From the Library Of Congress, The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
“What happened?” is never an easy question. Sometimes all we have are photographs like the one above, of barbed wire stretched down the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was March of 1900, and the district was under quarantine. A man had died of Bubonic Plague, reported the Board of Health, and no one was allowed in or out until the necessary steps could be taken.
Of course, if you were an SF resident in San Francisco at the time, there was every reason to believe that this was all an elaborate cover up by the board to garner political favor and fill their own coffers. On March 8th, the San Francisco Call reported the Quarantine, but leaned towards the assurance of Surgeon General W.K. Van Reypen. “(Bubonic Plague) is a disease peculiar to the Orient,” Reypen says, “and seldom, if ever, attacks Europeans.” It’s fairly safe to say that the average San Franciscan, even in 1900, would be familiar with the relationship between Europe and bubonic plague, but it’s nice to be told everything is going to be ok, so maybe no one really questioned Reypen.
By the next day, the Call was in full on attack mode, asserting that, “The most dangerous plague which threatens San Francisco is not of the bubonic type,” but a “plague of politics” brought upon by an avaricious Board of Health who engineered a biological scare in order to get, “snout and forelegs in the public trough.”
“It is reasonable to suppose that such men would have San Francisco advertised as a plague spot,” The Call Warns, “overlooking that they themselves were the most dangerous and most menacing malady that threatens the community.” Unlike the incriminating photographs, here it was “ropes” stretched across the streets, and the following two days of copy are a litany of paeans to a now disenfranchised local merchant community unable to do business as usual because of the scare tactics of the Board. “Plague farce plays havoc with business,” reads the March 9th headline, while the next day reports the end of the Board of Health’s, “theatrical posing,” as the quarantine is lifted, alongside pleas from representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade.
Meanwhile, nothing at all seems strange in the chief of police’s decision to, “drive every white person out of the quarantined setting.” Then again, the paper reports numerous Chinese appearing at their jobs over the course of the quarantine, even publishing a detailed map of a rooftop escape route, adding further credence to the suggestion that the quarantine was predominantly psychological, more a symbol of the city’s intuitional power over the Chinese population than an effective plague break.
Of course, if it’s February 1939, the answer to “What happened?” is much different. As presented by a report from California Western Medicine, the city had enacted a massive PR campaign to discredit the board of health and cover up the very real presence of plague. Multiple cases appeared in Chinatown, the bodies hidden by family members or friends afraid of the very likely repercussions of being identified with a positive case. Sick, dead and dying Chinese were smuggled out of the city on patrol boats, leading the Navy to step in to prevent the boat’s destruction. Even under quarantine, an exodus of over one thousand Chinese residents fled the city, seeking refuge from the very real plague conditions they had been otherwise trapped within.
So it seems the real story emerges. Yet even as recently as January of 2012, the hoax-plague narrative was still being reported by historically minded authors. Ptak science books released an article demonizing the racist practice of San Francisco’s 1900 quarantining. But they then went on to assert that not one case of plague was reported among the Chinese population. The entire thing was a byproduct of racist sentiment, they argue, a byproduct of the Chinese’s status perceived status as an, “inferior and degraded race living in close quarters and in fair squalor.” The story was then picked up and repeated by San Francisco based geek blog iO9.
History, too, is like a plague. One person reports and another outlet picks it up as truth and suddenly the narrative swings back the way it came. The motivation here is understandably noble. Whatever point of history we stand in seems enlightened in comparison to the mores of those that came before. And as investigators, equipped with the near limitless informational resources now at our disposal, we feel obligated to point out the sins of our forefathers. And yes, the quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown was motivated by and indicative of huge amounts of institutional racism and bigotry. But to claim that this was the sole motivation for the event is to fall prey to the same disinformation campaign that took place in the press at the time of the quarantine.