The city of Denver, located on high rolling plains a mile above sea level, is known as a melting pot of cultures and activities. Yet, beneath the city’s modern, progressive aura lies a seldom remembered part of its history: a bustling Chinatown neighborhood, and the nationalist rhetoric that led to its demise.
June 29, 1869.
“He’s come,” announced the Colorado Tribune, “the first John Chinaman in Denver.” Of course, John Chinaman wasn’t his real name but rather, a sign of the times. Anti-Chinese sentiments were on the rise when Hong Lee, likely a former railroad worker who had relocated from the West Coast, made Wazee Street between 15th and 17th Streets his home.
“Once upon a time in the American West, there were over 20 Chinatowns,” says William Wei, former Colorado state historian and board member of Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU), a group dedicated to the advancement and preservation of Asian history in Colorado.
Chinese migration to the United States began in 1848 at the start of the Gold Rush. Then in the 1860s, thousands of Chinese workers were used to build the Central Pacific Railroad, a treacherous stretch of land running through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“They couldn’t find enough white workers to build that portion of the railroad,” Wei says. “Many died, many were injured. And for all of this, they were paid less than their white counterparts.”
After the railroad was finished, Wei says, the workers dispersed to other states, with many ultimately finding work in Colorado. Relegated to the margins, Chinese men took low-paying labor jobs that white men didn’t want such as cooks and laundrymen.
In 1870, a year after the first recorded Chinese person moved to the city, Chinatown, originally called “Chinaman’s Row,” began to take roots in what’s now known as Lower Downtown (LoDo). As more Chinese businesses opened, Denverites referred to it as “Hop Alley,” referencing the availability of opium (“hop”) and the area’s alleged exotic experiences people thought could be had there. For Chinese immigrants, Wei says, it served as a safe space, a place for rest and recreation, a place to purchase Chinese goods and foods.
But that rest wouldn’t last long. As Chinatown grew, so did Euro-American resentment toward Chinese people. And in 1880, xenophobia in the American West and around the country reached a boiling point. Leading up to the first presidential election since Reconstruction, Republicans were faced with a choice: embrace the values of former Republican president Lincoln or forge a new path built on an underlying anti-immigrant sentiment. They chose the former, which led to accusations of anti-Americanism from southern Democrats.
This election also brought one of the nation’s earliest documented “October Surprises,” according to the Library of Congress. The New York newspaper The Truth published a letter purportedly from Republican candidate James Garfield. The forged letter addressed H.L. Morey of the Employers Union in Massachusetts and took a position in favor of Chinese immigration and labor.
“[White workers] needed a scapegoat for their problems. They found them among the Chinese,” Wei says. “They were easy to identify, for obvious reasons, and they were easy to victimize.”
On Oct. 30, political leaders held an anti-Chinese parade in Denver. The next day, two days before the presidential election, a drunken brawl between two white men and two Chinese men in a bar spilled into the streets and incited a race riot. Wei says within hours, a quarter of Denver’s population, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people, descended on Chinatown. With only a few hundred Chinese residents to stand their ground, the mob quickly overtook them, destroying businesses and homes. In the end, a 28-year-old Chinese man, Look Young, 28, was dragged through the street and hanged, while many others were beaten. The killers were never punished. The businesses were never compensated.
Two days later, the nation elected Garfield as the 20th president of the United States—a president who was reluctant to embrace anti-immigration rhetoric.
“Immigration has always been a thorny issue for the U.S., especially because we’re a nation of immigrants. We’re not the only nation to suffer from contradictions,” Wei says. “They nearly destroyed Chinatown, but in spite of the anti-Chinese riot, the survivors—most of them—remained. Chinatown grew because of the anti-Chinese sentiments.”
But the boon was temporary. As race riots continued to envelop the West, lawmakers were forced to act.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first law to outright target a specific ethnic group, stifled new immigrants from coming to the U.S. And on the precipice of World War II, Denver’s Chinatown began to disappear, as many could no longer find work in the area.
Reconciling Denver’s past with its present
While Denver’s lost Chinatown isn’t a well-remembered past, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community strives to keep the history alive and the community connected.
Adam You (BS ‘01) moved to Denver in 1991 as a teenager. At the time, there were no centralized Chinese resources. Twenty years went by, and nothing changed. Even Denver’s Chinese newspapers, he says, focused more on what was happening in China.
“There are supposed to be organizations and resources,” You says. “Quite a lot of my friends asked the same question.”
Yearning for a sense of community, You launched the Denver Chinese Source, a blog dedicated to providing information in Chinese about businesses, restaurants, healthcare and general happenings.
“For me, I want people to know that Denver, Colorado, is not a bad place for Asians,” You says.
In 2015, restauranteur Tommy Lee opened a modern Chinese restaurant, reclaiming the once derogatory name “Hop Alley” as one of pride and heritage. Originally, Lee’s vision for the space, two miles away from Denver’s old Chinatown, wasn’t opening a Chinese restaurant. He had planned on opening a Yakitori restaurant, which is type of bite sized Japanese grilled chicken. Plans eventually changed, however, and a week after Hop Alley’s opening, Lee was blown away by the Chinese heritage that lay in the building’s foundation.
Lee remembers an older man named Carl walking by the newly opened restaurant. Carl stopped in front of the entrance, pausing briefly to absorb the newness.
“Holy s—,” Carl told him. “I grew up here. My family used to own a soy sauce factory in this building. This space was meant to be a Chinese restaurant.”
Over the last 10 years, Colorado’s Asian population has skyrocketed, nearly doubling in size. According to census data, over a third of the AAPI population in the state live in Arapahoe, Denver and El Paso counties. As the community has grown, so has the desire to create a connected community, celebrating and memorializing Asian American histories.
In late 2020, after a summer of nationwide racial reckoning, members of CAPU petitioned the city of Denver to remove the plaque memorializing the riot. A small bronze square adorned to the side of a building across from Coors Field, the plaque was criticized for its description of the riot, derogatory references and racist undertones.
“It was a mischaracterization of the Chinese and the Chinatown. The Chinese community was characterized as a den of iniquity,” Wei says. “The plaque focused on white saviors.”
In 2022, the plaque was removed. Then-Mayor Michael Hancock called it a chance to right a wrong. And with the help of CAPU and other Asian organizations, more accurate historical markers have been erected. And in the heart of the once-forgotten Chinatown lies a mural on the side of Denver Fire Station 4—a tribute to the past and a toast to the future.