Cover image for Plague and fire : the burning of Honolulu's Chinatown
Plague and fire : the burning of Honolulu's Chinatown
Mohr, James C.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, [2005]

Physical Description:
xi, 235 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
RC176.H3 M64 2005 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A little over a century ago, bubonic plague--the same Black Death that decimated medieval Europe--arrived on the shores of Hawaii just as the islands were about to become a U.S. territory. In this absorbing narrative, James Mohr tells the story of that fearful visitation and its fieryclimax--a vast conflagration that engulfed Honolulu's Chinatown. Mohr tells this gripping tale largely through the eyes of the people caught up in the disaster, from members of the white elite to Chinese doctors, Japanese businessmen, and Hawaiian reporters. At the heart of the narrative are three American physicians--the Honolulu Board of Health--whobecame virtual dictators when the government granted them absolute control over the armed forces and the treasury. The doctors soon quarantined Chinatown, where the plague was killing one or two people a day and clearly spreading. They resisted intense pressure from the white community to burn downall of Chinatown at once and instead ordered a careful, controlled burning of buildings where plague victims had died. But a freak wind whipped one of those small fires into a roaring inferno that destroyed everything in its path, consuming roughly thirty-eight acres of densely packed woodenstructures in a single afternoon. Some 5000 people lost their homes and all their possessions and were marched in shock to detention camps, where they were confined under armed guard for weeks. Next to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Chinatown fire is the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history. A dramatic account of people struggling in the face of mounting catastrophe, Plague and Fire is a stimulating and thought-provoking read.

Author Notes

James C. Mohr is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Oregon.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved