Just as Asian Americans have protested racism against them today, Chinese Americans in San Francisco at the time fought back, building their own hospital to provide the critical services that their local government had denied them.
It started with anti-Chinese sentiment in the 1800’s
Chinese immigrants in San Francisco were forced to live in poorer, overcrowded neighborhoods under unsanitary conditions, where such diseases were more prevalent, Hom said. On top of that, the prevailing scientific theory at the time held that diseases were caused by breathing “bad air.”
The result: Chinese communities were blamed as sources of the disease.
“They were neglected by mainstream institutions and that fed into how they were blamed for these diseases,” Hom said.
Chinese people faced barriers to health care
Instead of working to improve the poor conditions of Chinatown, officials in San Francisco subject the neighborhood and its residents to countless inspections and responded with punitive measures against Chinese immigrants, Hom said.
Public health laws allowed police to harass Chinese immigrants for living in crowded conditions and shut down Chinese businesses because they were deemed as sources of illnesses, according to Hom.
The Chinese community also faced challenges in accessing health care, Hom said.
There were few services in or around their own neighborhood, and traveling to hospitals elsewhere meant potentially risking harassment and violence. They often faced discrimination in the hospitals that agreed to admit them, such as higher taxes and fees than White residents. There were cultural barriers, too: hospital staff couldn’t speak Chinese and many immigrants were skeptical of Western medicine.
“Chinatowns were severely neglected by mainstream institutions,” said Hom. “And so the communities themselves took care of each other.”
So they took matters into their own hands
Staffed by both Western-trained physicians and Chinese herbalists, the dispensary served as an early model of community-based health care. It also provided free or low cost services to patients who couldn’t afford it.
On April 18, 1925, Chinese Hospital opened its doors to the public, the first and only institution in the nation of its kind. It was a bold move, given that anti-Chinese sentiment was still high at the time.
“It’s part of this story about Chinatown as a neighborhood and how it resisted the community leaders at the time,” Hom said. “Chinese Americans pulled together resources and were able to establish this despite the exclusion and racism that they were facing.”
The hospital is still in existence today
And it played a crucial role in protecting San Francisco’s Chinatown from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, says Chinese Hospital CEO Dr. Jian Zhang.
Leaders at the hospital saw early on how Covid-19 had the potential to hit their community especially hard, Zhang said. The virus had been spreading rapidly in Wuhan, China. Chinese New Year was around the corner. And at the time, there were direct flights running from Wuhan to San Francisco.
“Covid could have and should have spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Jessica Li, the medical director of Chinese Hospital’s emergency department. “But it didn’t.
That’s because the hospital took a preventative approach. They created a bilingual hotline to answer questions about Covid-19 in both English and Chinese. They went directly into communities to educate them about how to properly wash their hands and clean common spaces. When they did encounter their first cases of the virus, they were diligent about contact tracing and providing areas where exposed residents could quarantine.
As a result, the toll of the virus on the community wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Zhang says this past year has proved even further how significant an institution Chinese Hospital is.
“For Chinese hospital to be here to provide culturally and linguistically competent care, it’s just really important to the community,” she said.
For Zhang, Chinese Hospital isn’t just a hospital.
It’s a reminder of how the Chinese American community in San Francisco has come together to help each other, time and again.