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Plague in Chinatown (03:46)


On Jan. 20, 1900, bubonic plague was discovered in Honolulu's Chinatown; public health officials burned it down. Bubonic plague was spreading across Asia and there was little understanding of the disease. Racism and ignorance sparked nationwide fear.

Nippon Maru Stowaways (04:54)

On June 28, 1899, two bodies from the Nippon Maru, which had sailed from Hong Kong, were found in San Francisco Bay. Marine Hospital Service Doctor Joseph Kinyoun suspected they had bubonic plague; he did not make an official diagnosis but remained alert.

Joseph Kinyoun (04:44)

Kinyoun was an expert in infectious diseases and an elite scientist. His daughter's death from diphtheria fueled his quest to find cures for various diseases using the newest technology. He was picked by the Marine Hospital Service to run the quarantine station on Angel Island in San Francisco.

Concerns of Plague (04:08)

Since arriving in San Francisco, Kinyoun was concerned about plague spreading from Asia to the city. When it hit Chinatown in Honolulu, it led people to believe that it only effected Asian people. By 1900, San Francisco was a trading hub with a large Chinatown.

First Signs of Plague (07:26)

Wong Chut King had symptoms of bubonic plague, but city hospitals were closed to Chinese residents; he died on March 6, 1900. The doctor issuing his death certificate took samples to Kinyoun who used a newly developed test to identify the plague bacteria.

First Chinatown Quarantine (05:09)

Though Kinyoun was not certain it was plague, the board of health decided to quarantine all of Chinatown. Believing the disease only affected Asians was only one of the numerous racial discriminations the population faced. The quarantine lasted three days.

Plague Diagnosis (04:03)

On March 13, Kinyoun finished running tests and confirmed Wong had died of bubonic plague. It was the first confirmed case in the U.S, and Kinyoun informed Surgeon General Walter Wyman. While a response was being planned, word of the diagnosis spread, but was not widely believed.

Treatment of Chinatown (03:39)

San Francisco Mayor James Phelan labeled the plague "the Chinese problem" and police attacked and looted the area. Residents were distrustful of city officials and Western medicine. Kinyoun confirmed three more cases in Chinatown.

Tracking the Plague (03:53)

San Francisco cities officials urged newspapers to call the outbreak a rumor and slander Kinyoun. He continued to track down anyone the victims had contact with. Many Chinese residents did not seek medical attention or report deaths from plague.

Vaccination Plan (02:54)

After three more deaths were discovered, Kinyoun urged Wyman to give Haffkine vaccines to all Chinatown residents. Vaccines were still viewed with suspicion and Chinese residents distrusted the city's public health officials. The Haffkine vaccine had a low success rate and painful side effects.

Kinyoun's Containment Plan (06:28)

After few people obtained voluntary vaccines, Wyman gave Kinyoun full authority over the West Coast. He made vaccines mandatory and created a travel ban for Chinese and Japanese residents. Chinatown leaders organized a protest of Kinyoun's orders and filed a lawsuit against him and the board of health.

Second Chinatown Quarantine (04:11)

Kinyoun’s plan for forced isolation earned him the nickname of the “Wolf Doctor” in Chinatown. With mounting pressure from commercial interests, the state of California ordered a full lockdown on Chinatown. Police patrolled the district constantly and a barbed wire fence was installed around it.

Statewide Travel Ban (02:57)

A lawsuit overturned the lockdown because of its discrimination against Chinese residents. The next day, Kinyoun implemented a travel ban for Californians of all races without a health certificate from him. President William McKinley revoked the ban and apologized for Kinyoun's actions.

First White Victims (04:32)

With all Kinyoun's containment attempts ended, the plague spread and claimed the first white victims in August. Kinyoun increased health patrols and inspection, which outraged all residents. Kinyoun asked Wyman to defend him in the press, but he did not.

Plague Investigation (04:03)

A commission of biologists was sent to investigate whether the plague existed and Kinyoun’s actions. Working with translator Wong Chung, the commission earned Chinatown's trust and access to residents. They found six cases, but California politicians, Wyman, and McKinley opted to keep the discovery secret.

Cover-up Revealed (02:44)

On March 6, 1901, journalists revealed the cover-up of plague cases. In May, Wyman chose Kinyoun to take the fall and relocated him out of San Francisco.

Rupert Lee Blue (05:23)

After struggling to find Kinyoun's replacement, Wyman picked Rupert Lee Blue. He did not have Kinyoun's scientific research background but had tracked infectious diseases for the Marine Hospital Service. He opened a lab in Chinatown and was friendly with the residents.

Blue's Cultural Understanding (02:55)

Blue worked with Chung, who helped him understand Kinyoun's mistakes. He let families isolate together, did targeted disinfections, and kept lockdowns for only short time periods. He worried about a massive outbreak after three sex workers died.

Plague Observation (03:50)

On a tip from Chung, Blue observed and examined a living plague victim at the Tung Wah Dispensary in Chinatown. He questioned him about his contacts and found more living victims. Blue realized white doctors were intentionally misdiagnosing people to keep the numbers low.

Plague Transmission (05:41)

By 1902, confirmed plague cases had tripled but California officials still denied it existed. When a white resident with no connection to Chinatown died, Blue began to suspect rats somehow spread the plague. He began focusing on rat eradication with the help of Chinatown's leadership.

Destruction of Chinatown (05:15)

By 1905, there had not been a confirmed plague case in over a year and Blue’s team was dismantled. In 1906, a massive earthquake and fire destroyed 80% of San Francisco and almost all of Chinatown.

New Plague Deaths (03:52)

With sanitation measures destroyed by the earthquake, the city had its first plague deaths in three years. Blue was recalled and realized plague was not confined to one area and affected all communities. Blue restarted the rat eradication campaign.

Plague Breakthrough (05:56)

Blue read a study published in Great Britain that found bubonic plague was transmitted by Yersinia pestis in fleas. He ramped up rat eradication efforts and created a public education campaign to reduce fleas and increase sanitation. The sewer system was renovated, and city garbage collection was created.

Plague in North America (08:48)

A different species of rat flea in North America caused the plague outbreak to be less lethal than in other places. The last diagnosed case was in 1908. Chinatown began to rebuild, and Blue was honored at a ceremony in 1909.

Credits: Plague at the Golden Gate (01:41)

Credits: Plague at the Golden Gate

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Plague at the Golden Gate

DVD (Chaptered) Price: $199.95
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Discover how the 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague set off fear and anti-Asian sentiment in San Francisco. A fascinating medical mystery and timely examination of the relationship between the medical community, city powerbrokers and the Chinese American community, Plague at the Golden Gate tells the gripping story of the race against time to save San Francisco and the nation from the deadly plague.

Length: 114 minutes

Item#: BVL279967

Copyright date: ©2022

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