Profiles in Chinatown Courage

written by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

From Chinese American Portraits, Chronicle Books of San Francisco, Copyright 1988, Reprinted by Honolulu Magazine

Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong, husband and wife, fought disease, opium and ignorance in Honolulu's "native quarter."

Li Khai Fai carefully re-examined his patient, a young Chinese bookkeeper. There was no denying the high fever, delirium, black spots, bleeding through the mouth, swelling in the armpits and groin. As an intern in Hong Kong during the black plague in 1894, he had seen too many victims to mistake the symptoms; he knew the consequences would be severe.

Conditions in Honolulu, Hawai'i, in 1899-- especially in the "native quarter," where Chinatown was located-- were ripe for the quick spread of any disease. There was no sewer system and the cesspools, hidden under floors and in inaccessible places, had no vents and were never emptied. Refuse from people, dogs, chickens and horses, the wastewater from laundries and kitchens, and the sour washings from handmade poi drained into the stagnant pools. Many of the narrow passages between buildings were roofed over, holding in the foul gases. Flies swarmed everywhere, and enormous roaches roamed over food, tables and dishes.

The same ignorance that had created these conditions had generated deep prejudices against Western medicine. So intense was this mistrust that Chinese rarely brought a patient to a hospital until it was too late for a physician to do anything. As a result, practically all patients admitted to the Chinese Hospital went out in coffins.

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As Westerntrained doctors, Khai Fai and his wife, Kong Tai Heong, were targets of suspicion among their own people. In the three years since the couple had started their practice in Honolulu's Chinatown, however, Khai Fai had begun to dispel the fears of his compatriots, while Tai Heong, delivering babies, was winning over new mothers of all races with her skill, practical simplicity, and straightforward advice. Nevertheless, their practice was still largely with poor Hawaiians and Portuguese, and the two doctors realized that their diagnosis of bubonic plague would probably destroy the seeds of trust they had worked so hard to sow among the Chinese. There was no cure for the plague, and the only known way to stop it from spreading was through sanitary fires-- fires that would destroy the homes and businesses people had worked hard to build.

But as Tai Heong explained to her children years later, "A person must not fear to stand forth and speak out. A man must not cringe when he has knowledge of truth and experience. And though others may hide in shame, or in shame use stones to force him into their way, still, a man must be courageous and stand forth to protect the unknowing."

So Khai Fai immediately went to the Board of Health and reported the case. The doctors there were already aware of several cases of severe fever followed by sudden death. Yet they were skeptical of Khai Fai's diagnosis, questioning his background and qualifications, even the qualifications of his German professors at the Canton Medical College, where he and his wife had received their training.

It was not the first time their credentials had been challenged. When Khai Fai and Tai Heong had emigrated to Honolulu from China in 1896, they had not been permitted to practice medicine. For months Khai Fai had worked as a laborer in tobacco warehouses. Then Tai Heong, with the help of the Reverend Frank Damon (a former missionary to China), had persuaded the president of the Hawaiian Republic, Sanford B. Dole, to give Khai Fai and herself a chance to prove themselves as physicians.

The Board of Medical Examiners had grilled the couple thoroughly during an allday comprehensive oral examination in which the Chinese consul had acted as interpreter. Completely satisfied with their answers, the board had recommended to the minister of the interior that licenses to practice medicine and surgery be issued, and Khai Fai and Tai Heong had been practicing since. Now Khai Fai's competence was being questioned once more.

When the Chinese bookkeeper died, Khai Fai performed an autopsy. Quietly he pointed out the conditions indicative of the plague to the members of the board, convincing them of the accuracy of his diagnosis. Yet they still did not feel justified in making public the alarming facts. Only after five more similar deaths did the newspapers, on Dec. 13, 1899, finally break the story that bubonic plague bad invaded the city.

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Doctors at that time realized that rats spread the plague, but it was not understood that the medium carrying the germ was the flea, which inoculated humans through its bite. Therefore, all persons, clothing or objects coming in touch with a plague case were looked upon as possible means of contagion. The Board of Health placed the section of Honolulu containing Chinatown, where the first cases bad been diagnosed, under strict quarantine and ordered the militia out for guard duty.

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Many Chinese and Japanese house servants who bad been visiting Chinatown overnight found themselves abruptly confined and with no means of support. Restaurants in Honolulu were left shorthanded. Orders for merchandise piled up. Business in Chinatown ground to a halt. Schools throughout the city were closed. The United States Army brought in all men on shore leave. Interisland steamers in port were forbidden to leave and were placed under quarantine.

In addition to these measures, the Board of Health ordered the sanitary fires that Khai Fai had anticipated. Orders for twiceaday inspections were also issued and vigorously enforced. Each time a case of plague was discovered, all other residents of the building were herded into the streets. Their clothing was removed and burned, and they were given antiseptic baths and new outfits, then forced to enter detention camps of a period of quarantine. The men walked; the women were taken in wagons. Their bags, boxes and bundles of goods and chattels were taken from them to be disinfected and stored.

While Khai Fai and Tai Heong understood the need for sanitary fires, they felt the guards and inspectors were sometimes rude and intemperate. Many Chinatown residents considered the destruction of merchandise and personal belongings indiscriminate, and the United Chinese Society and the Chinese consul lodged numerous protests with the government on their behalf. But the only response of the minister of foreign affairs was that the Board of Health had "summary powers in cases of this kind."

Even those merchants who were not burned out sustained heavy losses because of disrupted business, and unemployment increased. Resentment among those quarantined mounted. On January 20, when a sanitary fire raged out of control, rumors flew that the Board of Health was purposely trying to destroy Chinatown.

Actually the fire had been properly set to eat its way against a light breeze. For one hour everything went as planned. Then the wind rose and shifted to the east, carrying blazing embers to the dry roofs of nearby buildings. A shack at the back of Kaumakapili Church caught fire and sparks flew, lodging in the eastern spire. Firemen, unable to force water up to that height, tried to carry up the hose on the inside. But by then the fire had too great a hold, and they had to back down.

Flames leaped to the other spire. First one tower tottered and tumbled, then the other. The bells, tolling their own dirge as they crashed to the ground, flung sparks and embers in all directions. Windfanned flames vaulted 50 and 60 feet, and the conflagration swept out of control. Dense clouds of smoke rose. The heat intensified, destroying the department's best engine and forcing the firemen beyond effective fighting range. Volunteers formed bucket brigades to drench the firemen. As the water pressure decreased, dynamite charges were set off.

Hundreds and then thousands of Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiians surged through the doomed district trymg to save what they could. Most carried boxes, bags and hastily tied bundles of valuables. In the panic, families became separated. Children cried. Women with bound feet tried to hurry and fell. Men staggered beneath the load of aged parents, sick friends. Fleeing, they found all exits blocked by guards with fixed bayonets.

Huddled on the perimeter of the infected district, not knowing where to go, what to do or what was coming next, the refugees became increasingly frightened, angry and resentful. The Chinese consul and vice consul, special Japanese committees and leading citizens circulated through the crush of people, soothing, explaining, calming. Fearing a riot, volunteers from outside the quarantine area rushed to help police march the 6,400 homeless to temporary shelter at KawaiaHa'o Church and grounds a half mile away. The escorts carried firearms, pick handles and baseball bats-- anything that might serve as a weapon. Though none of the refugees were hit, many complained of rough handling. As soon as people outside the area learned of the thousands of homeless, gifts of food, tents, utensils, blankets and mattresses-- and use of vehicles to convey the goods-- poured in. Nearly all the builders and carpenters in the city worked round the clock erecting kitchens, baths and dormitories.

To prevent plague germs from being carried out by searchers and looters, Chinatown's smoldering ruins were enclosed with a high wooden fence. Wlthin a month, the refugees took their final disinfecting baths and left quarantine. But the Board of Health did not declare Honolulu free of plague for another three and a half months. Although rebuilding was then permitted, those who suffered losses had to wait two years for compensation. Even then, only $850,000, half the total claimed, was awarded.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Relief Society collected funds for the care of Chinese who were unable to make a new start because they had lost everything. The society also supplied rice twice a week to 1,000 men, women and children until the recipients again became self-supporting.

Many Chinese blamed their heavy losses on Khai Fai for reporting the case that began the chain of unhappy events. He was forced to resign from the staff of the Chinese Hospital, and the medical practice he and Tai Heong had labored to build among the Chinese shriveled. Khai Fai blamed these reactions on ignorance and prejudice, both of which could be eradicated, he believed, through political reform in China and education in Hawai'i.

His father, a preacher, had been a man of faith. Once, when confronted by a tiger, he had simply dropped to his knees to pray, and the tiger, after watching a short while, had dashed into the darkness While Khai Fai was also a man of faith, he believed in action more than prayer. After his father had been stoned to death for being a Christian, his mother left her four children-- including Khai Fai-- with relatives, entered medical school, and matriculated as a doctor. She had changed her circumstances by coupling hard work with faith. So would he.

Leaving the medical practice and the burden of raising and supporting their growing family largely to Tai Heong, he became active in the Chinese Reform Movement in Hawai'i. As a medical student in China, Khai Fai had been inspired by reformer Kang Yu Wei, who believed in a constitutional form of government with the emperor maintained on his throne. Now he joined Bow Wong Wui, the Protect Emperor Association. A more popular reform association was Tung Mung Wui, which supported the Hawai'i educated Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a proponent of change through revolution. But Khai Fai's loyalty to Bow Wong Wui was steadfast, and he served as editor of the association's newspaper, the New China, and as president for many years.

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In 1911 he and other members of the association and a few young intellectuals founded the People's Ethical Training School, Mun Lun, which became the largest and best equipped Chinese school in Hawai'i, influencing generations of students. He also sought to educate laborers and prostitutes on the dangers of venereal discase, opening a medical office on the edge of the redlight district. And he joined other concerned leaders of the Chinese community in campaigning against the use of opium.

While the other members of the Anti-Opium League were content to hold public meetings and pay for the treatment of users, Khai Fai-- believing the root of the problem lay with suppliers rather than users-- reported the names of opium smugglers to the authorities. Since some of these smugglers were rich and influential, he again incurred the wrath of many in the Chinese community.

Tai Heong shared the vilification heaped on her husband, and men who opposed Khai Fai's political beliefs refused to engage her as an obstetrician for their wives. Personally, she deplored conflict of any kind. At the same time, she was never ashamed to express her opinions, and she encouraged her children to think independently and speak their ideas freely.

From 1897 to 1914 she gave birth to 13 children, eight of whom survived. Determined to send them to private schools for the best education available and to buy a home they could call their own, Tai Heong did not stop working between babies: She could often be seen walking to the office carrying one child in her arms and another on her back. She fed them with the rice, sweet potatoes, bananas and chickens the patients paid her in lieu of cash. She made underwear for them out of flour bags and bought cotton cloth by the bolt to make clothes for the six girls, cutting from the same pattern to save material. Somehow she still managed to find time to participate actively in church, community, and welfare workĄ and to teach her children how to cook and encourage them to develop their dramatic and musical talents.

Tai Heong also delivered a lot of babies. In 1946 Robert Ripley featured her in his syndicated newspaper column, "Believe It or Not," for the highest record of delivery [over 6,000] of any private practitioner.

Khai Fai shared his love of sports with their children and, according to their daughter Gladys, he "liked to quote poetry and had a great zest for living." Most important of all, perhaps, for his Americanborn children, "He taught us that in order to appreciate the culture of China we must learn to be good Americans first."

Many of Khai Fai's editorials in the New China amplified this theme, stimulating in the readers a consciousness of world problems and a concept of the Chinese community's role in Hawai'i's future. "The overseas Chinese must come to realize that they are not living in small hamlets segregated from the world about them by high walls of stone and mind," he wrote. "They must learn to think of themselves as citizens of the Territory of Hawai'i, a part of the great United States of America, a country which is a part of the whole wide world! They must come to realize that what happens to the rest of the world affects not only the country of their choice, but their very own lives."

In 1946 Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, 50th year of practice, and 71st birthdays with over a thousand friends and relatives. Not long afterward, they died within a few years of each other, both active to the end.