Film shows how racism hampered plague response in 1900 San Francisco

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When the bubonic plague reached San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900, it caused racial panic and helped advance science.

“American Experience: Plague at the Golden Gate,” premiering Tuesday on PBS, tells the seemingly contradictory and all too timely story.

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It all started in a city that had the largest Asian population in the country and was a center of international trade. In 1900, an epidemic of plague raged in East Asia, and Marine Hospital Service bacteriologist Joseph Kinyoun identified the first case in the United States in a Chinese immigrant named Wong Chut King.

It was the first time the Black Death had reached the mainland, and it prompted a racist crackdown on the Asian population of San Francisco. Quarantines, fumigations, raids – all focused on Chinese immigrants and fueled by mistaken beliefs about the cleanliness and dignity of Asian immigrants.

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Kinyoun was convinced that the Chinese were spreading the plague. But his successor, Rupert Lee Blue, suspected that the plague was not about immigrants, but about rats – and, in a race against time, the future surgeon general tried to prevent the spread of the plague.

It’s a story of private deals, public health measures, corruption, fear, and even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And along the way, filmmaker Li-Shin Yu tells the harrowing and uplifting story of how discrimination and scapegoating can spread as quickly as the plague itself.

The film chronicles how the Chinese community successfully responded to draconian public health measures – and shows what kinds of scientific innovations and successful breakthroughs can happen when health officials work with marginalized communities.

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The film rings especially true at a time of heightened violence toward Asian American communities, who are still reeling from the panic surrounding the origins of the virus that causes covid-19. The real scourge, the film suggests, is racism — and hate can both color and interfere with public health efforts.

“Plague at the Golden Gate” airs Tuesday on PBS stations nationwide and on PBS’s online and app platforms.

The film includes Mandarin subtitles.

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