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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #48 (November 29, 2005), page 16.

Honoluluís Chinatown fire captivating footnote in history

Plague and Fire

By James C. Mohr

Oxford University Press, 2005

Hardcover, 235 pages, $30.00

By Dave Johnson

At the turn of the 20th century the bubonic plague, or Black Death as it was called during the Middle Ages, invaded the shores of Hawaii just as it was about to become a U.S. Territory.

In this compelling narrative that reads like a medical thriller interwoven with a thoroughly researched historical account, James Mohr tells the tragic tale of this invasion, how islanders dealt with the horrors of this virulent disease, and the tragic aftermath of an eradication procedure that went out of control.

As Mohr explains, the plague not only touched the lives of those hapless folks living in the fetid slums of Honolulu, it also dramatically affected Japanese businessmen, sugar barons, the citizens of that cityís Chinatown, and three American physicians who were essentially given dictatorial power to do what was necessary to eliminate the Black Death that had swept across the Pacific from the Far East.

Prior to the pestilence, Doctors Nathaniel B. Emerson, Francis R. Day, and Clifford B. Wood were in charge of Hawaiiís Board of Health. But in the winter of 1899, when a few cases of bubonic plague surfaced in Honoluluís Chinatown district, the three physicians asked for and received absolute authority to forestall an epidemic. They established a military quarantine around Chinatown, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on efforts to clean up the squalid conditions in the trashier niches of this slum, and issued orders to the fire department to systematically burn down shacks and hovels that presumably hosted the plague.

The results were not encouraging. The death toll mounted and the disease spread beyond the borders of Chinatown. It was reported that a white woman in a posh neighborhood had succumbed to the illness that had decimated Europe during the Middle Ages. It was time for more drastic measures.

On a balmy Saturday, January 20, 1900, after the three doctors had ordered a larger, more aggressive burn, the Honolulu Fire Department started torching a wider swath of wooden buildings in the quarantined zone. All was going well until a draft swept down from Pali, the lovely mountain that looms between the western and eastern shores of Oahu. This stiff breeze grabbed the fire and soon it was a conflagration roaring through all of Chinatown, consuming ramshackle huts, commercial buildings, fine homes, and eventually thirty-eight acres of urban density. The most visual victim of the inferno was Kaumakapili Church, the symbolic center for Honoluluís Christian community. Although great effort was made to douse the church with water and fight the fires swirling around it, the edice went down in flames, leaving smoldering, ghostly twin towers after the fire died out.

The other victims were the 5,000 primarily Asian residents of the district who were evacuated with few possessions and taken to what was essentially an internment camp. The bright side of this calamity was that volunteers arrived to help the sufferers find shelter and safety. The dark side was the appearance of hundreds of grim men armed with guns and ax handles who showed up to make sure that the filthy slum dwellers didnít pour into a "decent" part of town to loot and pillage during the catastrophe.

Mohrís account of the burning of Honoluluís Chinatown is a remarkable footnote in the history of the fight against disease. It is also a clear-eyed examination of racism, imperialism, corporate power-grabbing, and the loss of a national heritage, all set against the backdrop of the horrendous events of that winter 105 years ago in balmy Hawaii, when paradise was available to one and all.

Mohr is Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon