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The ‘Chinese Flu’ Is Part of a Long History of Racializing Disease

During a plague outbreak in 1899, officials in Honolulu quarantined and burned the city’s Chinatown. Some Covid-19 talk today echoes their rhetoric.
In Honolulu, a fire started by health authorities in an effort to "sanitize" the city's Chinatown in 1900 raged out of control, destroying much of the city.
In Honolulu, a fire started by health authorities in an effort to "sanitize" the city's Chinatown in 1900 raged out of control, destroying much of the city.Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen via Wikimedia Commons

In June 1899, the steamer Nippon Maru arrived at Honolulu carrying one passenger who had died during the trans-Pacific voyage. The Hawaii Board of Health immediately quarantined the ship for a week as a precaution against the bubonic plague, which was then ravaging much of Asia. The freighter departed for San Francisco without further fatalities, but rats and fleas aboard the ship managed to break the quarantine. In December, plague took a first victim in Honolulu’s crowded Chinatown.

The epidemic that reached Honolulu had originated in China in the 1870s, spreading slowly until it reached the commercial cities of Guangzhou and then Hong Kong in 1899. Steamships may not have been as fast as modern jetliners, but they still linked Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas into a global economy — and a global disease network. Honolulu, booming as a Pacific entrepôt, was especially determined to fend off what many saw as an Asiatic threat.