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Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown

Contagious Divides explores a century of epidemics and racial crises to show how Chinese immigrants were demonized as medical menace in the nineteenth century to model citizen in the mid-twentieth century. Public health officials, politicians, women social reformers, white labor union leaders and Chinese Americans themselves interpreted Chinatown and Chinese bachelor society as the source of pathology, disease and danger -- a problem that must be fixed. Sensationalist depictions and the vociferous enforcement of sanitary regulations on Chinese community both scapegoated a vulnerable community and propelled the implementation of city-wide programs to vaccination, sanitary clean-up and public health management.

Fundamental to the transformation was the sexual and domestic behavior of Chinese bachelor society, an overwhelming male community of immigrants initially too underpaid to send for their wives and eventually exclusion laws prohibited from doing so, formed communities and affinities of “bachelors” Nayan Shah’s concept of “queer domesticity” tied together the experiences of men living in bachelor bunkhouses, female-headed households where several women shared childcare responsibilities independent of men, and interracial intimacy of Chinese men with white men in opium dens. The sensationalist imagery of Chinese bachelor “vice” -- a nefarious underworld of opium addiction, prostitution, gambling and disease -- shaped racial caricatures of effeminate men and treacherous women that circulated in nineteenth- and twentieth-century media. These representations of “Orientals” consolidated white perceptions that Asian men and women were gender atypical, sexually non-normative, and bereft of sexual morality. Social workers, health officers and missionaries increasingly coordinated with the state to police, punish and reform households that deviated from the respectable married family norm.

Shah shows how Chinese Americans responded to health regulations and allegations with persuasive political speeches, lawsuits, boycotts, violent protests, and poems. Chinese American activists adroitly employed public health strategies and visions of respectable domesticity to argue that Chinese Americans were worthy and deserving of sharing in the resources of American society. By making heterosexual Chinese American families worthy of care, protection and citizenship, however, they participated in casting out aging Chinese bachelors as unworthy and non-citizens.

Yet the transformation to inclusion and normality is precarious. This history of public health, sexuality and race continues to reverberate in the 21st century shaping how U.S. politicians, media and individuals unleashed vitriol and violence on Asian Americans during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.