People have been spit at in grocery stores. College students were pushed into oncoming traffic. Workers at a Vietnamese restaurant had threatening insults hurled at them. Inventory was knocked off the shelves at a Mongolian-American couple’s liquor store. Other store owners had rocks thrown at them. 

Those are just a few incidents of hateful rhetoric and violence directed at Coloradans of Asian descent that Fran Campbell, president and CEO of the Denver Asian Chamber of Commerce, has heard about since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

During that time, politicians, like Representative Lauren Boebert and former President Donald Trump, have used racist terminology—“China virus” and “kung flu”—to refer to the novel coronavirus by its geographic origins. That has helped contribute to an uptick in hate crimes against members of the Asian-American community, including the March 16 spa shootings in Georgia that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian women. Between March 2020 and February 2021, the nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate documented more than 3,800 such incidents nationwide, 44 of which were in Colorado. In fact, anti-Asian hate crimes jumped 149 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year in the nation’s 16 largest cities, which includes Denver. 

“It makes us all fearful, not just as business owners, but as families and friends wanting to go out,” says Campbell.

Discrimination against people of Asian descent is not new in the United States—or Colorado. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented Chinese laborers from entering the country. Around 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps during World War II. And the murder of Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin in 1982 at the hands of two white auto plant workers, who blamed Japanese imports for the fact their industry was falling apart, highlighted long-standing animosity toward Asian Americans. 

Some of that acrimony has even continued in recent years. Kevin Leung, who serves on the Douglas County School District Board of Education, says he has been asked seemingly racist questions, such as whether he even speaks English. “I have lived in Colorado since 1990,” says Leung, “and I personally have experienced, at least twice, people telling me to go back to where I came from.”

In early 2020, as the world was first becoming aware of the novel coronavirus, Colorado’s Asian-owned small businesses—including restaurants, markets, hair salons, and dry cleaners—saw a marked decline in customer visits. By the time the state was under a stay-at-home order in March, those businesses were already 30 to 40 percent behind, in part because of false fears about Asians spreading the virus, according to Campbell. 

“There is a misconception that whatever happens in China has something to do with Chinese Americans. No matter how many years we are here, how many generations born here, they’re still treating us like we are foreigners,” says Leung. “We’re Chinese Americans. We’re no different from the Italian Americans, Irish Americans. Our heritage does not define our loyalty.”

Then came increased threats and hate crimes. A woman verbally harassed two Asian Americans walking on a Denver street, saying things like they “smell like sh*t” and “you guys are all disgusting,” according to a report submitted to the Anti-Defamation League. A liquor store in Louisville posted a sign that read “Thanks China” and included a reference to a white supremacist slogan. After appearing on Fox News to talk about the challenges of running a restaurant during the pandemic, Jie Zheng, who operates Volcano Asian Cuisine in Greenwood Village, got a hate-filled phone call. 

“It was shocking when someone called in using the language of F-words, and ‘you’re Chinese.’ It was not fun to say the least,” says Zheng, who also had his car tire slashed just a few weeks earlier. 

Campbell said anti-Asian rhetoric is also happening outside the metro area, in mountain communities and rural parts of the state. In Rifle, for example, restaurateur Jack Chen told the Post Independent he has faced misconceptions about where his establishment’s food comes from. When he walks into his favorite bar, people say things like, “Chinese virus is coming.”

While the data is certainly showing an increase in anti-Asian racism, many incidents are likely not being documented. Hate crimes often go unreported, and the numbers can be messy. Advocates say a distrust of institutions, worries about retaliation, and fears that engaging with authorities could jeopardize immigration status often lead to incidents not being reported.

“If you look at official numbers, it may not seem like it’s a huge increase,” says Joie Ha, founder of Community Organizing for Radical Empathy and vice chair of the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission. “But then when you start talking to the community, listening to what has been going on, you can see that there has just been dozens and dozens of incidents this past year in Colorado.”

That’s why Boulder County established a bias and hate hotline for people who might not feel comfortable dealing with uniformed law enforcement. The county’s district attorney, Michael Dougherty, said his office doesn’t share any information about victims and witnesses with agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “The key is having community conversations to try to close that gap and build more trust and understanding about what the criminal justice system is about in this country and what we could do to help protect people,” Dougherty told 5280. “How many people have been victimized by hate crimes and never report it?” 

In Denver, police have a bias-motivated crimes hotline and said they’re spending extra time patrolling Asian-American communities across the city.

The crimes also have lawmakers paying closer attention—both in Colorado and nationwide. For the first time in more than 30 years, Congress held a March 18 hearing on discrimination against Asian Americans, during which Democrats condemned such actions and Republicans mostly asserted that it is considered free speech. Governor Jared Polis has said Colorado “stands united” against the hate.

“If we don’t hold people to account when they incite hateful and xenophobic rhetoric, this is going to continue to happen,” said Howard Chou, vice chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. “We can’t let this go unchecked.”

Representative Jason Crow, who serves one of the most diverse congressional district’s in the state, says leaders like him have a bully pulpit that they have to use responsibly. “It’s really important that I use that to be very clear about our values as a community and a nation … what we will tolerate and what we won’t, and when there’s hate and bigotry against the people that I represent, I will always stand up and be a voice against that,” he told 5280. Crow was one of the co-sponsors of a 2020 House resolution that condemned anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic.

Advocates say the best way to help is to speak out when you witness a hate crime. You can report it to local law enforcement and groups like Stop AAPI Hate, who published safety tips for those both experiencing or witnessing hate.

“Some of them happen in public places, [and] there are people surrounding the incident and no one speaks up,” says Ha. “So I really encourage people to speak up.”

Ha also believes that more education and awareness can help people understand these communities. “The Asian-American story is largely unknown by the majority of Americans,” she says. That includes learning more about the history of Asian discrimination, as well as considering taking part in bystander intervention trainings to understand what to do when witnessing hate.

“I feel like in Colorado, we have this notion that Coloradans are really friendly, it’s a very welcoming place,” says Ha. “It doesn’t excuse Colorado from being racist: There are still racists here, and there are things that do happen here against the Asian-American community.”

Vignesh Ramachandran
Vignesh Ramachandran
Vignesh Ramachandran is a freelance journalist and co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media. He’s on Twitter at @VigneshR.