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February 20, 2020

Sinophobia

Opinion

February 20, 2020

Chinese people have faced perceptions of being "unhygienic" and "dirty" long before SARS and the coronavirus came along. As early as the 19th century Opium Wars, the Chinese nation was referred to as the "sick man of East Asia". This slur took a literal turn as Chinese migrants to North America came to be associated with poor hygiene and proneness to disease.

In the late 19th century, in Canada, it was not uncommon for white-owned restaurants to advertise that they did not employ Chinese workers. One such restaurant in the city of Victoria claimed, "the stomach of a person of refined tastes must revolt at the mere idea that his dinner has been cooked by a Chinaman," shortly after replacing its Chinese cooks with Germans.

This perception of Chinese people as unhygienic was often drawn from bad living conditions in Chinatowns. In 1887, Vancouver's Chinatown was described by reporters as "an eyesore to civilisation" and "pest-producing". In 1890, during a cholera scare in Vancouver, the local press demanded that the government take action against that city's Chinatown.

Despite the lack of evidence that cholera had arisen from the neighbourhood, the city council designated Chinatown an "official entity" in the medical health officer rounds and health committee reports, a designation that placed the neighbourhood under closer scrutiny for by-law infractions. Other designated entities included sewerage, scavenging sites, slaughterhouses and pig ranches - none of which were residential.

Chinese people were indeed living in poor conditions, but that was hardly their fault. Despite repeated petitions to improve infrastructure, the local authorities had neglected the immigrant area for years, seeing it as a low priority. As a result, Chinatown was filled with garbage and manure, as it lacked a sewage system, while its residents lived in overcrowded spaces lacking ventilation.

It is because of government neglect that these communities experienced higher rates of contagious diseases, including tuberculosis. Sewage was finally introduced in 1896 but overcrowding was not resolved. Instead, the city authorities often resorted to the demolition of houses in Chinatown on the basis that they were "dangerous to the health of the city", leaving many Chinese workers homeless.

Today, conditions in Chinatowns across Canada have markedly improved, but the stigma has remained and the SARS and coronavirus outbreaks have just added more fuel to the fire. The Lunar New Year is an especially busy time for Chinese businesses, but this year because of news of the epidemic, Chinese malls and restaurants across the country remained empty.

Excerpted from: 'Sinophobia won't save you from the coronavirus'.

AlJazeera.com