Act One of the play Jianchi/Perseverance is based on the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 in San Francisco Chinatown, which led to suspicion and demonization of Chinese who were identified with the “China plague,” a term used to describe the bubonic plague.
The history of Chinese in San Francisco is a fraught affair. Drawn at first by mid-nineteenth century stories of riches to be found in “Gold Mountain” (California) just for the working, many impoverished Chinese laborers left home to escape war and famine, and to earn money to send to their starving families. Most arrived too late for the Gold Rush, so many had no choice but to become laborers for the transcontinental railroad, doing the most dangerous and least remunerative work. Little by little the survivors drifted back to cities, to try to build a life for themselves. By 1880, nearly 16% of the population of San Francisco were Chinese immigrants. They experienced daily humiliations, persecution and segregation: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first act to ban legal immigration rights to a country on the basis of race.
After killing more than half the population of Europe during the Middle Ages, bubonic plague has taken a break as a pandemic, but it resurged in Asia in the mid-1800s, taking 6 million lives in India and millions more in southern China. Because of San Francisco’s position as America’s foremost Western port, Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the chief quarantine officer of the Marine Hospital Service on Angel Island, anticipated that San Fransisco would be the first American city to experience plague cases before any other. Unilaterally, he instituted a new policy: all ships from Asia or Hawaii would be thoroughly inspected before disembarking in San Francisco. California’s businessmen, newspapers and politicians were derisive. They accused Kinyoun of overstepping his authority and dismissed any suggestion of a potential outbreak as a “plague fake” intended to create a panic that would boost demand for his medical services.
Since ship checks focused on finding infected people, for several months, rats and their plague carrying fleas went ashore from ships onto San Francisco’s streets, concentrating in the city’s most squalid and poverty-stricken neighborhood - Chinatown. In March 1900, the first suspected plague victim died there.
For many upper and middle-class white San Franciscans, the first sign something was wrong in Chinatown on March 7, 1900, were their empty kitchens. Switchboard operators noticed next, as lines lit up with angry callers, demanding to talk to their missing Chinese servants. From there, word began trickling out around the city: Chinatown was locked down. It was only then that white San Franciscans began to remember that they had started seeing dead rats — far more than the regular count — on the streets of Chinatown in January 1900.
“The Chinese were not the only people who had to suffer,” huffed The San Francisco Chronicle. “The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
Responding to white outrage, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan ordered a company of doctors to make a sweep of Chinatown to track down and identify every possible plague case. This provoked terror throughout the SF Chinese community, which was well aware that just a few months earlier, 4,000 homes had been burned to the ground in Honolulu’s Chinatown to eradicate a plague outbreak.
After a year of waging a campaign of denunciations and denial, California Governor Henry Gage finally allowed federal officers in to inspect, test and diagnose Chinatown residents, on condition of Dr, Kinyoun’s immediate reassignment out of state. On June 1st 1901, he declared victory over the “China plague.”
The epidemic’s official death toll is recorded as 119, but it’s likely that more cases were hidden, covered up or never discovered.
In 1907, another bubonic plague outbreak recurred among white residents in Oakland and San Francisco. This time, officials jumped into action immediately, spending $2 million to trap and kill rats — the equivalent of over $55 million today. Such measures had not been taken to protect the lives of the Chinese in SF Chinatown seven years earlier. Chinese lives had not mattered except when they put white lives in jeopardy simply through proximity.
What is certain is that Chinese were blamed for endangering white lives by bringing bubonic plague to San Francisco.
Act Two of Jianchi/Perseverance is based on a true incident involving Denny Kim, a South Los Angeles resident. Knocked to the ground and berated with racial slurs and anti-Asian threats, the U.S. Air Force veteran spoke out about the assault in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Los Angeles police are now investigating this attack as a potential hate crime, investigators said.
Denny Kim, told NBC Los Angeles that he was assaulted and knocked to the ground and that his nose was broken Feb. 16 by two men who hurled racial slurs like "ching chong" and "Chinese virus."
The 27-year-old still wore a black eye and was breathing through a fractured nose a week after two men threatened to kill him and called him racial slurs, before knocking him to the ground in an unprovoked attack.
Said Kim, "Started calling me 'ching chong' ... 'Chinese virus' ... All sorts of nasty stuff. They eventually struck me on my face. I fell down to the ground."
“[It was] absolutely unprovoked. I didn’t know who these guys were,” Kim said.
His friend, Joseph Cha, says he witnessed the incident.
“When I was dropped off, I heard a bunch of screaming. I saw two suspects just beating him up,” Cha said. “So that’s when I was screaming. Cha, a community activist, said, "I was screaming, telling them to stop. Screaming, they were calling me racial slurs too… I was actually chasing them,” he explained. “They had seen my presence and they were scared.”
Cha said the men also used racist slurs and profanity against him and told him to mind his own business. “And they said ‘all f—ing Asians gotta die,'” Cha said.
“If it wasn’t for my friend that saved my life, my friend Joseph Cha, I’d probably be in a hospital right now in a coma or even possibly dead,” Kim said.
Police Detective Hee Cho confirmed that an investigation is underway and that the Feb. 16 incident is being treated as a potential hate crime.
"I was terrified for my life, as you can see the physical injuries on my face," Kim told NBC Los Angeles. "And I didn't know what to think of it. It was all just a blur. ... I was just trying to defend my life."
In a text message, Kim credited Cha with ending the assault.
"They told me they were going to kill me. That's when my friend Joseph Cha arrived and saved my life. He chased and scared the aggressors away," Kim wrote.
In a text message to NBC News, Cha said he "deescalated the situation" by chasing away the two suspects.
"I believe what Denny went through, no one should go through in any community, not just the Asian community," Cha said.
Kim, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to report the crime.
“I’m used to it. Growing up here in Los Angeles, I experienced all sorts of racist comments,” he said. “And even throughout my experience and career in the Air Force, I experienced a lot of microaggressions because of my race. I never felt like I fit in. I never felt like I belonged."
A rally was recently held in L.A.’s Chinatown to raise awareness about a number of recent hate crimes against Asian Americans. It was at the rally that Kim decided he had to speak up.
“It’s 2021. I feel like racism has gotten way too old at this point,” Kim said. “It’s just senseless. It breaks my heart because I don’t judge anybody based on their skin tone, their skin color.”
From March to October 2020, 245 incidents in L.A. County were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a center that collects data on hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“Not just the Asian community, but for all communities,” Cha said. “We’re all humans at the end of the day.”
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, one of the suspect’s was described as a Hispanic male, with a bald head, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing approximately 170 pounds and about 30-years-old.
The second suspect was described as a Hispanic male with brown hair, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing approximately 140 pounds and about 30-years-old.
The Los Angeles Police Department said Kim’s case is being investigated as a hate crime. The suspects remain outstanding and authorities are searching for surveillance video.
"I'm so glad to hear that he took the brave step of reporting it and talking about it because so many other Asian Americans are not doing that because they are scared," said Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles.
Kim wants his attackers caught, but he also wants the hate to stop.
"What they did was not fair and it was filled with hate, and that’s something we all need to bring awareness of," Kim said.
Community advocates say those 3,000 cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg and that very few of those are actually prosecuted.
Here is a list of resources like financial and legal help for victims:
OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates Hate Incident Reporting: aapihatecrimes.org
Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center: www.a3pcon.org/stopaapihate
Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Stand Against Hatred: www.standagainsthatred.org/
ADL Hate Tracker: www.adl.org/reportincident
Los Angeles vs. Hate: lavshate.org
State Assembly member Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles condemned the incident in a statement posted to Twitter.
"Enough is enough and we cannot be bystanders," Santiago wrote. "We must step up to support our AAPI neighbors!"
Jianchi/ Perseverance features the voices of Carin Chea as Hoi-Ting Yip and Hwei Ru Yao, Micah Huang as Ah Yip and Al Yao, Sarah Mass as Mabel, Officer Daniela Carter, and Esperanza Huertes, Gloria Tsai as Donaldina Cameron and Donnie Chau, Robert Van Reil as Narrator and TV Announcer. Directed, produced, and engineered by Micah Huang. Music by Emma Gies and Micah Huang. Written by Hao Huang.
Jianchi/ Perseverance is brought to you by The Marian and Charles Holmes Performing Arts Fund, The Burger Institute at Claremont McKenna College, The Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, The Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies at The Claremont Colleges, The Asian American Resource Center, The Pomona College American Studies Program, The Intercollegiate Media Studies Program, and The Center for Asian Pacific American Students at Pitzer College.