Ashes, ashes, we all fall down....

In 1899, Hawaii experienced its first encounter with the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that can kill an infected victim within three to seven days. Symptoms included red spots on the skin that later turns black, bloody vomit, and decaying skin. The first case of the bubonic infection was discovered in Chinatown at Honolulu after the authorities discovered a deceased body of a Chinese man plagued with the bubonic disease. Authorities took immediate action by quarantining Chinatown.

Based on their previous experience with measles and venereal diseases, local officials were concern about the life-threatening impact of a new disease introduced to the island. Local authorities closed down schools, isolate new immigrants and burned the bodies of the deceased hoping to contain the disease. However, the isolation and containment of people was not enough and local authorities took drastic measures. They started to burn down buildings in Chinatown they believed were contaminated by the bubonic plague. The burnings were meant to be a controlled, only targeting household that came into contact with the plague. However, they were not able to control the fire resulting in the burning of the entire Chinatown community.

Chinatown and Chinese people from early 1900s and late 1880s were often blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague. Chinatown in Honolulu was the target of multiple burnings due to negative connotations of the location as a disease ridden, sinful place. One of the factors that contributed to the image of Chinatown to be a dangerous, dirty and disease ridden site is that Chinatown during the early 1900s is often dominated by Chinese male laborers. Most Chinese immigrants from that early 1900s traveled to America by themselves to make enough money so that they could send money back or return to China. Issues of prostitution, homosexuality, and opium dens portrayed an unclean image of Chinese men and of Chinatown.

I think the extreme measures taken by the local Honolulu officials of burning down Chinatown were their way of “cleansing the community”. Chinatown was already thought of as an unclean, disease-filled place. By burning buildings that were “touched” by the plagued Chinese, they are able to lessen the chance of the bubonic plague spreading because Chinese resident of the buildings could no longer reside there. By burning down the entire Chinatown community, they were able to get rid of “the origin” of the bubonic disease.

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