Chinese mariners in Liverpool, UK

Installed and revealed in Liverpool, UK, 2006, the following is the text from a commemorative plaque to Chinese mariners who once lived and worked in that important seaport city:

“To the Chinese merchant seamen who served this country well during both world wars, for those who gave their lives for this country – thank you.

“To the many Chinese merchant seamen who after both world wars were required to leave, for their wives and partners who were left in ignorance of what happened to their men, for the children who never knew their fathers, this is a small reminder of what took place. We hope nothing like it will ever happen again.

“For your memory.

“23rd January 2006.”

Here at North Head in Sydney, Australia, we do not even have a plaque to commemorate the lives of many Chinese mariners who transited through the North Head Quarantine Station and contributed to the significant maritime trade between Australia and Asia, while experiencing poor treatment in quarantine – racial segregation and inferior accommodation at the Quarters for Asiatics – and in society during the long years of the White Australia Policy.



Stuart Heaver, “Why did 300 Chinese fathers vanish from Liverpool in 1946 after wartime service in British merchant navy?” South China Morning Post, 4 November 2017.


Sullivan’s Island Pest House (Quarantine House), South Carolina, USA

The racialisation of the other, with the view to segregating them and giving them inferior treatment, has a long history in the administration of human quarantine in the New World, given its colonial origins through British conquest.

An important publication on the history of human quarantine in America is Joseph Jones’ Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce, published in New Orleans in 1883. Dr Jones was President of the Board of Health in the State of Louisiana. His description of an incident on 29 May 1744, which took place on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbour in South Carolina, while America was still a British colony, reveals an early form of racialisation in human quarantine that later became commonplace in British settler nations such as Australia.

One thousand pounds appropriated for Sullivan’s Island Pesthouse. No ship with negroes from Africa shall pass to town without the negroes staying ten days at the pesthouse, or carried on shore five out of ten days for purification upon pain of confiscation. No one from shore shall go on board said ship; and no one leave said ship under penalty of whipping. The captain, in passing Fort Johnson, shall swear conformity.

Between 1700 and 1775, 40% of the African slaves imported into America came through South Carolina and were quarantined in the four pest houses on Sullivan’s Island under conditions that were as dismal as those on the ships that they travelled on (Johnson, 2008). The sick were administered to by white quarantine staff (Miles, 2014), and those who recovered – from either yellow fever or smallpox – joined the fit ones to be sold to plantation owners who ordered them. An estimated total of 200,000 African slaves went through quarantine on Sullivan’s Island (Miles, 2014). It can be imagined that the picture was one of brute reality of human survival, when the racialised other was a mere commodity with no rights and destined to work until the end of allotted time.



Johnson, Jessica. “Fort Moultrie Seeks Comment on Slave Exhibit”, The Post and Courier, 24 January 2008. Johnson mentions African slave importation “between 1700 and 1775”, however, according to Sullivan’s Island historian Suzanne Smith Smiles, the first pest house, built of bricks and measuring 30 feet by 16 feet, did not appear until 1707, the year a quarantine act was passed in respect of the island, to protect the nearby Charles Town which profited greatly from slave labour. For example, as mentioned in Miles’ 2014 article, a smallpox epidemic in Charles Town between 1759 and 1760 saw an estimated 6000 became sick, over 700 of whom died. Quarantine was put in place to assist the growth of a highly exploitative economy based on imported slavery and displacement of Native Americans.

Jones, Joseph. Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce. New Orleans: E A Brandao, 1883.

Miles, Suzanne Smith. “Fighting Illness at Sullivan’s Island Pest House”, Moultrie News, 21 October 2014.

Zhaocai jinbao as an emblem of defiance

During the current Lunar New Year period celebrating the arrival of the Earth Dog, as an Australian of mixed East Asian backgrounds, it is all the more important that I write about a Chinese heritage emblem of defiance of Australia’s institutionalised racism in its public health history near the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station. It is none other than zhaocai jinbao, a Lunar New Year expression used for decorative purposes in a spirit of joyful auspiciousness.

With the four characters zhao, cai, jin and bao elegantly fused together to create the optical illusion of one character, yet at the same time clearly discernible as four different characters upon closer look, zhaocai jinbao literally means “Attract wealth, ushering in treasure.” Its interplay of unison and difference, calligraphically co-located on the same two-dimensional plane, makes zhaocai jinbao one of the most easily recognisable emblems of Chinese culture in mainland and in diaspora.

Haffkine serum against cholera and plague

Professor Waldemar Haffkine’s serum, although rejected by the medical establishment in his home country of Russia, nevertheless saw great success in India when he moved there in the late 19th century to tackle the severe challenges of successive epidemics on the subcontinent.

A contemporary article, authored by William T Fee, British Consul in India, describes the Haffkine serum as follows: “In vaccination for smallpox a living germ is dealt with, whereas in plague inoculation dead seed only are injected” (Fee, 1899, p. 2047).

Mutton fish: abalones

The dispossession of Indigenous Australians in the economic history of sustainable mutton fish (abalones) harvesting tells a twofold tale of colonisation by both British and Chinese settlers. In this aspect, Chinese immigration was, as far as Indigenous Australians were concerned, not much different in character from the British invasion in 1788 in the way it destroyed their traditional livelihood and disconnected them from the maritime environment of mutton fish harvesting. Both British and Chinese settlements were uninvited events in Australian history which saw the Aboriginals become displaced people in their own land.



Cruse, Beryl et al. Mutton Fish.

Exclusion: leprosy and mental illness

Although unrelated, social marginalisation in liminal zones of physical isolation was applied to sufferers of leprosy and mental health alike in the political design of exclusion during the late 19th century in Australia. An example of this can be found in the history of public health measures on the Moreton Bay islands near Brisbane in Queensland.

Epidemics today


Cholera in Yemen. – Epidemics are sometimes spread during political crisis and armed conflict, such as in the current case of Yemen, where the anti-government Houthi rebels, allegedly with the backing of Iran, are fighting a war with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition backed up by the US. Already 50,000 children are believed to have died in 2017 from disease and starvation, while 900,000 Yemenis are infected with cholera.

Described by Oxfam as the worst cholera epidemic on record, WHO, according to its own report, has nevertheless been able to treat 700,000 people for suspected cholera, with over 99% of suspected cases surviving, in a situation where an estimated 14.8 million people lack access to basic health care.



McKernan, Bethan. Yemen cholera outbreak set to be the worst on record. Independent, 29 September 2017.

Nichols, Michelle. Yemen children are dying at a rate of 130 a day while Saudi-led blockade continues. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 2017.

WHO. Outbreak update – cholera in Yemen, 26 October 2017.

WHO. WHO’s Response to Cholera in Yemen, 27 April-20 September 2017.

WHO. Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2017.