JF Ptak Science Books Post 1698 [Part of the History of Lines series.]
[All images below via the Library of Congress, The Chinese in California, 1850-1925]
Part of this blog's history of line series inevitably deals with some of our planet's most cutting lines: barbed wire. Talking about just the United States for the moment, it cut land into small, bite-sized chunks in the parceling-out and extinction of expansion in the American Westward movements, and has done pretty much the same in keeping apart the races in some areas of the country where the legal/social/cultural lines begged for steel more than paper. Such is the case in these remarkable photographs from San Francisco
The reason for this barbed wire in the streets of San Francisco was simple–it was a quarantine of Chinese people who were thought to be infested with bubonic plague. The reasons for this were simple and racist–given that the Chinese were seen from (at the very least) the 1860's to be an "inferior" and "degraded"1 race, living in close quarters and in fair squalor at times (given the wages that they were paid and the abuses they suffered from the Chinese Exclusion Acts), and given the codified racist sentiments against them, it was seen that these people were capable of spreading the diseases via their very presence and "vapors". (At least one of these "three graces" of "malarium", "small-pox" and leprosy were seen as coming directly from Chinatown in San Francisco. See notes #1 for source.)
And so up went the barbed wire, "and no Chinese American was allowed to leave the area bounded by California, Kearny, Broadway, and Stockton streets"2. This of course restricted the access of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American citizens, and held for some three months, prohibiting access out and in, meaning that food was in short supply, prices for goods and food went very high, and many Chinese businesses suffered loss and closure. At the end of three months, the barbed wire quarantine was lifted, and of course not one case of plague was reported among the Chinese population.
There is a long history to this sort of thinking, as we find that, for example, in the 1875/6 smallpox epidemic San Francisco's father's determined that one cause might be the Chinese, and had all of the houses in Chinatown fumigated. This of course had nothing to do with the epidemic; yet, at the end of it all, "the city health officer, J. L. Meares, offered the following explanation: I unhesitatingly declare my belief that the cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000 (as a class) of unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of smallpox."3
Here's another image from the 1900 quarantine:
["A Conversation Across the Ropes: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco" Publisher: Wave Publishing Company.]
And another, keeping San Francisco "clean and healthy" with barbed wire and rope.
Another example of the institutionalized despoilment of the Chinese is seen here in an 1880 Board of Health pronouncement on the state of Chinatown in San Francisco was an official "nuisance", and that the "Chinese cancer:" must be cut out: "The Chinese cancer must be cut out of the heart of our city, root and branch, if we have any regard for its future sanitary welfare . . . with all the vacant and health territory around this city, it is a shame that the very centre be surrendered and abandoned to this health-defying and law-defying population. We, therefore, recommend that the portion of the city here described be condemned as a nuisance; and we call upon the proper authorities to take the necessary steps for its abatement without delay."4
And of course examples can go on and on–but there is really nothing quite like seeing a racial sentiment transferred into a three-dimensional object–like a barbed wire fence going down the middle of a street in San Francsico, in 1900–to drive home a message of learned bad thinking.
1. An excellent article by Joan B. Trauner, "The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905," California History, Vol. LVII, No. 1 (Spring 1978), pp. 70-87. Full text is available online with an academic account.
2. Source: History of Chinese Americans in California, the 1900's, blog here.
3. Trauner, ibid. Page 73
4. _____, pg 75.