PLAGUE AND FIRE: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown

James C. Mohr, Author . Oxford Univ. $30 (256p) ISBN 978-0-19-516231-8

For the diverse citizens of Honolulu, the 20th century began with two catastrophic events: first, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, and second, the efforts to contain the disease resulted in a conflagration that destroyed the city's Chinatown. Emphasizing the political and social aspects of the battle against the plague, Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, offers an exceptionally well researched and lucid study of how the destruction proceeded. The fight against the disease fell to three physicians who were granted absolute authority by the government to take whatever measures they deemed necessary. How that authority was exercised, within complicated political currents that included racial prejudice, ethnic politics, a dearth of scientific knowledge, commercial interests and political ambitions, forms the center of the book. Mohr charts these events with precision. He also illuminates the issues that arise when civil rights and public safety clash. It is this perspective that provides relevance to what would otherwise be an ordinary historical monograph. But some readers will want more scientific information about the plague, and Mohr's generally commendable thoroughness is sometimes overtaken by repetitive details. The pictures of the aftermath of the Chinatown fire and the mass disinfections of Japanese and Chinese residents are a striking and valuable addition. 25 b&w photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 09/06/2004
Release date: 11/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
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