Sunday, January 9, 2005

Chinatown residents watch as building burned without realizing all would be destroyed within a few hours on Jan. 20, 1900.

Burning lesson

A vacation became a work trip for
an Oregon professor who wanted
to learn more about the 1900 fire
that destroyed Chinatown

While most people are content to let their minds take a vacation as their bodies endure the paces of a Hawaii vacation -- i.e., poi tasting, sun-burning and navigating through Waikiki traffic -- James C. Mohr the tourist wouldn't let his professional alter ego rest.

image: book cover So when he spotted a small sign in Chinatown, indicating its original buildings had burned in a fire ordered by the Board of Health in January 1900, it was no mere bit of traveler's trivia meant to be forgotten as soon as he boarded his flight home. Instead, it became one piece of an intriguing puzzle that has resulted in his book about the incident, "Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown."

As a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Oregon, Mohr said: "I had to ask, What in the world happened and why did it happen? Was it official racism? I was curious about what happened to those people."

Mohr had written other books focusing on medical policy and legal issues, and the Chinatown incident represented a time when the physicians who formed Honolulu's Board of Health set public policy in their decision to burn buildings tainted by the outbreak of bubonic plague in the islands.

"I wondered, How did these physicians get so much power?" Mohr said from his office in Oregon. "I kept (the information) in the back of my head but returned to it immediately. It was an absolutely fascinating story."

The grounds of Kawaiahao Church became a shelter for those who had lost their homes.

THE FIRST FIVE victims of bubonic plague were discovered on Dec. 12, 1899, in Chinatown. The disease began with flulike symptoms that seemed to improve before fevers rose along with body aches, followed by speech disorder, delirium, a racing pulse, ruptured blood vessels and open sores. At this point, victims often fell into a semiconscious or comatose state and died in two to five days.

A second wave of deaths occurred on Christmas. By New Year's Eve the Honolulu Board of Health had ordered a quarantine for all Chinatown residents, including people of Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian ancestry.

At that time, doctors didn't know that flea bites from infected rats were the source of the disease that had killed so many in the Dark Ages and had re-emerged in port cities throughout Asia, and bacteriology was an emerging science.

Hawaii's Caucasian population believed that they had developed an immunity to the disease through their ancestors, and also believed Asians in Chinatown were more susceptible to the disease not only due to heredity, but because of what was perceived as the unsanitary conditions of their shops and homes.

To complicate matters, Hawaii had only an interim government led by Sanford Dole following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Ambitious businessmen were seeking territorial status from the United States and feared the presence of the plague would scare politicians and investors.

With his outsider's perspective, Mohr could pursue his research without any pre-existing prejudices regarding the players involved.

"I was interested in the historical dynamic. How can we explain such a catastrophe, and can we learn enough about it so it doesn't happen again? It was a relief to solve the puzzle rather than rooting for the good guys or booing the bad guys."

But in wrapping up his research, Mohr said: "It's better that the doctors were in charge. A politician would have responded in a less responsible manner, but the doctors behaved as physicians, not as politicians."

The principal physicians were Francis R. Day, Clifford B. Wood and Nathaniel B. Emerson, the son of missionaries who grew up speaking Hawaiian alongside the children of his father's congregation and who translated David Malo's "Hawaiian Antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii)" from the Hawaiian language.

Mohr said he was glad to see the doctors were capable of behaving professionally, in spite of the pressure on them. Pressure largely came from the Citizens' Sanitary Commission, led by Lorrin Thurston, who wanted to burn the town in its entirety from the start.

"(The doctors) tried to do things for scientific rather than a political or racist reason. They stood up against members of the white community who were willing to burn down any Asian areas."

Fences went up to keep Chinatown residents from leaving and infecting other areas of Honolulu.

WORKING against the doctors was imperfect knowledge. When burning down one victim's home and shop seemed to stall the disease, fire was seen as the solution for getting rid of the source of bubonic plague.

On Jan. 20 the Fire Department set fire to shacks in an area known as Block 15. After an hour, however, an unexpected high wind whipped the blaze toward Kaumakapili Church, igniting its spire and steeple, which none of the fire engines could reach. Crowds stepped in to help the firemen, but the fires quickly jumped from one wooden building to the next through falling embers.

"It was like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly," Mohr said. "When we look back, we think how crude that was and how could they be so irresponsible, but they were heroes to public health people around the world."

The success in Hawaii set an example applauded and emulated by other cities. Luckily for Chinatown residents in San Francisco, the events in Hawaii spurred them to take legal action to protect their homes and businesses before the plague arrived at its ports via rat-infested ships.

In connecting the dots, Mohr has written a story that is timeless in depicting the disastrous intersection of imperialism, racial and political politics, and fear. In reviewing the work, Elizabeth Fenn, author of "Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82," wrote: "I am now convinced that disasters are key historical moments when societies reveal their most fundamental truths. It all comes together here."

Fire engines and hoses didn't have the capability to reach the Kaumakapili Church steeple and spire when they caught fire.

In the book, Mohr acknowledges many local individuals, librarians and archivists at the Hawaii State Library, Hawaii State Archives, Mamiya Medical Heritage Center, Historical Archive of the Hawaiian Medical Library, Bishop Museum, Hawaiian Historical Society and Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library for helping him in his research. He was also assisted by translators at the University of Hawaii and University of Oregon, who allowed him to express the sentiments of the Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian residents of Chinatown in their own voices.

Among them were the Chinese doctors Kong Tai Heong and Li Khai Fai. Kong told her daughter in later years that some people had been "happy that there had been a fire. But they tried to hide their happiness by piling blame on father (for reporting plague cases), hoping this would help hide the fat gains they had made from the parched bones of those who had lost their goods in the fire."

Li was called "the devil" and "Dr. Death."

Kong and Li, trained in bacteriology in the West, had sided with the American doctors, and in so doing became easy scapegoats to many Chinese, who still believed in traditional healers and the yin-yang philosophy of balances regarding well-being. Traditionally, "if you were sick, they believed your body was too acid, too hot or too cold," Mohr said.

Kong and Li, he said, "were fully committed to help, but their people ended up calling them traitors. It was much easier for the Japanese doctors. Because of the policies at home in Japan, they were vigorously trying to Westernize."

Mohr also puts a human dimension on the tragedy in talking about the experience of City Mill founder Chung Kun Ai, whose warehouse had been spared by the medical board, only to be burned in the great fire. Newly purchased machinery was twisted and molten to resemble lava rock, and while he eventually received enough money to pay his debts, he was forced to rebuild his business from scratch. It continues as a family-run business today.

Mohr said there were many aspects of the Hawaiian tragedy that deserve further research: "I find the politics of public health fascinating. Writing the history helps to inform modern decision and may help people avoid catastrophes like this one. Health care in general is a big issue."

Due to America's rapidly aging population, he said, "We'll be confronting issues as to who foots the bill and how do we care for people in the next 10 to 15 years."

Just as the appearance of AIDS sparked a fear response that led people to want to segregate its victims from the rest of the population, this nation will likely have to contend with other large issues such as germ warfare fears and global epidemics in the future. He said it's important to realize that physicians make tough calls based on imperfect information, and we should guard against decisions based on prejudices and vested interests.

As for Mohr's sign, it disappeared shortly after he saw it, and no one he asked ever saw the sign or knew who put it up. But he wrote in his acknowledgments: "I will always be grateful to whoever put it up. It alerted me to an event I have found absolutely riveting."



Quarantine camps quickly
spring up

This is an excerpt from "Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown"

"By Jan. 26, all of the people initially assembled at the Kawaiahao Church on the night of the great fire had been relocated to more permanent detention centers, and the church itself had been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. In just four days, volunteers acting under the Board's supervision had constructed scores of rough barracks at the city's principal quarantine camps. The barracks at the Drill Shed site accommodated about 1,200 people, the majority of whom were Japanese. Barracks at the greatly expanded Kalihi beach site became home to almost 5,000 people, some 1,500 of whom had already been at Kalihi due to evacuations and burnings before Jan. 20. The majority of the people at Kalihi were Chinese, though some Hawaiians and many Japanese were there as well. Roughly 1,000 people thought to have been directly exposed to plague sites were transferred to the so-called Kerosene Warehouse site. That group included over 500 Hawaiians, over 300 Chinese and slightly fewer than 200 Japanese. Along with approximately 700 people confined elsewhere, the Board found itself holding over 7,000 people in detention camps during the fourth week of January, or about one out of six residents of Honolulu.

"The process of camp assignment did not go seamlessly. A bold group of 248 Chinese men, for example, fearful that the Americans were sending them to death camps, initially refused internment at Kalihi and threatened to resist relocation by force. But Consul (Wei Pin) Yang persuaded them that the Americans would keep their word to provide food and housing, so the potential rebels agreed to divide themselves into groups of 10 to help oversee an orderly distribution of the provisions rather than fight."

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