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Denver to “re-envision” historic Chinatown destroyed by race riot

Photo via Library of Congress

By Lindsay Wang, AsAmNews Intern

A small plaque set into the wall of a decrepit building in Lower Denver commemorates the city’s first recorded race riot, which resulted in the decay and ultimate disappearance of the city’s historic Chinatown.

Last summer Denver began a renaming initiative of public spaces and landmarks named after individuals with connections to racism, colonization and other oppressive institutions. Members of the Re-envisioning Denver’s Historic Chinatown project quickly turned their attention to the plaque.

The plaque, titled “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880,” describes a Chinatown populated with “500 Chinese” and “17 known opium dens … where one could ‘hit the pipe’ or ‘suck the bamboo.’” 

“The reason we take exception to that plaque [title] is because, for one thing, ‘Hop Alley’ emphasizes the fact that there were opium dens located in Chinatown,” Dr. William Wei, a professor of modern Chinese history at University of Colorado Boulder, told AsAmNews. “There were opium dens in other parts of Denver.”

“Then, the other part is titled ‘Chinese Riot,’ suggesting that the Chinese rioted when, in fact, what happened on October 31, 1880 is there was an anti-Chinese riot,” Dr. Wei continued.

This anti-Chinese riot was the first race riot in Denver history. Tension between the Chinese and White residents had existed prior to 1880, however. 

During the 1800s, Denver attracted many immigrants, with the Chinese being one of the most prominent groups, due to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. While railroad tracks were being laid around the country, they all inevitably led back to Denver, which had railroads going North and South, establishing it as “the one big city between Chicago and the West Coast,” according to Gil Asakawa, a former member of the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Commission.

“[Denver has] always attracted immigrants of various flavors and ethnicities,” Asakawa said.

The influx of Chinese immigrants to Denver providing cheap labor to the Transcontinental Railroad contributed to a growing wave of resentment and xenophobia among their White counterparts.

“[The Chinese immigrants] were competitors in the frontier economy—the frontier capitalist economy—and yet, they were viewed as unfair,” Dr. Wei said. “There were White ethnic groups that also suffered from the same problem until they were accepted as members of the dominant society. And what separated the Chinese and other Asians from these other groups is the fact that there was a color line.”

These tensions came to a head on October 31, 1880 when a drunken altercation between two Caucasian men and two Chinese men turned into a race riot that tore through Chinatown. By the end, thousands of dollars of property damage were accrued, and one Chinese man, Look Young, was beaten to death and then hung from a lamppost. 

Now over 140 years later, the only evidence of this historic Chinatown and anti-Chinese race riot is a plaque criticized for perpetuating negative Chinese stereotypes while offering a “white savior” perspective. These incidents have been so lost to history, in fact, that many of the members of the Re-envisioning Denver’s Historic Chinatown project were unaware of its existence for a large portion of their lives in Denver.

“I’ve been here for so long—I’ve never seen [the plaque],” Ben Niamthet, an architect involved with the project, said. “I walked by that street because that’s nearby my old office, and that’s an area that is popular with bars and restaurants. I’d walk by there all the time—never noticed that [plaque]. Had no clue.”

The plaque is actually located five blocks away from historic Chinatown on the Southeast corner of 20th and Blake Street.

“It’s kind of gone really quickly,” Kai Vong, a member of the Denver AAPI Commission, said. “Our group kind of jokes because originally what we were doing is we just wanted to remove the plaque and maybe get a new one in there. And then it kind of just snowballed after that. We had more people get interested and more people with their ideas, and it kind of just started growing really quickly.”

The erasure of the Chinese American and broader AAPI experience in Denver is one of the issues that has informed the project’s direction. At first, the members of the project mainly consisted of members of the Denver AAPI Commission, and their only goal was to replace the current plaque with a more accurate remembrance while also revitalizing the surrounding area.

“The plaque that sparked our interest—it’s on this really dilapidated building,” Shauna Medeiros-Tuilaepa, the Chair of the Denver AAPI Commission, said. “The facade is falling apart; there’s graffiti everywhere. It’s like … on the one side of a street downtown, [it’s] really nice, and then the other side, not so much.”

However, as the group began to outline their plans to replace the plaque, they found themselves moving beyond their original ideas into bigger, larger and more impactful projects. 

Picture of plaque courtesy of Gil Asakawa

Since then, they have begun creating short- and long-term goals that they hope to accomplish. Short-term goals include remaking the plaque, placing historical markers indicating where the riot broke out and where Lee was lynched and creating a mural in the alley where the riot began. Long-term goals include creating gateways at the beginning and end of the historic Chinatown alleyway, a kiosk for Denver residents or tourists to take a self-guided tour through the history of Denver’s Chinatown and AAPI community and lastly, a museum celebrating the AAPI community in Denver.

Niamthet has already begun imagining new architectural designs to commemorate the depth of Asian history within Denver. He and a former colleague, Adam Buehler, have researched various styles of Asian architecture in their consideration of the design of the markers and monuments.

“We want to incorporate many Asians because there’s a large group of us,” Niamthet said. “There’s a huge population of Pacific Islanders that’s completely underrepresented. I know very little about Pacific Islanders … I did like a crash course. I mean, I’ve only tapped into just the tip of things.”

The project members as a whole agree that though their initiative began with the concept of reinventing Denver’s historic Chinatown, the final product will be a larger district that incorporates the various AAPI populations within Denver.

According to data from the Bureau of Census, in 2019, the estimated size of AAPI populations within Denver County from largest to smallest are Vietnamese, Chinese (except Taiwanese), Asian Indian, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Other. 

Graph created by Lindsay Wang, Data taken from the Bureau of Census Table B02018

“We definitely want to not make it a Chinatown,” Asakawa said. “You know, Chinese town. We want to make it an Asian American Pacific Islander enclave.”

“We hope that [this project] makes Denver more culturally rich and historically rich as well,” Vong said. “And [that] it provides the community a sense of belonging because there is a good portion of Asian Pacific Islanders in Denver, and so we want to recognize that we all have a part in Denver, and so we want Denver to reflect that.”

Denver itself has already demonstrated support for the project’s mission. On the 140th anniversary of the anti-Chinese riot took place, Michael B. Hancock, the Mayor of Denver, signed a proclamation that recognized the Chinese community and its history in Denver. 

Mayor’s Proclamation courtesy of Gil Asakawa

Asakawa, who helped draft the proclamation, recognized that the proclamation was simply a first step.  “It’s symbolic,” he said. “It’s not chang[ing] things. But it was a great way for us to kick off our efforts and let the public know because we got the media coverage for it.”

Despite the support from the city for a new Asian district, project members have to work around established businesses and residences.

“We’re not really looking to crowd out anyone that’s already there as much as to just inject some more Asian influence in the area,” Joie Ha, the Vice-Chair of the Denver AAPI Commission, said.

“It wouldn’t be displacing anybody,” Dr. Wei agreed. “It would presumably try to take advantage of the existing space. People do move out; maybe we can bring in some Asian businesses wherever that’s possible.”

For some, while the pandemic has created certain difficulties in terms of organizing and coordinating meetings, it has also provided an opportunity to stand up for their communities.

“Because of the pandemic, as you know, there was a rise in anti-Asian racism—not there was, there is,” Ha said. “And that helps us continue to push for this information to be out there, to sort of show that the anti-Asian racism has always existed and continues today. So it definitely has served as a way for us to motivate ourselves and push ourselves to show and tell the Asian American Pacific Islander story.”

Regardless of the difficulties, the project members are optimistic about its future impact. Though the project is in its beginning stages, they are all dedicated to continue working and seeing it through, to not only commemorate Denver’s historic Chinatown but also to celebrate its current AAPI community.

“We all felt that it was important to not let that history be forgotten and to bring awareness back about it and then to also … promote diversity, equity, having a voice, [giving] all of our other ethnicities a seat at the table and just kind of lifting everyone up,” Medeiros-Tuilaepa said.

(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the person killed in the Chinese Riot of 1880. We apologize for the error)

AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story.



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