Shah, Nayan Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001.
Nayan Shah is a leading expert in Asian American studies and serves as professor at the University of California. His work, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown explores how race, citizenship, and public health combined to illustrate the differences between the culture of Chinese immigrants and white norms in public-health knowledge and policy in San Francisco. Shah discusses how this knowledge impacted social lives, politics, and cultural expression. Contagious Divides investigates what it meant to be a citizen of Chinese race in nineteenth and twentieth-century San Francisco.
Shah begins with the mapping of Chinatown as an immigrant enclave by investigations of health authorities. These investigations provided descriptions of filthy and unsanitary living conditions. The results of the health investigations led to descriptions that would found the body of “knowledge” that Chinese immigrants and their unhygienic habits were the source of epidemic diseases. Chinese social behavior was pointed to as the cultural cause of medical menaces. Chinese immigrants were compared to farm animals and depicted as inhuman and inferior. At the beginning of Chinese settlement in San Francisco Chinese immigrants were considered more animalistic than citizens. The health mapping of Chinatown cemented the relationship between Chinese race and place.
Contagious Divides next addresses the domestic sphere of Chinese culture. In a chapter entitled “The Dangers of Queer Domesticity,” Shah brings to life the perception white Americans had of Chinese homes. Most American domestic relations consisted of a heterosexual couple and children. However, in Chinatown Chinese men were mostly bachelors and the few Chinese female immigrants there were all considered syphilitic prostitutes. Gender roles, household numbers, spatial arrangements, and a lack of perceived family structure was seen as not only different from American domestic norms, but also as a threat to the racial order and national power. Another space credited with being a place of Chinese degradation were opium dens. Considered by Americans to be semipublic resorts that would seduce white tourists, opium dens generated an inappropriate sociability with Chinese immigrants that created an atmosphere responsible for destroying the morals, manhood, and health of white Americans. Because of their queer domesticity and morally loose social practices, Chinese immigrants were not considered citizens.
According to Shah, the struggle for respectable domesticity and American cultural citizenship rested on the shoulders of Chinese women. Chinese immigrants were thought to intentionally infect whites with diseases using their best weapon: Chinese female prostitutes. White Americans viewed this racial war as being raged by mercenary prostitutes who would infect young white boys with syphilis. Dr. Mary Sawtelle blamed Chinese women alone for the syphilis pandemic on the Pacific Coast. To many white Americans like Dr. Sawtelle, Chinese prostitutes embodied syphilis.
Hygiene was considered to be women’s nature and responsibility. This gendered asymmetry led white women in San Francisco to train Chinese women in the tenets of middle-class domesticity and conversion to Christianity. Americans associated hygiene with civilization and whiteness in the materiality of furnishings, decorations, and odors. To be considered a citizen, one would need to be clean, white, and Christian.
Shah argues that the bubonic plague crisis in Chinatown was a pivotal moment in the establishment of public health power. Amidst bouts of bubonic plague and other epidemic diseases, San Francisco employed quarantines on Chinatown. City health authorities believed contamination could be separated along racial lines. In Chinatown, whites could come and go, but those of Chinese race were expected to remain quarantined. The filth and overcrowding associated with Chinatown was believed to incubate bubonic plague. City health officials responded with the quarantine, disinfection, treatment, and inoculation of all residents of Chinatown. Epidemic logic justified the extraordinary invention of mass quarantine, the mobilization of resources, and the disruption of daily life in Chinatown.
The Chinese response to the quarantine and the eventual inoculation campaign is interesting. Shah points out three general Chinese reactions: refusal to believe there was an epidemic disease, belief in a disease other than bubonic plague, and the assumption that the cause of the epidemic was from injections of bubonic plague into Chinese residents of Chinatown. The multiple quarantines imposed on Chinatown produced Chinese economic repercussions, protests, and boycotts. Chinese immigrants also exhibited intra-race discrimination when they would treat violently any fellow Chinatown resident who sought out the care of white doctors for illnesses. Combined with the multiple epidemics, quarantines, and the destruction after the 1906 earthquake, the health response in San Francisco ultimately led to the sanitary surveillance and management of Chinatown that would later expand throughout the United States. White property owners and elite Chinese merchants developed plans to rebuild Chinatown in a sanitary manner as an enclave and tourist destination. Sanitary management proved that Chinese immigrants could be viewed as citizen subjects if they abided by prescribed hygiene and sanitary requirements.
Contagious Divides also surveys the politics of American/Chinese labor and their respective standards of living. White Americans felt economically threatened by Chinese laborers for jobs, health, and the American way of life. Additionally, the Chinese medical menace was believed to be a threat to white households and livelihoods. Consumer campaigns began to link the white American security of workplaces with that of white domestic spaces. For instance, the buy-the-union-label campaigns in the first decade of the twentieth century discouraged the purchase and use of Chinese cigars in order to keep Chinese diseases out of American homes and to enact an economic boycott on Chinese cigar manufacturing. In doing so, the American standard of living would be upheld, white worker’s families, livelihoods, homes, and health would be protected.
As San Francisco began to expect epidemic diseases to enter its city, Chinese immigrant-medical inspections were thought to be more important than ever. Initial quarantine and rigorous health inspections would serve as the defense against epidemic diseases. San Francisco turned medical inspections into a screening process for the fitness of future citizens. For example, the diagnosis of a bacterial disease in a prospective Chinese immigrant linked disability with the immigrant’s potential fitness for employment. Health officials considered the medical inspections to be not just about stopping the spread of epidemic diseases, but as a way to develop a certain criteria to determine the long-term consequences of citizenship. The health inspections answered the question, “What kind of citizen would the immigrant be?”
One outstanding aspect of Contagious Divides is the chronicling of poetry left by detained Chinese immigrants on Angel Island. The poetry reveals the realities of Chinese detainment and gave the detainees a platform from which to record their experiences. At the time, health officials discounted Chinese poetry and satire reports because it was presumed that the immigrants could know nothing and were in essence not fit for citizenship.
In order for Chinese immigrants to fully be integrated into American society, Chinese conduct and living spaces would need to be standardized according to American practices. “The imperatives of health cemented the relationship between conduct and citizenship.” Middle-class domesticity would be the standard immigrants were held against, including adult male responsibility, female domestic caretaking, and reproduction that was legitimized by marriage.
As the twentieth century wore on, Chinatown residents experienced a dramatic shift in the way they were perceived by Americans. Shah writes, “They went from being reviled and demonized at the turn of the century to being considered deserving and worthy of assistance in the mid-twentieth century.” Finally, the result of decades of public health reform would signify that Chinese immigrants were to be considered citizens.
Contagious Divides conclusively investigates how race, health, and citizenship in nineteenth and twentieth century America provided a foundation for Chinese Americans to reform social conditions of the community and become American citizens. Through the efforts of public health reform and the lens of American domestic norms, Chinese immigrants dispelled the long-held belief of their supposed inhumanity and animalistic characteristics.