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

, 392 pages

18 halftones, 1 line drawing

March 2012



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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 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.

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.

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

"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."

"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."

"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."

"Risse is the first writer to be comprehensive, exploring all facets of the plague, digging into personal accounts, even using the archives of Chinese accounts and Chinese personal letters to tell their side. His treatment is successful."

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