When the first suspected victim of bubonic plague died in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900, the whole 12-block neighborhood was quarantined even before the tests came back. While outsiders were angry when their servants did not show up for work, Chinatown residents had more urgent problems, like getting needed supplies and health care. One young girl risked running a police barricade to seek help for her sister dying of appendicitis. Agents from the Board of Health entered to vaccinate residents against plague, using a killed bacteria formula that was known for severe side effects. Residents also feared the fate of Honolulu’s Chinatown, which was burned to the ground when plague was found a few months earlier. Ng Poon Chew, who founded one of the early Chinese language newspapers in San Francisco, reported the news from inside the quarantined zone.
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.)