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Chinatown as a Symbol of Racism in America

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Racializing Asians and Asian Americans as carriers of disease has always been a way for Westerners to frame them as the perpetual “other.” Ever since their earliest interactions, the “Occident” has continuously seen the “Orient” as inferior and exotic compared to their own behavior and way of life. Because they were regarded as inferior and different, Asians were quickly accused by the West and racialized as carriers of disease. Every time there was an outbreak, the Westerners’ presuppositions naturally led to the blame falling on Asians. In the eyes of the West, Asians embodied and became the disease, which evidently and unfortunately still appears to be true today and results from racialized perspectives that have been passed down many generations.

As a derivative of Orientalism, racialization is the “process by which economic, political, and social forces shape racial categories and assign the meanings that get attached to those categories”. Racialization is a more specific form of stereotyping that directly targets people who are defined purely on race, which is the main basis by which Europeans and white Americans distinguish themselves from Asians. With distinctly different physical attributes, cultures, religions, and ways of life, Asians were seen so unlike Europeans that it was inevitable that they would be targeted. Because they are different, Asians are seen as inferior within the societal hierarchy in relation to the Westerners and are thus prone to racialization.

One of the early records of racialization against Asians in America was the treatment towards the Chinese living in Chinatown, San Francisco during the mid-1800s. An influx of Chinese immigrants looking for gold and better jobs naturally found solace in the company of fellow countrymen in a foreign new land and built Chinatown. They grouped together because the environment was culturally familiar to the immigrants and they were not welcome in any other area of the city. This led to incredibly crowded and unsanitary living conditions that the Chinese had to endure. Unfortunately, because the Chinese were residents of these so-called slums, they were looked down upon and were inevitably associated with disease.

Any knowledge of Chinatown were speculations based on the public health investigations that racialized the Chinese’s living spaces to be dens of vice and filth. Chinatown was described to be cramped and full of “opium fumes, tobacco smoke, and putrefying waste” that “pervaded the atmosphere in [the] windowless and unventilated rooms”. The imagery shocked many of the white residents of San Francisco and the blame for oncoming outbreaks quickly fell on the Chinese living in so-called contaminated spaces. In an investigation (led by the Common Council) of the 1850 Cholera outbreak in San Francisco that killed forty people, the excessive number of Chinese was emphasized and was held liable. The committee members, under a guise to protect their white citizens, “shifted from attributing the health threat to collective Chinese behavior to denouncing the Chinese as the very embodiment of disease”. The blame is thus skewed from the unhygienic actions of the Chinese to the very fact that they were Chinese. The racialization of the Chinese to be carriers of the disease was redirected to be the racialization of the Chinese as the personification of disease. The public health arena continued to project racialization of the Chinese through guided midnight journeys that offered first-hand “experience” of the Chinese living conditions. These journeys fed the idea that the presence of Chinese men and women were dangerous and harmful to white Americans’ health — especially because it only targeted areas that public health officials knew were unhygienic instead of cleaner, sanitary areas such as opera theaters, temples, and merchants’ homes.

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Chinese American children have also experienced the impact of racialization. After immigrating to San Francisco, the children attended school along with white American children as their parents worked. Supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act insisted that “Chinese children represented a moral threat and a source of contagion to white children,” insinuating that Chinese children were a disease and shouldn’t be attending school with white American children. These children were innocent and were simply attending school, but because they were Chinese, they were racialized to be the epitome of a disease. The effects of racialization were so far-reaching that they affected the lives of children, who — unlike their parents — would have not been able to understand why they were treated so differently.

Racialization of Asians as carriers of disease is still present and pertinent today. As of now, the COVID-19 pandemic is still running rampant throughout many of the Westerns countries. The first case of this disease originated at an open-air wet market in Wuhan, China during the colder months of 2019. The virus soon spread to other countries and the world went under lockdown. Because of this, many fingers point the fault towards China and its government — including its race. And once again, Asians — not just the Chinese — were racialized to be carriers of disease or even be the embodiment of disease, despite COVID-19 being more under control in eastern countries as opposed to in Europe and the Americas.

Hate crimes against Asians skyrocketed after the pandemic outbreak. On March 14th, an assailant stabbed a Burmese family; the victims included a 2-year-old girl and a 6- year-old boy. The attacker claimed that he “feared the victims were Chinese and infecting others with the coronavirus”. The innocent family was violently assaulted merely because they were Asian; they weren’t even Chinese. Another case involved a 26-year-old Asian American man who was spat on by a man who yelled: “You (expletive) Chinese spreading the coronavirus!”. There are countless amounts of hate crimes against the Asian American community that deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These people who are living their life like the rest of America are labeled as spreaders of the disease/being the epitome of disease based on their race.

In the past, the public health authorities held a lot of influence. They projected distasteful imagery of the Chinese and Chinatown and relayed back information that would further stigmatize the Chinese as personified diseases. Today, President Trump has a similar impact over his supporters. In a tweet on March 18th, 2020, President Trump tweeted “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning…” . Olimat has a PhD degree in Computational Linguistics and from his analysis, came to the conclusion that President Trump’s constant usage of “Chinese Virus” and “China Virus” was an attempt to depict China as to blame for the outbreak. A day later at a press conference, Trump’s notes were shown to have “’corona’ in ‘coronavirus’ crossed out and replaced with ‘Chinese’”. This shows that Trump had intentionally replaced the WHO-approved name for the virus with one that sparks racialization of Asians as the virus. Changing “coronavirus” to “Chinese virus” becomes a redirection of attention towards a possibility for blame instead of referring to the virus with its official non-stigmatized name.

Some may argue that it is okay and harmless to label a virus with the place of origin. The “Spanish Flu”, for example, was a popular name for the 1918 influenza pandemic despite not actually originating in Spain. The WHO appropriately named the novel coronavirus “COVID-19” in accordance to their 2015 guidelines to “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups”. By using a name that avoids any geographic relations helps prevent any stigma that may occur. Monikers such as “Chinese virus”, “China virus,” or “kung flu” that are used by authorities creates an outlet for people who now believe it is appropriate to racialize Asians as a virus. This stimulates an increase of xenophobia and thus hate crimes against Asians and descendants of Asians in America. History is currently being repeated yet again due to racialization of Asians and Asian Americans as a disease to the white American people. The Chinese people were constantly stigmatized and blamed for outbreaks in San Francisco simply because Americans were fed imagery that proved to them that all Chinese were unhygienic, high on opium, and that they lived in dens of vice and filth. And now, the Asian race as a whole is being caught in a modern-day racialization of carriers of disease. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to relive it, and information authorities such as the media need to put more care in the way they present information, lest existing preconceptions twist the narrative into once again labelling Asian-Americans as the ‘other’.

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Chinatown as a Symbol of Racism in America. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
“Chinatown as a Symbol of Racism in America.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
Chinatown as a Symbol of Racism in America. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 Jun. 2023].
Chinatown as a Symbol of Racism in America [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Jun 10]. Available from:
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