In 1900, San Francisco's Chinatown was quarantined with barbed wire fences

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Here are some snapshots from a dark chapter in American history. Throughout the 19th century, San Francisco's growing Chinese immigrant population had to contend with codified prejudice from legislation like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, segregated communities, and the sentiment that Chinese-Americans were the source of leprous, smallpox, and malarial "vapors."

This racism took a stark, physical form in 1900, when a Chinese laborer was suspected to have died of Bubonic plague. Despite flimsy evidence of the disease, San Francisco city officials built a barbed wire partition around Chinatown. Explains the National Park Service of this racially motivated quarantine:

While the cause of death was still undetermined, a cordon was placed around Chinatown, and no Chinese American was allowed to leave the area bounded by California, Kearny, Broadway, and Stockton streets. This restricted the freedom of movement of people, some of whom were American citizens. It caused them many hardships, for they had difficulty in obtaining goods and services from people outside Chinatown. There was a shortage of food, and prices increased sharply. Chinese American businessmen faced a loss of income, and workers a loss of wages. Finally, after three and a half months, it was found that there were no cases of bubonic plague within Chinatown.


Contrast this approach with the 1899 Bubonic plague outbreak in Honolulu's Chinatown, which saw city officials eventually burning the neighborhood to the ground. Thanks to John Ptak of Ptak Science Books for alerting us to these photos.

Images via The Library of Congress.