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“Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown” by Nayan Shah Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022

The author, Nayan Shah, is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He devoted his professional career to the research of the politics of race and gender, wrote two award-winning books, and received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, van Humboldt Foundation, and Freeman Foundation.

Back in the eighteenth century, the United States of America was only just emerging as a nation. However, it had already developed a preconception concerning newcomers from Eastern cultures. Physical dissimilarity became a marker to denote the difference in core moral values and was a threat to common standards. The book, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is a social history that focuses on the transformational processes concerning the exclusion and inclusion of Chinese migrants in the United States. The author highlighted the importance of Chinese-American activists in the evolution of their status. He believed that they were handling paradigms of the race with great proficiency and proved Chinese Americans to be decent and reliable enough to integrate into society.

The book started with the description of the epidemics that broke out at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries in San Francisco. The cases of smallpox, tuberculosis, and other diseases led to the deaths of hundreds of citizens and resulted in the implementation of preventive measures, such as quarantines and vaccinations. Back in 1876, the City Health Official blamed Chinatown and its citizens to be the source of contagion due to their unscrupulousness. He referred to them as the “laboratory of infection” and the “plague-spot.” It might have been European migrants that brought the disease to America, yet the health officials investigated only the ships from Asia. Over the years, people changed their understanding of sickness and began to see the core to health and longevity as the improvement of living conditions, personal hygiene rules, and sanitary norms. The new system was mostly implemented by a higher-class society that contrasted itself to the lower-class one and created “new categories of normal and deviant that were dramatically defined and invigorated by race and class differences.”1 Another concept that San Francisco authorities were promoting was a concept of “queer domesticity.” Due to the inadequate housing facilities and the low quality of life in Chinatown, they used to criminalize its residents and portray them as a menace to society. Their lifestyle was seen as opposed to proper domesticity and capable of disruption of morals and family life in America. While encouraging the Chinese minority to break unhealthy habits and adapt to the Western culture, the authorities kept on excluding them from their society. Even though it believed Chinatown to be the source of diseases and poor sanitation, the government did not see the solution for an epidemic problem in healing this particular source. Instead of providing the immigrants with decent public health services, they chose to isolate them and not give any hospital care at all. That fact had also triggered the division in Chinese society into Chinese Bachelors and American Chinese Families, whose members lived in comparatively better conditions and therefore fought for their rights for social services. At the same time, the members of the Chinese Bachelor’s Society remained poor and did not have any prospects for equal treatment.

For one, the Chinese leaders and activists were positive that the key to improvement was the elimination of insufficient sanitary arrangements. Already in the nineteenth century, the respectable Chinese merchants had created several resolutions to meet the requirements of the health authorities. Later they argued that as a part of San Francisco, Chinatown should have been entitled to governmental investment in housing and social services. However, even when the Chinese Consul General, along with Chinese Six Companies, raised the amount of money required for building their modern hospital, the medical establishment refused their claim because of fear that a Chinese hospital would accumulate a disease and spread it across the city. It took decades before the activists managed to achieve their purpose in public health reforms and became full-fledged citizens.

The author explained that his investigation followed the work of academics that considered race to be a social and political category that lingers as it provides an apparent difference among individuals and justifies inequality and superiority. His study of San Francisco is closely intertwined with related studies about health in various cities around the globe. As his primary sources, the writer deeply investigated the manuscripts kept in major American colleges and National Archives. He also referenced contemporary newspaper articles and reports and studied maps of Chinatown in San Francisco. As secondary sources, he researched several academic works dealing with a medical history and studies of race, gender, culture, and urban processes. The book is well organized, and the argument is clear. As his scientific contribution, the author offered an idea of the progress of public health within inclusion and exclusion processes.

To bring his argument to a conclusion, the author stated that normalizing strategies often fail to recognize human variety. It is a vital task for the new generation to find a possibility of encompassing different cultures rather than judging all lived experiences from the point of a single and universal standard.2 When somebody establishes a particular norm, there is always someone left out. The fear of the unknown is not the reason for the justification of social division by health safety measures. The Chinese expatriate community got through various stages of inclusion processes, including bigotry, criminalization, resistance, and assertion of rights. After great challenges, they were finally recognized as equal members of American society while still being able to preserve their cultural identity.

The racial issue is a very sensitive matter in American history, and I am convinced that the author managed to approach it with a fresh perspective. Not only did he explain how bigotry and intolerance toward non-Western cultures were slowing down the development of progressive society but he also examined how the concept of race transformed politically and culturally throughout the century. As original and influential as I find it, I would prefer this book to be less of a scholarly paper and more of a cultural history book. I believe that adding a certain emotional component would not lower its academic value but would make the story more dynamic and intimate for the reader.

Even though the author got inspiration from other works on racial prejudice, this book is unique in its vision of social inequality through the prism of public health development. The book is worth reading for anyone who has a scientific or general interest in such topics as cultural diversity and inclusion, gender, and the evolution of tolerance in America.

Bibliography

Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Footnotes

1. Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 4.

2. Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 258.

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IvyPanda. 2022. ""Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown" by Nayan Shah." January 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/contagious-divides-epidemics-and-race-in-san-franciscos-chinatown-by-nayan-shah/.

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