29 min

Jianchi/ Perseverance Blood on Gold Mountain: A Story from the 1871 LA Chinatown Massacre

    • History

Act One of the play Jianchi/Perseverance is based on the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 in San Francisco Chinatown, which led to suspicion and demonization of Chinese who were identified with the “China plague,” a term used to describe the bubonic plague.
The history of Chinese in San Francisco is a fraught affair. Drawn at first by mid-nineteenth century stories of riches to be found in “Gold Mountain” (California) just for the working, many impoverished Chinese laborers left home to escape war and famine, and to earn money to send to their starving families. Most arrived too late for the Gold Rush, so many had no choice but to become laborers for the transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous and least remunerative work. Little by little the survivors drifted back to cities, to try to build a life for themselves. By 1880, nearly 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese immigrants. They experienced daily humiliations, persecution and segregation: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first act to ban legal immigration rights to a country on the basis of race.
After killing more than half the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague has taken a break as a pandemic, but it resurged in Asia in the mid-1800s, taking 6 million lives in India and millions more in southern China. Because of San Francisco’s position as America’s foremost Western port, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer of the Marine Hospital Service on Angel Island, anticipated that San Fransisco would be the first American city to experience plague cases before any other. Unilaterally, he instituted a new policy: all ships from Asia or Hawaii would be thoroughly inspected before disembarking in San Francisco. California’s businessmen, newspapers and politicians were derisive. They accused Kinyoun of overstepping his authority and dismissed any suggestion of a potential outbreak as a “plague fake” intended to create a panic that would boost demand for his medical services.
Since ship checks focused on finding infected people, for several months, rats and their plague carrying fleas went ashore from ships onto San Francisco’s streets, concentrating in the city’s most squalid and poverty-stricken neighborhood - Chinatown. In March 1900, the first suspected plague victim died there.
For many upper and middle-class white San Franciscans, the first sign something was wrong in Chinatown on March 7, 1900, were their empty kitchens. Switchboard operators noticed next, as lines lit up with angry callers, demanding to talk to their missing Chinese servants. From there, word began trickling out around the city: Chinatown was locked down. It was only then that white San Franciscans began to remember that they had started seeing dead rats — far more than the regular count — on the streets of Chinatown in January 1900.
“The Chinese were not the only people who had to suffer,” huffed The San Francisco Chronicle. “The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
Responding to white outrage, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan ordered a company of doctors to make a sweep of Chinatown to track down and identify every possible plague case. This provoked terror throughout the SF Chinese community, which was well aware that just a few months earlier, 4,000 homes had been burned to the ground in Honolulu’s Chinatown to eradicate a plague outbreak.
After a year of waging a campaign of denunciations and denial, California Governor Henry Gage finally allowed federal officers in to inspect, test and diagnose Chinatown residents, on condition of Dr, Kinyoun’s immediate reassignment out of state. On June 1st 1901, he declared victory over the “China plague.”
The epidemic’s official death toll is recorded as 119, but it’s likely that more cases were hidden, covered up or never discovered.
In 1907, another bubonic plague outbreak recurr

Act One of the play Jianchi/Perseverance is based on the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 in San Francisco Chinatown, which led to suspicion and demonization of Chinese who were identified with the “China plague,” a term used to describe the bubonic plague.
The history of Chinese in San Francisco is a fraught affair. Drawn at first by mid-nineteenth century stories of riches to be found in “Gold Mountain” (California) just for the working, many impoverished Chinese laborers left home to escape war and famine, and to earn money to send to their starving families. Most arrived too late for the Gold Rush, so many had no choice but to become laborers for the transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous and least remunerative work. Little by little the survivors drifted back to cities, to try to build a life for themselves. By 1880, nearly 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese immigrants. They experienced daily humiliations, persecution and segregation: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first act to ban legal immigration rights to a country on the basis of race.
After killing more than half the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague has taken a break as a pandemic, but it resurged in Asia in the mid-1800s, taking 6 million lives in India and millions more in southern China. Because of San Francisco’s position as America’s foremost Western port, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer of the Marine Hospital Service on Angel Island, anticipated that San Fransisco would be the first American city to experience plague cases before any other. Unilaterally, he instituted a new policy: all ships from Asia or Hawaii would be thoroughly inspected before disembarking in San Francisco. California’s businessmen, newspapers and politicians were derisive. They accused Kinyoun of overstepping his authority and dismissed any suggestion of a potential outbreak as a “plague fake” intended to create a panic that would boost demand for his medical services.
Since ship checks focused on finding infected people, for several months, rats and their plague carrying fleas went ashore from ships onto San Francisco’s streets, concentrating in the city’s most squalid and poverty-stricken neighborhood - Chinatown. In March 1900, the first suspected plague victim died there.
For many upper and middle-class white San Franciscans, the first sign something was wrong in Chinatown on March 7, 1900, were their empty kitchens. Switchboard operators noticed next, as lines lit up with angry callers, demanding to talk to their missing Chinese servants. From there, word began trickling out around the city: Chinatown was locked down. It was only then that white San Franciscans began to remember that they had started seeing dead rats — far more than the regular count — on the streets of Chinatown in January 1900.
“The Chinese were not the only people who had to suffer,” huffed The San Francisco Chronicle. “The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
Responding to white outrage, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan ordered a company of doctors to make a sweep of Chinatown to track down and identify every possible plague case. This provoked terror throughout the SF Chinese community, which was well aware that just a few months earlier, 4,000 homes had been burned to the ground in Honolulu’s Chinatown to eradicate a plague outbreak.
After a year of waging a campaign of denunciations and denial, California Governor Henry Gage finally allowed federal officers in to inspect, test and diagnose Chinatown residents, on condition of Dr, Kinyoun’s immediate reassignment out of state. On June 1st 1901, he declared victory over the “China plague.”
The epidemic’s official death toll is recorded as 119, but it’s likely that more cases were hidden, covered up or never discovered.
In 1907, another bubonic plague outbreak recurr

29 min

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