Panic swept through Honolulu with the news in December of 1899 of five deaths due to bubonic plague. A city-wide emergency and quarantine were declared. By the time the disease ran its course, there would be sixty-one deaths among seventy-one total cases. Victims included Japanese, Hawaiians, and Caucasians. The majority, or thirty-three, however, were Chinese, and a little more than half of the seventy-one lived in what was called Chinatown—a forty-acre area bounded by Queen, Nu‘uanu, and Kukui Streets. Chinatown with its small stores, rooming houses, stables, chicken coops, restaurants, and churches, was densely populated with seven thousand people. The Republic of Hawai‘i targeted Chinatown for what it called “cleansing.”
In ancient times, authorities tried to contain plagues by fire—by torching infected houses and the bodies of the dead. Medical theory in 1899 had not advanced beyond this. The Board of Health ordered the occupants of designated structures to move to detention camps on the edge of the area, and on January 20, 1900, a Saturday morning, the Fire Department set what was supposed to be a limited fire. Everything went as planned—until the wind rose and shifted. Blazing embers flew onto dry roofs of the closely packed buildings. Flames turned into an inferno. The fire was finally contained, but Chinatown was burned to the ground. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, and Chinatown again sprang up, to occupy much of the same area today in downtown Honolulu.
By Helen G. Chapin