S is for Sieh King King
It’s hard to imagine a braver young woman at the turn of the twentieth century than Sieh King King, who at seventeen, traveled from her hometown of Shanghai to further her education in the West. At eighteen, in 1902, she spoke at a theater in San Francisco. She had found her true calling as an activist for Chinese women’s rights. China at that time was sick and tired of losing to Western imperialists, and Sieh King King made the point that her country would be twice as strong against the invaders if it unleashed the power of half its population – namely women. She ranted against the ancient, barbaric practices of foot binding, slavery and polygamy, arguing that modernizing China through reforms and education for everyone was the key to a stronger, independent nation. On at least two occasions she spoke to enthusiastic crowds in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a scene I depict in The Depth of Beauty. Sieh King King was an instrumental voice in Sun Yat-sen’s republican revolution. In 1911, that movement ended two thousand years of imperial rule in China.
T is for Tong
Bloods, Crips, the Mafia …and tongs? Every culture has its denizens of the dark, and in Chinatown, those underworld thugs, called “Highbinders” (after a 19th century New York City gang)belonged to secret societies known as tongs. Rising in the mid-nineteenth century as benevolent groups to help support and protect fellow immigrants, these brotherhoods eventually turned to illegal activities, like gambling and prostitution, to fill their coffers and increase their power. Soon law-abiding Chinese residents had to pay through the nose for their so-called “protection.”
Since there’s only so much vice to go around, turf wars sprang up between tongs, leading to the same kind of gang violence that exists today. Tongs lost much of their impact in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. There wasn’t much turf left to fight over, and the city’s law enforcement took the opportunity to crack down on tong exploitation. Today most tongs once again fulfill the role of a benevolent association. In The Depth of Beauty, I even portray one tong leader as sort of … cool.
U is for U.S. Marine Hospital Service
Ever wondered when the government started getting involved with our health care? At the end of the 18th century, President John Adams signed a law creating the U.S. Marine Hospital Service to help pay for the care of American sailors, merchant mariners, and Coast Guard members. Each sailor and marine paid a monthly tax to fund the hospitals; the money was turned over to U.S. Customs, which made it the first tax-supported, government-run medical program! Since epidemics often started in port cities, the USMHS eventually expanded to manage large-scale quarantines. When the bubonic plague hit Chinatown in 1900, the agency sent doctors to determine how bad the threat was, and to help contain it. Neither the Chinese residents nor the city’s white elites were happy about the Feds coming to town; they knew if word got out about the plague, shipping and tourism would suffer. After a rocky start, Dr. Rupert Lee Blue stepped in to handle the outbreak. The Depth of Beauty recounts the many measures—some of them drastic—he used to contain the disease. Blue killed so many rats, in fact, that he became known as the “Pied Piper”! During his time in San Francisco, Blue’s agency was re-named the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1912, he was appointed Surgeon General of the United States.