials confirmed the first plague death.
From the paper’s modest offices on Sacramento Street, Chew placed a sign over its doorway: Chung Sai Yat Po, blazoned in red with its translation, “The Chinese-American Daily Paper,” in smaller letters below it. A set of narrow stairs led up to the offices, where Chew served as editor in chief as well as translator (Chinese-language articles appeared alongside some English versions). There was just enough room for the press he’d bought from Japan, a composing room, and his editorial office. The motto he’d learned from his grandmother: “If you will, you can.”
The city’s English-language papers expressed skepticism that the plague was real (their businessmen owners and advertisers, after all, stood to lose tourism dollars if news of a plague outbreak in San Francisco became known) and criticized the Board of Health for overreacting.
By contrast, Chew’s urgent articles reflect the unnerving experience of working in an area ringed by police. The rumors of controversial mass inoculations had “plunged the town into disorder,” reported Chung Sai Yat Po. From the start, the paper questioned the quarantine itself: “According to the epidemic prevention laws a yellow Flag should be planted in front of an epidemic-afflicted house, or a house should be encircled by tapes to warn people off. But never have we heard of blockading a whole town.” (Chew surely knew of the quarantine of Honolulu’s Chinatown before its devastating fire, so perhaps he ignored that recent incident to make his point.)
Around noon on May 19, a team of city health-care workers climbed the stairs to Chew’s office and found the bespectacled editor sitting at his desk. Crowds had been protesting the vaccine program outside the headquarters of the Six Companies. Neither the reassuring words of the Chinese consul nor the support of the Six Companies representative nor the pamphlets printed in Chinese and English explaining the program helped calm the situation. Hoping that his own successful vaccination might do the trick, Chew rolled up his sleeves and allowed a white doctor to inject him with the vaccine.
But as word spread of Chew’s vaccination, an angry crowd gathered on the street outside his newspaper, threatening to attack him. The editor was forced to retreat to Oakland for a period while he waited for tempers to cool. In the meantime, furious readers canceled their subscriptions; Chew’s young newspaper lost more than half of its subscriber base because of his decision to get inoculated.
While the swift public reaction to his decision must have been upsetting to him, Chew’s comments to the Examiner reporter about the experience reveal his sly sense of humor. When asked whether he’d noticed any unpleasant side effects from the inoculation, he answered, “I certainly did,” in what the reporter described as his excellent English. “I haven’t recovered yet.”
The reporter remarked, “You don’t seem to be ill.”
“Ill? Oh no, it didn’t affect me that way. I wasn’t sick a minute. Someone told my subscribers what I had done and the news spread all through Chinatown. The following morning I awoke to find half my subscription list gone. I had hard work to explain matters and for a time it looked as if my paper would be boycotted. That inoculation may be all right as a sanitary measure, but it doesn’t do to mix it with the newspaper business.”
After he’d returned from Oakland and began hearing reports of other Chinese who’d submitted to the vaccination and then been incapacitated, Chew reversed his position and joined others who opposed the program. That might have been, in part, a calculated business decision following the swift drop in circulation his paper had suffered. Instead of urging readers to get the shot, his paper reversed itself and started referring to vaccination as “the torture of medicine.” It also regularly alluded to the “wicked health officers” in its coverage.
A broad group of Protestant clergymen expressed solidarity with the Chinese, in opposition to city officials. It is not clear whether Cameron reversed her initial support of the vaccinations. But her memory of one of the Mission Home’s residents, in a whoosh of black hair and clothing, plunging out of the window to avoid the needle would forget.
From The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Used with the permission of the publisher, KNOPF. Copyright © 2019 by Julia Flynn Siler.
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