Cantonese immigrant Chin Lin Sou (1836–94) defied racial barriers to establish himself as an esteemed business and civic leader in Colorado. Not only do historians recognize Chin and his wife as the first Chinese American family in Colorado, but Chin and his descendants also established a positive legacy for Chinese Americans by defending Chinese workers from prejudice, supporting Chinese-owned businesses, and lifting Chinese residents from the social confines of Denver’s Chinatown. Immigrants such as Chin, who successfully built railroads and mined for gold in the face of discriminatory laws and physical violence, reflect a more complete story of the American West than the traditional narrative that centers European and Anglo immigrants.
Early Years in China
Chin Lin Sou was born in 1836 in southern China. Little is known about his early years except that he received an education (perhaps for the Confucian civil service) and learned to speak fluent English. He left Guangzhou (also known as Canton) between 1855 and 1858, one of many emigrants fleeing the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64).
Push for Railroads
Chin arrived in San Francisco just as American railroad construction gained momentum. Railroad magnates throughout the 1850s and 1860s recruited Chinese immigrants to build their railways. The work included blasting mountain sides, clearing rubble, and erecting retention walls. The railroad companies failed to formally record deaths, but engineering reports and newspaper articles suggest that hazardous work conditions from avalanches and mudslides, lack of safety regulations around explosives, and disease killed hundreds of Chinese workers each year. The railroad paid these Chinese laborers less than their white counterparts, who received free food rations and worked fewer hours. The Central Pacific Railroad hired Chin to work as a foreman of Chinese laborers. As an educated foreman who spoke English, Chin was able to escape the fate of many impoverished Chinese laborers who died in obscurity.
After the Central Pacific joined the Union Pacific to complete the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, Chinese immigrants were hired to build and maintain other lines. Chin found work with the Denver Pacific Railroad as a foreman overseeing Chinese crews building a feeder line connecting Denver to the Union Pacific at Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Arrival in Colorado
Some Chinese immigrants migrated to the nation’s interior to find work in agriculture, logging, and mining. After the Denver Pacific was built, Chin remained in Colorado, where in 1870 he became a supervisor of Chinese laborers near the mining town of Black Hawk. As mining foreman, Chin hired workers, drafted contracts, purchased supplies, and negotiated wages.
Chin also started to deal in abandoned mining claims. Western territories forbade Chinese miners from filing original claims, forcing them to work mines that had been discarded by white-only operations. In turn, Chinese miners specialized in the less profitable form of placer mining, using water to collect surface-level gold in streambeds. Unlike other Chinese immigrants who turned to cooking and laundry when placer mining failed them, Chin made a small fortune by buying and selling abandoned mines. His success as a mine manager challenged many of the stereotypes of Chinese immigrants, whom whites viewed “as a sort of necessary evil” to fulfill cheap labor demands, as the Colorado Springs Gazette put it in 1874.
In general, white Americans across the West excluded Chinese immigrants from mainstream society because their language, religious practices, and physical appearance seemed too alien. In untruthful reporting that simply confirmed existing biases among white readers, journalists sensationalized Chinese immigrants as dangerous heathens who indulged in prostitution and gambling. Denver’s Chinatown, located in Denver’s lower downtown, was referred to as “Hop Alley” by white residents, and it gained a notorious reputation for opium and crime. Non-Chinese residents viewed the neighborhood as a source of entertainment, with wealthy whites frequenting opium dens as the drug became fashionable in high society.
Chin defied the usual Chinese stereotypes because he stood six feet tall with blue-gray eyes, spoke fluent English, dressed in the Western style, and became a naturalized American citizen. His acceptance into society was an exception to the norm. Newspapers regularly praised him for his intelligence and entrepreneurship while they disparaged other Asians. In 1892 the Fairplay Flume described Chin as “one of the ‘whitest’ of his kind” and two years later labeled him as “a more than usually intelligent Chinaman.” These comments reveal that many white Coloradans still considered Chin an outsider.
Chin’s success enabled him to act as an ambassador for the Chinese community as it confronted prejudice and discrimination. Early on the morning of May 21, 1874, a fire partially destroyed Central City. Local authorities claimed without evidence that Chinese miners had started the fire during a religious ceremony. To quell growing anger, Chin defended the miners by claiming a defective flue started the fire. Newspapers reported that people believed Chin’s account because of “his gentlemanly and dignified deportment” and “rare skill in conducting business affairs.” The fire’s true cause remains unknown.
Chin used his financial success to assist Colorado’s growing Chinese community. Between 1870 and his death in 1894, he supervised hundreds of Chinese placer miners near Black Hawk, Central City, Denver, and Fairplay. With his mining associate Edward L. Thayer, Chin also opened supply stores in Gilpin County. In Denver, he participated in the Chee Kong Tong, a Chinese fraternity dedicated to providing financial aid to Chinese-owned businesses and helping the Chinese community.
Unlike many other Chinese immigrants, Chin earned enough money to pay for his wife’s passage from China, and the couple had six children. In 1873 their first daughter, Lily, made news as Colorado’s first Chinese American child. Nicknamed the “Belle of Chinatown” by the press, Lily grew into a fashionable socialite. Her extravagant 1894 wedding to businessman Look Wing Yuen shook Denver amid unsubstantiated, racist claims that Chin had sold his daughter to a much older man with two wives.
Colorado’s Chinese community became a target as white fears about Chinese workers led to immigration restrictions in the late nineteenth century. On October 31, 1880, a mob attacked Denver’s Chinatown, lynching one man and destroying Chinese-owned businesses and houses. The attack was part of a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that led to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration and denied Chinese immigrants naturalization. Denver’s Chinese community rebuilt after the riot but eventually began to shrink because it was heavily male, lacked new immigrants under the immigration ban, and was prohibited by law from interracial marriages. Chin, as a naturalized citizen with a family, was an outlier. Denver’s Chinese population reached its peak at 980 in 1890, but by the 1940s only three families remained.
Chin died of a long-term illness on August 10, 1894. He was originally buried at Riverside Cemetery until his family exhumed his body and returned it to China. Almost a century later in 1977, the Ethnic Minority Council of the Colorado Centennial-Bicentennial Commission cosponsored a stained-glass memorial at the State Capitol dedicated to minority leaders. Chin was included in the memorial, but he was depicted in a red Chinese gown rather than his typical suit.
Five generations of Chin’s descendants have lived in Denver. Chin’s son, Willie Chin, ascended to his father’s position as unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” after Chin’s death. Willie’s two sons, William and Edward, both served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. Their sister, Wawa, graduated with a business degree from Colorado Women’s College.
Chinese American participation in the war, followed by immigration reform in the 1960s, fostered better relations between Chinese Americans and mainstream society. While this slow reconciliation and new fair housing laws ended the need for Denver’s Chinese neighborhood, Chinese Americans still faced prejudice. One of Chin’s descendants, Carolyn Kuhn, recalled being told “you don’t belong here” as a child, even though she is a fourth-generation Denverite. Although Colorado’s history of racial discrimination has left behind a whitewashed version of history, the experiences of people like Chin show that the state’s past is far more diverse than many Coloradans know today.