‘Reclaiming Denver’s Chinatown’ Tells Story of Long Lost Neighborhood

By Roxana A. Soto
Jan. 24, 2023

The remnants are gone, but Denver was once home to the largest Chinese enclave in the Rocky Mountains. At its peak, nearly 1,000 residents lived along Wazee and Blake streets from 15th to 17th in what is now Lower Downtown. So what happened to them?
The latest documentary from the Denver Office of Storytelling, inspired by descendants of those early residents, explains.
The history of the Chinese people and the integral role they played in Denver begins shortly after the city’s inception. According to a Colorado Magazine article from 1965, local newspapers claimed the first Chinese immigrant settled here just a decade after the city was founded. Identified only as "John Chinaman," a story from June 29, 1869, makes clear the anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent at the time:
“He came in yesterday, a short, fat, round-faced, almond-eyed beauty, dressed in a shirt, blue overalls, blouse and hat, with his pig-tail curled up on top of his cranium as nice as you please... He appeared quite happy to get among civilized people.”
It’s a ridiculous description given that most Chinese immigrants arrived in Denver after working in mines or helping to build the Western section of the transcontinental railroad, a dangerous feat with monumental implications for which early Chinese immigrants rarely receive recognition
If you give the railroad its due importance, then you also have to credit those who built it, and that would include the Chinese immigrants who are mainly responsible for the building of the Central Pacific or the western half of that railroad," said Dr. William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Asians in Colorado. "They, in effect, made it possible for the United States to be a unified nation."
Like most immigrant communities, the Chinese faced racism and discrimination. Chinese men were relegated to jobs as laundrymen and cooks and blamed for the ills of the larger society, including prostitution, gambling and opium use
By 1880, the xenophobia reached a fever pitch, and on Oct. 31 of that year, Denver's first recorded race riot broke out following a fight between drunken white laborers and a couple of Chinese workers who were playing pool," said Wei.
The fight spilled into the alleyway and quickly accelerated
Within hours, hundreds of Caucasian rioters descended on Chinatown, destroying the businesses and beating Chinese people. “They even lynched a young man whose name was Look Young," said Joie Ha, co-chair of Colorado Asian Pacific United, a coalition of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders, creatives and allies.
The action was used against the Chinese and in support of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States. 
Although the riot nearly obliterated Denver's Chinatown, its resilient residents rebuilt their community. The population doubled to 461 five years after the riot, reaching its apex of 980 in 1890.
"It was one event, October 31, 1880, that does not define the Chinese," said Linda Lung, a descendant of one of the original Chinatown families. 
In the end, the Exclusion Act kept the Chinese community from growing. By the time the buildings in Chinatown were razed in the name of urban renewal in 1940, there were very few Chinese people living in the area.
Lung and other families whose ancestors were part of Denver’s early Chinese community brought their story to Denver’s Storytelling team in 2021 with the hope it wouldn’t be forgotten. 
"I wanna convey the real history of the Chinese," said Lung. "I mean there's good and bad and ugly in any of the ethnic communities, but this is our story.”

The Making of 'Reclaiming Denver's Chinatown'

By Emily Maxwell
Jan. 24, 2023

 "Reclaiming Denver's Chinatown" was inspired by an email Linda Lung sent to the Office of Storytelling in early 2021 regarding her family’s story and the lack of representation of Chinese families in Western history. Since one of the missions of the office is to share the stories of underrepresented communities often left out of history books, the team jumped at the opportunity to dig deeper. 
As is often the case for storytelling about Denver’s marginalized communities, research yielded few items about Chinese living in the city in the late 19th century, only about a dozen photographs and a plethora of racist newspaper articles and illustrations. 
The majority of the historic imagery used in the documentary came from interviewees’ personal archives. Sisters Linda Jew and Carolyn G. Kuhn had conducted exhaustive research into their family’s legacy over the years, which included the contributions of their great-grandfather Chin Lin Sou, whose stained glass portrait is featured in the Colorado State Capitol.
“The reason my sister Carolyn did all this research was because of her daughter and our cousins’ children. They don't know anything about this,” Jew said. “Even my cousins, my generation, many of them don't know the story.”
Jew connects her family’s silence to the pain of the racism earlier generations endured. 
“I'm sure it was not something they want to remember,” she said. “It was tough times for them.” 
Many featured in the documentary spoke about their own family’s manner of dealing with racism even after living multiple generations in Colorado. Ahmoy, the Lung family matriarch, stressed the importance of assimilating. The entire family attended Christian churches and wore more American style clothing. Their Chinese traditions and customs were kept private. 
“The Chinese Exclusion Act was not even repealed until 1943,” said Lung. “We just didn't want to make a big issue out of a lot of things. We weren't going to rock the boat.”
The Office of Storytelling set out to do a short video on the history of Denver’s Chinatown but quickly realized the stories warranted more. In the end, we created a 50-minute documentary that celebrates the legacies of these families, their contributions to the West and the resilience of subsequent generations, and four short films about the individuals we interviewed. 
The storytelling coincided with national discourse about the history of Chinatowns across the West. In April 2022, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock issued a formal apology for the city’s racist actions and lack of accountability during the anti-Chinese race riot of 1880. Denver was the fifth city in the country and the first outside of California to express such remorse. The event made international headlines, and descendants featured in “Reclaiming Denver’s Chinatown” were recognized and honored. The Storytelling Team was proud to include the ceremony in the film, as well as a follow-up in which a racist plaque was removed from a building in LoDo.
In August 2022, filming wrapped up. Three months later, the documentary premiered at the 45th Denver Film Festival. Local, regional and international media outlets, including China Global Television Network, wrote about the film. 
Since then, numerous groups have reached out to ask the Storytelling Team to screen the film for their community. Stay tuned for an opportunity near you.

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