University of Nottingham Epidemic Responses at the Edges of Empire: the Bubonic Plague in Hong Kong and Shanghai
4 May 2017
Outbreaks of infectious disease foster not only illness but panic and disarray. By producing disorder, contagions, both real and imagined, often represent rupture points in quotidian life. These testing moments shed light on the dynamics, tensions, and anxieties underlying society. Historically, this has been evident with the bubonic plague, which loomed large as the “Black Death” in the European psyche. The disease gained global infamy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the Third Plague Pandemic, notably in trading cities connected with the British Empire. This paper will examine two of these territories, Hong Kong and Shanghai’s International Settlement, during their first outbreaks of bubonic plague in 1894 and 1910 respectively. Adopting a comparative approach, the paper will trace the physical and discursive spaces of confrontation between European and Chinese communities. In both cities, many of the local Chinese population reacted bitterly to the measures imposed by the authorities in a panicked response to the outbreak. A principle cause of the racial friction, it will be argued, centred on Chinese conceptions of a vulnerable gendered body and private sphere, indicating a cross-cultural concern with corporeal inviolability when faced with novel medical strategies. Westerners, likewise, deployed their own discursive arguments which corresponded directly to the forms of resistance meted out by the colonized population, as geographically racialized ideas of ignorance, dirt, and crime served as a justification for coercive medical practices on behalf of the state. Finally, it will be argued that the geopolitical conditions of each city were a crucial determinant of the circumstances and actions taken during the period of crisis. Factors like Hong Kong’s island geography and Shanghai’s porous semi-colonial boundaries each in turn shaped the spread of infection and the types of resistance employed by local Chinese people.
Freddie Stephenson is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham funded by the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies. His doctoral research locates notions of health in Hong Kong and Shanghai, c. 1858-1911.
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