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It is Denver’s grimmest Halloween tale.
On October 31, 1880, Denver’s first race riot broke out—a violent attack perpetrated by a white mob on the residents of what was then the city’s Chinatown. It started when a group of intoxicated white men harassed two Chinese patrons of John Asmussen’s Saloon on the corner of 16th and Wazee streets in LoDo. As the Chinese men left the parlor, more white people—spurred by an existing culture of yellow peril, a movement that depicted individuals of Asian descent as a threat to Western values—congregated to descend upon the community living in the roughly five-block stretch of Wazee Street. The 450 Chinese residents faced a mob of 3,000 to 5,000 people (about 10 percent of Denver’s population at the time) as they burned down nearly every Chinese home and business. One man, Look Young, was lynched, while many others were severely beaten.
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Since then, the lack of visible history—besides a plaque with derogatory language titled “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880” that was once located at the intersection of 20th and Blake streets—means that the tragic event remains relatively unknown to many Coloradans, even members of the Asian-American community.
“Amazingly, I was lacking in this information [about the riot] until just a few years ago,” says Edwin Zoe, a half-Taiwanese, half-mainland Chinese restaurateur who operates some of the only Chinese-owned eateries in LoDo. The 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist opened the second location of his Boulder-born Zoe Ma Ma by Union Station in 2015 and debuted a second outpost of his Dragonfly Noodle in October. The Pacific Rim noodle house is located on 16th Street Mall, two blocks away from where the 1880 riot began.
From 1870 to 1880, many immigrants from China began migrating from the West Coast to interior states, resulting in the growth of Denver’s Chinese population. They were drawn to LoDo, a central area where they could settle and set up businesses or find service jobs. While most of the neighborhood’s Chinese residents stayed in the town after the riot, the small Chinatown never fully recovered. By bringing his concepts to LoDo, Zoe hopes to maintain the long-standing presence of Chinese heritage in the district.
Zoe contends, though, that “a Chinatown, one restaurant does not make.” While eateries do convey some of the neighborhood’s history, Zoe states that a true Chinatown renaissance would require far more public and private investment than is currently on the table. Tommy Lee, owner of Hop Alley in nearby RiNo, agrees, noting that a physical center for Chinese culture could help maintain business for Chinese restaurants by drawing in more customers. “If we had a Chinatown like San Francisco or whatever, that would be awesome,” Lee says. “I don’t know if it’s possible at a city like Denver.”
Keeping a dining establishment afloat in the area is also not easy, says Zoe. It comes down to the prevailing belief that Chinese cuisine is cheap. “Because of that expectation,” he says, “it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that people say, ‘Well, I don’t think a Chinese dish should cost more than $10 or $15.’ ” Upcharges are risky, so often Chinese restaurants must locate themselves in low-rent districts. The persistence of spots like Zoe’s and JJ Bistro in the heart of downtown—which has served Sichuan and Mandarin Chinese staples in Sakura Square since 2005—is a triumph in a neighborhood known for its pricey real estate.
“[Zoe’s] a braver person than I am,” says Lee, regarding Zo Ma Ma and Dragonfly Noodles’ placement in LoDo. Through conversations with Chinese restaurant owners across town, though, Lee knows that inflation has hit everyone. The cost of operating a dining establishment anywhere in the Mile High City is rising. “It’s definitely not cheap anymore,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Denver’s Chinese and Asian-American communities continue to advocate for themselves, in ways both big and small. Lee was careful in choosing “Hop Alley” when naming his restaurant; he wanted the name to be a reminder of Chinatown’s history and serve as an act of reclamation as a Chinese American himself.
In April, the city of Denver formally apologized for the 1880 riot. A letter detailing the city’s involvement in discriminatory practices—like providing no compensation or legal justice for victims of the riot, pushing remaining Chinese residents out of the city in subsequent decades, and eventually razing the abandoned neighborhood—is another step in recognizing the damaged history of Denver’s Chinese population.
Social activism has also recently ignited around the only significant historical marker of the riot. This past August, city of Denver officials, along with members of Denver’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, removed the Hop Alley plaque from 1962 Blake Street. Historian William Wei, board member of the Colorado Asian Pacific Union (CAPU), described the plaque’s central issue to Colorado Public Radio in 2019. “If you read this plaque carefully, you notice that it does not actually dwell on the victims of this race riot, the Chinese… instead, it focuses on the heroes who came to their rescue.”
Kai Vong, secretary of CAPU and a sophomore at Western Colorado University, was part of the team that spearheaded the plaque’s removal. He says the project was harder than anticipated, especially because CAPU and the city could not reach the owner of the building on which the plaque hung. Only through Denver’s chief equity officer Dr. Aisha Rousseau could CAPU locate the owner to receive permission to proceed.
Moving forward, CAPU plans to install three new markers as well as a mural at Denver Fire Station Number 4 to communicate the story of the city’s Chinatown with more historical and geographical accuracy. In the apology letter issued to the Chinese community earlier this year, Mayor Michael Hancock also said that Denver is committed to establishing an Asian Pacific Historic District, sponsoring the painting of public murals, and other initiatives to bring awareness to the culture and history of Asian Pacific Coloradans.
As for Vong, a Chinese American born in Hawaii that moved to Colorado at age seven, he remembers the racism and stereotypes he was first exposed to after moving to Denver. But more than that, he remembers the pride that he developed regardless, which led him to his current advocacy work. “There may not be a lot of us,” Vong says, “but the people that are here are still experiencing all the same things, and just try to find a group to unite us all together.”
Donate to Colorado Asian Pacific United’s Re-envisioning Denver’s Historic Chinatown initiative here.