The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Located at the intersection of powerful American ideologies, race and xenophobia, dread of disease, and modern sanitation, this study seeks to enhance our understanding of a singular episode in American public health history: the appearance and management of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1900 to 1905. Following the California Gold Rush of 1849, Chinatown was repeatedly condemned for its filth and bad smells, which were believed to breed disease. For more than half a century, such discourse heavily tinged with racial prejudice and amplified by a sensational print media, found widespread acceptance. Playing on public anxiety regarding contagion, the periodic rants not only dehumanized an entire population, but motivated local authorities to employ muscular strategies of social isolation, control and removal. Sanitary representations and the employment of stereotypes came to underpin political, economic, and cultural considerations designed to negatively portray Chinese in California, becoming a potent and permanent component of anti-Asian prejudice.



1   “ The People of Tang” in San Francisco

 A Migrant From Taishan

Framing Chinese Space

Lifestyles and Governance

Politics and Violence

2   “Guarding Life” and the Way of Death

Wong’s Illness and Folk Religion

Cultivating Vitality

Shelters and Dispensaries

Corpses and Bones

3    Sanitation, Microbes and Plague 

Issuing Death Certificates

From Miasma to Germs

Sanitation in Chinatown

Third Plague Pandemic

The Final Diagnosis

 4   Officials, Mandarins and the Press

San Francisco and its Health Officials

The Lords of Chinatown

Partner or Foe? The Governor and the State Health Board

“Warriors of Epidemics”: The Marine Hospital Service

“Playing With Ink”: Western and Chinese Journalism in San Francisco


5   Early Scenes of Terror:  March-June 1900

Roping Chinatown: First Plague Diagnosis and Quarantine

New Deaths: Searches, Vaccinations, and Fear of Detention

“Wolf Doctors” Hunt for Plague

Turmoil: Another Quarantine and aFederal Lawsuit

6   The Siege Continues: June -December 1900

Federal Quarantine of California: A Political Blunder

Valuable Real Estate: Planning Chinatown’s Removal

Plague Diagnoses: A Quarrel Between Experts

Tarnished Image: Plague, Boxers, and Reformers

7   Plague Goes Underground: 1901

Expert Opinion: Adventures of a Federal Commission

Persona Non Grata: The Ouster of Kinyoun

Odd Bedfellows: Joint Federal, State, and City Cleanup

Hide and Seek: Tracking Sick and Dead Chinese Residents

8   Rumors and Realities: 1902

San Francisco Standoff: Mayor versus Health Board

No Plague: “Ostrich” Policies Under Fire

Federal Officials Target People and Rats

“Beating the Tiger”: A Mandarin’s Downfall

9   National Threat: 1903

Is San Francisco Infected? Health Conferences and Railroads

Leaders Under Pressure: A Shift in Health Policies

Real Estate and the Plan to Raze Chinatown

Chinese Cooperation: Joint Sanitary Inspections

 10   Sanitarians Claim Victory: 1904-1905

Puppet Show: San Francisco’s New Health Board

Dawn of a Public Health Fraternity

Targeting Rats: Poisons and Demolitions

The Oriental City Project

Pyrrhic Victory


Appendix: San Francisco Plague Cases


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. The book provides a clear path to understanding the biological, social, and cultural story of how Northern California bungled its handling of the bubonic plague epidemic of 1900-1904…Using rich documentation from public archives, newspapers, and memoirs, the book also carefully examines Chinese sources, which have been little used to now, to provide a rich analysis of how the Chinese community of San Francisco responded to the scourge they faced.
— Myron Echenberg, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87 (2013): 699-701.
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… This book is more than merely a story of one plague epidemic. It is also a god source for the history of the Chinese immigrant experience in America, early twentieth-century San Francisco politics, and California history… Scholars in a variety of disciplines will find much of interest and avenues for further exploration in Risse’s important book.
— Lisa A. Mix, Journal of the History of Medicine (October 2013) electronic version: 1-3.
Guenter Risse offers a fresh perspective on the outbreak of bubonic plague in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Those familiar with San Francisco’s eclectic history will appreciate Risse’s meticulous account of the multilayered, deeply political responses to a disease so closely tied to public anxiety…The strength of this book rests on the use of Chinese language sources to show how Chinatown residents and leaders organized to fight the plague and protect their community…Plague, Fear and Politics delivers a valuable historical lesson by revealing how cultural prejudices hinder potentially beneficial policies to curtail epidemics.
— Andrea Rees Davies, Pacific Historical Review (August 2013): 456-58
Risse’s book is a comprehensive treatment dedicated to this single episode. Second, it places the episode within a transnational context. Third, Risse capitalizes on newly translated texts to better document the Chinese perspective and he unearths new sources to provide a more nuanced assessment of federal officials. As a result, Risse’s Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’ Chinatown should now be considered the authoritative text on the subject.
— Jennifer Koslow, American Historical Review (June 2013): 861-62


The Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:

Mapping the Plague in San Francisco's Chinatown, guest post by Dr. Guenter Risse

(with interactive map of San Francisco's Chinatown)