Along with the establishment of the Department of Public Health in 1912, the implementation of public health policies became an integral part of city management in Republican Guangzhou. Yet the cholera outbreak of 1932 fully exposed the weaknesses of the medical and sanitary infrastructure of the city. Due to the Guangzhou government's inaction, the Fangbian Hospital, a local charitable hall founded in response to the bubonic plague of the 1890s, involuntarily took over the major responsibility for providing medical services for cholera patients in the early stage of the epidemic. Only after the death of hundreds of patients and Guangzhou being described as a ‘world of horror’ in the local press did the government-run hospital start to take a more active role. Epidemics have always served as catalysts for change in public health perceptions and practices. This paper attempts to explain how the cholera epidemic of 1932 changed the role of public health in the urban administration of the city. Emphasis is placed on analysing how the people of Guangzhou began to fight for a supply of clean drinking water once they came to realize the link between water and the spread of the fatal cholera epidemic in 1932. Clean water, which used to be seen as a commodity enjoyed by the privileged few, was now increasingly regarded as a citizen's right.