2022 Scholarship Winner: Sandy Chen

Describe an event in Asian American history that parallels what we are seeing today with anti-Asian hate crimes.

From Facing It to Taking Action to Knowing It 

Walking down the street with our clumsy-looking coats, my aunt and I were heading to the CVS store. It was February 2020, and because of COVID-19 abroad, we both wore masks. Others around looked directly at our faces–it was disturbing. No one else was wearing masks; our black eyes, skin color, and black hair wrapped in a ponytail were clear signs that portrayed our Asian identity. 


Approaching the entrance and scanning through the rows, we picked up what we needed. Then, I routinely proceeded to the coupon machines. I walked up and bumped into a white middle-aged man with a black beard who was wearing khaki pants and a black hoodie with a t-shirt inside. He examined me, head to toe, for a few seconds. 


“So now the coronavirus is a real thing? Or should I say Chinese virus? And we gotta all wear masks now?!” He chuckled absurdly. 


Loudness attracted the attention of people even more than six feet away from me. I ignored him and rushed back to my aunt; my worried face told her that some unpleasant encounter took place, so she accompanied me to the cashier. Then, we dashed home. 


Weeks following, I was scrolling through my phone and came across the application for Asian Advocates (organization), it seemed fit to apply. Though not realizing it at the time, the man who had been so disrespectful in mocking me ultimately because of my identity was part of the motive. He made certain that hatred was present and needed to be wiped away. 


One first task upon being part of Asian Advocates was to complete research surrounding historical events, that was when I read about the San Francisco Plague. 


Centuries ago, the bubonic plague roamed Europe and Asia subsequently, it made its way to America in 1900, and lasted for four years (some cases were still present after) in San Francisco. Wong Chut King, a Chinese immigrant, is the first known case and is believed to have brought the pathogen through trade routes. 


A year before that, Joseph Kinyoun, head of the San Francisco Marine Hospital Service, hypothesized that the plague had already killed two sailors. Government officials rejected his views. After Wong Chut King passed away showing symptoms of swollen lymph nodes, an order was pushed, and Chinatown was quarantined. Governor Henry Gage attempted to hide the plague from the country, continuing trade and travel that was already happening. Kinyoun was also pressured to the point where he resigned his position in 1901 due to allegations of spreading frightening information. Nonetheless, Kinyoun was proven right in the coming years. 


Parallel to COVID-19, the bubonic plague by this point also originated from China. This fueled the blame on the Asian community. Arguments that said Chinese people should not be allowed to merge into America because of their behaviors and race sparked; immigrants were lower class citizens; and they are unhygienic, putting American citizens in danger of diseases and outbreaks. The reaction of the public towards COVID mirrors that of a century ago. Myths of the Asian community eating bats were brought again, and countless hate crimes took place as a result of increased racism. We, the Asian community, have been forced to remember names such as Vicha Ratanapadkdee and Noel Quintana; we have been forced to scramble for self-defense tools; we have been forced to stay attentive on public transits, and we have been forced to tell our grandparents to stay home just for safety. 


Both the current pandemic and the San Francisco Plague resulted in quarantine. However, in 1900, there was a selective quarantine of Chinatown. The movement of food, supplies, and people, was strictly prevented. False news that both downplayed the disease and comforted the rest of the public that those of European descent were not susceptible to spread. Even with advanced technology today, false news and misconceptions continue over media outlets. 
Fortunately, Rupert Blue, who succeeded Joseph Kinyoun’s position, fought to improve sanitation measures. He observed a connection between rats and cases of the plague, and then executed a city-wide clean-up; the outbreak slowly disappeared in 1905. 


My only reaction to the San Francisco Plague was not anger, but sadness. How could the pandemic, with aspects similar to the plague over a hundred years ago, have the same, nevertheless even worse effects on the Asian community today. No significant improvements are visible. 


Parallels between the two events made it more clear that taking part in advocacy is a responsibility, history repeated itself when it was avoidable. Through the past two years of conducting research, designing infographics, organizing events in Asian Advocates, or leading discussions on solidarity in Asian Diversity Inspired at school, I know I am strong, and being part of the Asian community does not make us a scapegoat of prejudice.