At a middle school a few blocks from my house, a rumor circulated among the children that all Asian kids have the coronavirus and should be quarantined. Misinformation has also reached higher education: In college campuses across the United States, some non-Asian students have acknowledged avoiding Asian classmates for no other reason than, well, the coronavirus came from Asia.
The disease apparently emerged in December from a live-food market in Wuhan, China. There have been over 20,000 confirmed cases in China, and the World Health Organization reported 146 confirmed cases in 23 other countries. There are serious concerns of a global pandemic, but the coronavirus has also reawakened centuries-old prejudices against Chinese people.
Anti-Chinese racism always hinged on the belief that Asians harbor disease. In the 19th century, China was referred to as “the sick man of Asia.”
When white labor unions lobbied to bar Chinese workers from entering the United States in the late 1800s, a main argument of their allies was that “Chinese” strains of certain maladies, especially sexually transmitted diseases, were more virulent than white ones. In the spring of 1876, when the California state senate met to consider the demands of American labor to ban most Chinese immigrants from America, sex and disease grabbed the headlines.
Dr. Hugh H. Toland, a member of the San Francisco Board of Health, contended that the syphilis Chinese prostitutes carried was far more potent than that of the average American prostitute. “How the Chinese Women Are Infusing a Poison into the Anglo-Saxon Blood” read a headline in a November 1878 edition of the Medico-Literary Journal of San Francisco. “If the future historian should ever be called upon to write the Conquest of America by the Chinese Government,” the article went, “his opening chapter will be an account of the first batch of Chinese courtesans and the stream of deadly disease that followed.”
This claptrap wasn’t churned out by any average white racist, mind you. Toland was the founder of the medical school that ultimately became the prestigious University of California, San Francisco. The editor of the Medico-Literary Journal was M.P. Sawtelle, a leading feminist who fled an abusive marriage in her 20s and was one of the first women on the West Coast to attend medical school. She was also an early suffragist. They were pillars of white, liberal society.
All of this fearmongering had an effect. By 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from traveling to the United States. And while the numbers of Chinese immigrants entering the United States plummeted thanks to the law, anti-Chinese racism continued.
Chinese eating habits became a particular genre of American racism. “Chinaman, Chinaman, eat dead rats! Chew them up, like gingersnaps!” was a popular schoolyard chant that stuck around for decades. It even got a cameo in the 1944 hit film by MGM, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” sung by none other than Judy Garland.
When an epidemic of the bubonic plague hit San Francisco in 1900, the response of the state and city governments mirrored, in bizarre ways, the response of the United States and China to the coronavirus today. The epidemic was most probably triggered by a rat on board a ship from China, where a bubonic plague outbreak in the southern Chinese trading city of Guangzhou had erupted in the 1870s. Initially, health authorities quarantined San Francisco’s Chinatown. But the blockade was lifted by California’s governor, Henry T. Gage, who was worried that news of the outbreak would cut into California’s fruit exports to the rest of the country. Gage even called it the “plague fake.”
Politicians and health experts battled for the next several years over how to deal with the disease. Politicians mostly focused on blocking Chinese people from entering San Francisco. Health experts mostly went after the rats. Gage lost a reelection bid because of his attempts to cover up evidence of the epidemic.
Then the great San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906. The continued presence of the disease gave anti-Chinese political factions in the city an excuse to lobby against the rebuilding of Chinatown, which had been leveled in the catastrophe. But, in the end, they lost out. Such was the need for tourist dollars that city leaders worked with the Chinese community to reconstruct the neighborhood. The city’s chamber of commerce would soon promote the neighborhood as “the chief jewel in San Francisco’s starry diadem of tourist attractions.” And the city was declared plague-free in 1908.
In the minds of many Westerners, many dangerous stereotypes about China, its people and culture — which could actually hinder the response to a serious crisis — endure.
Just look at the Instagram feed of another school in my neighborhood, the University of California, Berkeley. In a since-deleted post, the university’s health services center listed xenophobia toward Asians as a “normal reaction” to the spread of the coronavirus.
That might have been “normal” in the 19th century, but not today.