As the Year of the Rat dawned on January 31, 1900, shop owners in Chinatown began noticing a disturbing sight: rat carcasses littered the district’s alleys and courtyards. And for 41-year old Wong Chut King, something was definitely wrong. For several weeks, Wong Chut King struggled with mounting fever, exhaustion, and painfully swollen lymph nodes, or “buboes.” And nothing seemed to help.
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More than 100 years before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and set off a wave of fear and anti-Asian sentiment, an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900 unleashed a similar furor. It was the first time in history that civilization’s most feared disease — the infamous Black Death — made it to North America. Two doctors — vastly different in temperament, training, and experience — used different methods to lead the seemingly impossible battle to contain the disease before it could engulf the country. In addition to overwhelming medical challenges, they faced unexpected opposition from business leaders, politicians, and even the president of the United States. Fueling the resistance would be a potent blend of political expediency, ignorance, greed, racism, and deep-rooted distrust of not only federal authority but science itself. Scapegoated as the source of the disease early on, the Chinese community fought back against unjust, discriminatory treatment.
This gripping and relevant story of the desperate race against time to save San Francisco and the nation from the deadly disease, Plague at the Golden Gate is based in part on David K. Randall’s critically acclaimed book, Black Death at the Golden Gate.
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