Encountering the Other:
SARS, Public Health, and Race Relations

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2005, Volume 4, Issue 1

Da Zheng
Suffolk University

In spring 2003, when scientists were scrambling to search for the causative pathogen and mode of transmission of SARS, the public was tormented with anxiety and fear which in some cases fermented xenophobia and created racial and ethnic tension.

On an MIT website, an insidious April fool’s hoax surfaced, warning of infected employees at a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. The rumor spread quickly by mouth and email that there was widespread contagion in the area. Meanwhile, in New York City, a healthy Vietnamese owner of a Chinese restaurant was bombarded with consolatory phone calls, online postings, and the local newsprint about his own death caused by SARS. Needless to say, these hoaxes and rumors swirled and swept like hurricanes; as a result, businesses in both communities suffered a tremendous blow from the “unfounded blather” (Schram). Across the nation, anxiety and fear, generated by the news about the invisible and indeterminate contagion of the epidemic, were visible on the streets and corners of Chinatown communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New York. Restaurants lost their clientele, and tourists stayed shy of the districts. Wedding banquets were cancelled, and the crowded Chinatown streets suddenly appeared deserted (Hopkins). As David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate, commented in The Wall Street Journal on April 28, “Just as the media recently gave us a . . . particularly intimate experience of war, we’re now getting a new and particularly fearsome experience of a public-health crisis with SARS – in which a media-transmitted epidemic of concern for personal safety outpaces the risk to public health of the actual virus” (qtd. in Pierce 20).

Needless to say, the public soon discovered that the “epidemic” in those areas had been a hoax, and the businesses slowly resumed their former momentum. However, the surge of racial and ethnic discrimination in the community in response to the SARS scare is worth our close attention.

What Judy Collins of Massachusetts had experienced during the SARS scare was just this kind of discrimination. Judy and her husband, Dick, went to Guangzhou, China, in March when the news about the mysterious disease had just broken out. Having previously adopted two girls from China – eight-year-old Brittany and five-year-old Madison – the Collins went there again to bring back a third child, this time a two-year-old boy, Sean. When Judy and Dick were there, the American consulate had dismissed all nonessential personnel in response to SARS, but it remained open for adoptions. Judy stayed alert. Even though she knew that the place where Sean came from had no SARS cases, she kept herself informed by calling epidemiologists, checking the Center for Disease Control’s website, and monitoring everyone for any SARS symptoms. When they returned to Massachusetts, however, the local community panicked. The school requested their children be kept home for ten days though they had no symptoms at all. Similarly, Dick developed a rash after sitting in their hot tub; despite the fact that a rash is not one of the primary symptoms of SARS, his physician refused to treat him and sent him instead to the emergency room where he had to enter through a private door. The neighbors came to visit the new child, but they stopped at the end of the driveway, inquiring if everyone in the family was all right. No one in Judy’s family got SARS; nevertheless, people feared they carried the disease because of their recent trip to China and their adopted children (Pierce 21-22).

The level of anxiety was nearly tangible. In Great Britain, SARS was referred to as “the next AIDS” in newspapers, though the claim was later proven to be unfounded. In fact, the 7,000 probable cases worldwide by early May paled in comparison to the two million victims of tuberculosis each year. SARS traveled fast, but fear traveled even faster. The widely-circulated stories made it seem as if people in the North American Asian communities were carriers of the disease even though SARS is not a disease of ethnicity. Fueled by fear, these stories were prejudicial and discriminatory.

Such widespread fear of an epidemic and its consequences is not unprecedented in American history. The San Francisco bubonic plague in 1900 was another such case. On March 6, 1900, the assistant city physician, Dr. Frank P. Wilson, was called to the basement of the Globe Hotel in San Francisco to examine the dead body of Wing Chung Ging, a forty-one-year-old Chinese resident (Shah 120). 1. The doctor noticed swollen lymph nodes in the groin of the body. After the smears of the glands was tested, Dr. Wilfred Kellogg, a city bacteriologist, read the preliminary microscopic study and suspected that Ging had died of bubonic plague. While the smears were rushed to the bacteriological laboratory for further examination, the city ordered an immediate quarantine of Chinatown. Early the next morning, thirty-two police officers were dispatched to the Chinese quarter, removing all whites from the affected area and allowing no one to enter it. The area was sealed off from the rest of the city by noon on March 7 (Shah 120).

Bubonic plague had a notorious history. In the 1890s, the epidemic hit major cities in China and India, causing devastating consequences. The recorded death toll in India alone exceeded twelve million from 1896 to 1930 (Shah 125). Because of the plague, trade ports in Hong Kong, Honolulu, Bombay, and Sydney took a beating. Even though bubonic plague had never attacked North America before 1900, public health authorities, white businessmen, and the Chinese residents in America all followed the news.

When the story about the Ging case broke out, the San Francisco municipal and federal health officials believed that they could contain the epidemic through quarantine, which was an extraordinary measure. It was based on the “logic of public health measures” that “routinely conflated deadly disease” with “Chinese race and residence.” Hence, dividing the contaminated from the uncontaminated “along racial lines” would be the most effective way to contain the horrible bubonic plague (Shah 121). In other words, public health management and inadequate medical knowledge inflamed prevailing prejudices and fears about the menace of Chinese immigrants and Chinatown. Chinatown was an easy and natural target since it had long been perceived as deficient in sanitary measures and thus a hot bed of diseases. One of the features of the epidemic disease is its transgression of boundaries, as Nayan Shah and Susan Craddock have observed, hence the need to draw lines, to quarantine.

In fact, Wing Chung Ging probably did not die of bubonic plaque. He had been ill for six months before his death. On February 7, he called for a doctor, complaining of pains in the chest, back, and bladder. A week later, his fever and pains had subsided, but he suffered from urethral discharges, swelling in his right groin, and a lame right leg. The doctor suspected that he had been afflicted with gonorrhea. His conditions worsened in the subsequent two weeks, and he collapsed suddenly and died on March 6. Even though some of his symptoms – the fever, severe headache, extreme fatigue, painful swelling of lymph glands in the groin – signaled bubonic plague, some believed that he could have died of typhoid or venereal disease since bubonic plague patients usually died more rapidly. Regardless, many expressed their astonishment at the city’s decision to quarantine the entire Chinatown community (Shah 132). With all whites being removed from the district while no one was allowed to enter, Chinatown was blockaded like “a besieged city” from the rest of San Francisco overnight (Craddock 128, 133). Some Chinatown business owners protested because such large-scaled quarantine seriously disrupted Chinese business. Chinatown, “the conflation of race and place,” “provided the illusion of impermeable boundaries” of racial geography which seemed to promise containment. But, as we can see now, the “blockade of Chinatown” was an “explicit act of racial discrimination against Chinese residents” (Shah 129, 132).

In late April, when four suspicious deaths were reported in the Chinese quarter over three days, the Public Health Service intervened to recommend a mass inoculation of San Francisco’s Chinese population. The secretary of the treasury then ordered a restriction on public travel for “Asiatics or other races particularly liable to the disease.” With this ordinance, the government confirmed the putative racial susceptibility to bubonic plague (Shah 133).

Racial tension was high. Many Chinese gathered protesting against the mass vaccination campaign. Some noted that, since the vaccination was different from the smallpox immunization, the inoculation would be life-threatening to a frail person. Others proposed to shut down Chinatown businesses in protest, a suggestion that won overwhelming support from the crowd. Many businesses did indeed shut down when physicians and health workers went to give inoculations in Chinatown. Circulars accused the Board of Health of attempting to “poison the Chinese by injecting drugs under the skin” (Shah 134-35).

These actions then led to rumors about the source of bubonic plague and suspicion about the motivation of the public health officials. When the health officials tried to eliminate rats by nailing dead fish on wooden boards and placing them in the sewers, they filled the fishes’ abdominal cavity with arsenic paste. But the rumor began to circulate that the officials filled the fish with bacilli of bubonic plague and fed them to the rats so that “these animals would contract the disease and carry it among the Chinese.” The fear, mistrust, and suspicion of the Chinese toward the public health officials came, in turn, from racial tension resulting from the racially discriminatory policy of the city government (Shah 135).

On June 15, 1900, Judge William Morrow ordered quarantine to be lifted. The quarantine of the Chinese, he argued, was “an act based more on discrimination than on maintaining the public’s health.” While recognizing that the purpose of quarantine was to isolate those infected from those who were not, Morrows believed it wrong to enact the “cordoning of an entire district composed overwhelmingly of uninfected individuals” (Craddock 136). He “admonished the health authorities for making Chinese residents more vulnerable by not strenuously isolating the houses of plague victims within the quarantined district.” The Board of Health was ordered to stop the general quarantine of Chinatown and to quarantine only individual buildings where plague victims or their contacts had resided (Shah 144).

Many recent studies have called our attention to how “race, place, and culture” could have been fused together into an essential triangle to explain epidemics (see Anderson, Craddock, Deverell, Shah, and Stern). For example, Kay Anderson and Susan Craddock have shown respectively that Chinatown, being in Vancouver, San Francisco, or elsewhere, was preserved as the headquarters of disease. In a government report prepared by the City of San Francisco in 1880, Chinatown was called “a nuisance” and a “cancer spot” that “endangers” the otherwise “healthy conditions” of the city (Craddock 69, 80). Such constructions of Chinatown often created an image of pathologized space and promoted “racialized spatialization and racial tension. Even scientific research could be tainted to serve that rhetoric. Physicians in America, attempting to pinpoint patterns of susceptibility to germ access, ascribed the plague to Asians. Surgeon General Walter Wyman even called the plague a ‘rice-eaters’ disease’” (Craddock 130).

Indeed, fear of epidemic is related to the fear of the unknown, often expressed during our contact with different ethnic groups. Debbie Liu, a thirteen-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, sent a letter to Langley Advance in May 2003, complaining that she and her sister encountered unexpected racial slurs in May while taking a walk on street. Two unknown teenagers in a passing car called them “SARS,” which made the two girls feel “insulted and angered.” Liu wrote:

We can’t blame Asian people that they started SARS. It’s totally unfair and rude. SARS doesn’t have eyes or anything; it can’t see which people it’s going to.

My sister and I have never left Canada since we arrived here seven years ago. I’m only 13 years old and I’m being called, “SARS.” Do you want to be called, “SARS,” huh? How would you feel if a stupid person came up to your face and called you “SARS”?

When I first came to Canada, I thought people in Canada were nice, friendly, and polite people. Then I’ve been called this.

My thoughts were destroyed, and I’ve begun to think that they’re rude, unfriendly, and immature. But I don’t want to think like that. They’re acting like Germans in World War II, calling Jews “Dirty Jews.” (Liu)

It is important to note the change in the girls resulting from this incident, the reverse racism they felt toward others. In addition, the comparison of this racial encounter with fascism and anti-Semitism during WWII is frighteningly and strikingly accurate.

In their study of the U.S policy concerning the U.S.-Mexico border in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Alexandra Stern and Howard Markel trace the development from several cases of fever in El Paso in 1916 to the U.S. Public Health Service’s unilateral decision to implement quarantine on “all persons coming to El Paso from Mexico” in 1917 (Stern 104). Stern argues in another essay that “the discourses and practices of medicine and social control that were critical to inventing multiple boundaries in the 1910s were folded into eugenic theories of difference and moved into the national imaginary in the 1920s.” The exhortations of eugenicists “pathologied the extremities of the body politic and helped to shape restrictive legislation as well as justify the establishment of the Border Control in 1924” (81). Because of the dominant view that tended to stereotype Mexicans as “a class of equally degraded, poverty-stricken laborers living in rat-infested congregations,” the outbreak of the plague epidemic in Los Angeles in 1924 became, in William Deverell’s term, “peculiarly Mexicanized.” To many whites, the plague “had rendered Mexicans unusually dangerous” (188, 191). The disease, in other words, had been associated with ethnicity. Such racial and ethnic discrimination had happened to Jews, Germans, Haitians, Irish, and other ethnic groups as well in relatively recent cultural history. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, with the arrival of millions of immigrants from Europe, “vague fears of strangers” coalesced into specific stigmatization of the Irish. Many Irish immigrants were in New York, and a large number of sick or disabled newcomers strained existing medical facilities. Coupled with the preexisting anti-Catholic sentiments and the large scale of immigration, this development sent shock waves of apprehension through native-born Americans. When confronted with the threat of cholera and Irish Catholics, the officials of the public health chose to go beyond quarantine to the “exclusion of those foreign-born who menaced the community’s health and well-being” (Kraut ).

In addition to the recent SARS scare, there have been a number of other cases in nature which have triggered horror and brought on racialized rhetoric. For example, Chinese mitten crabs have been said to be “stealing” anglers’ bait and constituting “a threat to levees” in the Sacramento region. Mitten crabs are Chinese natives, and they are inclined to burrow holes in levees and stream banks. They damage rice crops and carry a lung fluke that has caused symptoms similar to tuberculosis in millions of Asians. In 1992, the first Chinese mitten crab was captured by a South Bay shrimp fisherman; in 1996, it was said that only forty-five crabs had been found in the Delta; and then, by 1997, 20,000 were caught. So far, no crab damage has been observed, and the government is not dealing with this issue. But the prospect of the spread of crab larvae in currents out of San Francisco Bay has already triggered alarm and worry in some who ask, “If these things are multiplying to the levels they’re estimating, what’s going to happen in two or three years?” (Vogel).

In November 2002, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission took emergency action to defend against, as P. J. Perea termed it, the “Asian Carp Invasion.” According to the news release, three U.S. federal agencies, the International Joint Commission, and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission worked jointly to “defend against an invasive species threat” to the Great Lakes region. “These fish are extremely prolific, rapidly advancing their way up the Mississippi River toward the Great Lakes via the canal and threatening the biological integrity of the Great Lakes” (Great Lakes) (italics mine). It is said that Asian carp grow fast – up to 100 pounds and four feet long. Well-adapted to the climate of the region, they would “compete for food” with other “valuable” fish and could potentially develop to become a “dominant species” in the Great Lakes. Government agencies provided backup power hardware for an electrical barrier in Chicago to protect against the vicious invaders. The system uses electricity to repel fish. Officials hope to block the migration of species between the Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes.

The racialized rhetoric in these reports is alarming. Words such as “migration,” “threats,” “invade,” “steal,” and “compete” recur throughout, and such rhetoric is not entirely unfamiliar; it echoes the language directed against immigrant aliens. A Canadian politician, for example, was forced to apologize for her own racist remarks at the University of Winnipeg in November 2000. In her speech, she told the audience that she was concerned about the immigration system of the country. She mentioned problems such as immigrants in Toronto who supported Tamil terrorists and an influx of Asians on the West Coast. She then said, “I call it the Asian invasion . . . the Asian students that have come over to Canada have pressured the university system” so much so that Canadian students “could not even get into some of our university programs in Vancouver and Victoria” (Ditchburn).

It has been two years since the epidemic strain of SARS was last reported in June of 2003. In Beijing and Guangzhou, “public hysteria about the disease” is said to have subsided, giving way to “public nonchalance.” Dr. Kathryn V. Holmes, a prominent microbiologist, has recently been quoted as declaring that “SARS no longer existed in the wild and that the virus no longer presented a serious health threat to the world.” Very few people, in China and North America alike, talk about it, and the epidemic seems to have become part of history (Yardley).

Nevertheless, the cultural and racial impact brought on by the SARS epidemic, and of course the other cases I have cited in this paper, should never be forgotten. No one knows for sure at this point if SARS will ever strike again. But it is certain that we will confront various forms of epidemic and serious disease sometime in the future. Fear, suspicions, and tension could corrode already tenuous racial and ethnic relationships. It is crucial for us to remember the past and understand that encountering the Other has become an inevitable necessity in our global, cultural environment today. While this fact has created unprecedented opportunities, it has also posed formidable new challenges. Being open-minded and willing to respect and even embrace the Other is the key to mutual understanding and a racially harmonious relationship, not to mention our success in fighting epidemics and other unknown diseases.


1. The name of the patient has also been identified as “Chick Gin.” See Craddock, 126-27.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Kay. Vancouver’s Chinatown. Montreal: Mc-Gill-Queen’s UP, 1991.

Craddock, Susan. City of Plagues. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Deverell, William. “Plague in Los Angeles, 1924: Ethnicity and Typicality.” Over the Edge: Remapping the American West. Eds. Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 172-200.

Ditchburn, Jennifer. “Alliance Candidate Laments ‘Asian invasion’ on West Coast.” The Canadian Press. 18 November 2000. http://www.canoe.ca/CNEWSElection2000News/1118_ca-sp.html.

Great Lakes Fishery Commission. “Agencies Take Emergency Action to Defend against Asian Carp Invasion.” 18 November 2002. http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/prsrl/press/15389.htm.

Hopkins, Jim. “Fear of SARS hurts business in Chinatown Customer traffic said to be down by 60% or more.” USA Today. 25 April 2003.

Kraut, Alan M. Silent Travelers. NY: Basic Books, 1994, 48.

Liu, Debbie. “Intolerance: SARS spreads racism.” Langley Advance. 6 May 2003. http://www.langleyadvance.com/051103/opinion/051103le2.html.

Markel, Howard, and Alexandra Minna Stern. “Which Face? Whose Nation? Immigration, Public Health, and the Constitution of Disease at America’s Ports and Borders, 1891 to 1928.” Immigration Research for a New Century. Eds. Nancy Foner, Ruben G. Rumbaut, and Steven J. Gold. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000. 93-112.

Perea, P. J. “Asian Carp Invasion.” IPO. N.d. http://www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/oi020508.html.

Pierce, Charles P. “Epidemic of Fear.” Boston Globe Magazine. 1 June 2003. http://groups.yahoo.com/gropu/asianamericannartistry/message/1875.

Schram, Justin. “How popular perceptions of risk from SARS Are Fermenting Discrimination.” BMJ. 23 April 2003. http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/326/7395/939

Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001.

Stern, Alexandra Minna. “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 79.1 (1999): 41-81.

Vogel, Nancy. “Mitten crabs fan out in area: Species could be a threat to levees.” New Jersey Fishing. 27 August 1998. http://www.fishingnj.org/artmttencrb.htm.



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