For economic reasons, as well as to protect themselves from an Anglo-American culture that mostly viewed them with contempt, Denver’s Chinese residents established an ethnic enclave in the city around 1870. The neighborhood endured decades of racially motivated violence and other forms of abuse, including the violent Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880. But the history of Chinatown demonstrates that the city’s Chinese residents did more than simply survive in the face of enormous prejudice and disadvantage—they built a thriving community that played an integral role in the city’s economy and culture. Today, Denver’s Chinatown remains mostly a memory.
Historically speaking, there was only one Denver Chinatown. In memory, however, there were always two. First and foremost was “Hop Alley,” a mysterious and vice-ridden place that captured people’s imaginations. That Chinatown was more of an idea than anything else—one that allowed people to play out their fantasies about the Chinese. To the extent that Denver’s Chinatown is remembered at all, it is likely to be as Hop Alley. Second and nearly forgotten was the ethnic ghetto where Chinese immigrants found refuge in the hostile milieu that was Colorado. It was a place they could call their own, a community that gave them moral support and physical security. It was there that they could eke out an existence and maintain their cultural identity, replicating the traditional Chinese social structure and modifying it when necessary to fit the state’s frontier society and economy.
Both Chinatowns occupied the same physical space. The neighborhood was established around 1870 on Wazee Street between Fifteenth and Seventeenth Streets, next to the old red-light district and near other working-class ethnic enclaves. Some scholars claim that the word Wazee itself is Chinese, meaning “Street of the Chinese” in Cantonese. From Wazee Street, Chinese residents spread to five areas of lower downtown. By 1940, most lived on the periphery of lower downtown, in the area of Market and Twentieth Streets, near the site of today’s Coors Field.
Remarkably, today there is no evidence that Chinatown ever existed in what is now the Lower Downtown Historic District, apart from a small plaque placed by LoDo District, Inc. on the side of a building on Twentieth Street between Market and Blake Streets. Both Chinatowns were perceived as alien places, inhabited by people whose racial and cultural characteristics set them apart from the dominant society. The Chinese were considered “strangers in the land” who were incapable of assimilating into American society. Until the very end, the Chinese who lived there were never able to break out of the various boundaries that confined them.
Hop Alley gave birth to a number of urban legends about itself and the Chinese who lived there. Its name was suggestive: “Hop” referred to the opium that had become synonymous with the Chinese, and “Alley” referred to the locations of building entrances where Chinese people lived. These entrances were probably situated in back for greater security and privacy. It was rumored that tunnels and secret rooms accessible only by trapdoors connected the buildings.
Denver’s white population largely viewed Hop Alley with suspicion and a certain degree of fascination. This was largely the work of yellow journalism, an irresponsible press that published sensationalized articles to feed its readers’ apparently insatiable appetites for information about the Chinese community. Typical was S. A. Meyer’s December 1909 article in The Denver Times, in which he describes Chinatown as “a dark, narrow alley, a series of dingy entrances, cubbyholes, underground passages, dismal, all-smelling places.” Its inhabitants were branded “heathen Chinee,” who presumably engaged in idolatrous behavior. Naturally, as heathens—that is, non-Christians—they were thought to indulge in every known vice, including opium smoking, gambling, illicit sex, and presumably a few additional vices unknown to the white population in Denver.
To many, Chinese were dangerous, every one of them a potential “boo how doy”—a “hatchetman” or “highbinder.” As a group, Chinese were suspected of being thugs who protected the criminal activity of the tongs—secret Chinese societies that were rumored to run Hop Alley and engage in wars with rival factions. Even though Denver’s Chinatown never had a Tong War, the Chinese served as a convenient bogeyman to frighten young Denverites. An 1896 Visitor’s Pocket Guide to Denver recommended that any whites venturing into Chinatown “apply at Central Police Station for guides.” As if Chinese inhabitants were some sort of nocturnal creatures—the rhetoric evokes images of vampires—Meyer wrote in his 1909 article, “It is only at night that you can see the Mongol quarter of Denver awaken into exotic life. Its people come into being with the dark and disappear with the dawn. Its acrid odors sting the nostrils. Fiery, contemptuous, bland, serene, foul smelling, your Oriental maintains that indefinable barrier that has kept the East and West apart since the centuries began.”
Meyer’s characterizations are typical of what is now recognized as Orientalist discourse: presenting Asians through a series of stereotyped images. Chinese and Mongolians belong to different ethnic groups, but Meyer enhanced the alleged Chinese threat by referring to them as “Mongols,” implying that they were somehow related to the Mongol Empire that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century.
While the Chinese engaged in various vices—right alongside the rest of American society—they hardly held a monopoly on them. Though much was made of Chinese prostitutes, there were actually very few of them in Denver. According to the March 28, 1880, Rocky Mountain News, there were just ten prostitutes in Chinatown. Except for the occasional story about the plight of certain Chinese prostitutes, there is little reliable information about them. Receiving greater attention was the Chinese propensity for gambling. Indeed, the Chinese were famous in the American West for their games of chance, such as the card games fan-tan and pai gow (also known as “cowpie poker”), and their willingness to risk their hard-earned money on them. Despite periodic raids on Chinese gambling halls, the problem persisted into the early twentieth century. By the end of Chinatown’s existence, however, gambling had become little more than a small-stakes social event.
But the vice most closely associated with the Chinese community was smoking opium. Denver had seventeen opium dens, twelve of them in Chinatown. Citizens thought most Chinese were “opium fiends.” Certainly, there were Chinese who smoked opium, but they were mostly nonaddicted social smokers. In fact, opium dens flourished in Chinatown because of the large number of white patrons. Before World War I, according to retired police captain Tom Russell, 60 percent of the dens’ customers were white addicts from uptown Denver. Presumably, they and the Chinese both smoked opium to escape the drudgery of their daily lives. While opium smoking was socially frowned upon, there was no law against it until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.
Besides Hop Alley, there was the other Chinatown, a ghetto where Chinese gathered for mutual support in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. There they were among countrymen who could help them find a home and a job as well as goods and services denied them elsewhere. Perhaps most important, they found spiritual solace there, as the community provided a place where they could socialize and engage in traditional religious practices.
Despite overwhelming levels of discrimination, the government of the Colorado Territory initially sought to attract Chinese people to the new community in order to provide a reliable and inexpensive workforce. On February 11, 1870, the Colorado Territorial Legislature adopted a joint resolution encouraging more Chinese to immigrate to the area, believing they would “hasten the development and early prosperity of the territory, by supplying the demands of cheap labor.” Except for the brief deluge of people during the 1858–59 Gold Rush, the territory suffered from chronic labor shortages, and hard physical work was necessary to make Colorado economically viable. The resolution supposedly guaranteed the Chinese “security in their persons and property,” but the subsequent persecution and violence against them proved that to be illusory.
Few women lived in Denver’s Chinatown. As with other Chinese communities in the United States, Denver’s was primarily a “bachelor society,” with few opportunities for family life. Although a little over half of the men who lived in Chinatown were married, most had left their wives in China. This reflected the Chinese tradition of women staying at home to care for children and their husbands’ parents while the men went away to work. The men remitted their earnings to support the family in China. Occasionally, wives joined their husbands in the United States, but only after the men had established themselves and could support the family. Merchants rather than laborers could usually afford to do so.
In 1880 only twenty-nine women lived in Chinatown, and there were only twenty-two in 1885. This situation became more-or-less permanent with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that prohibited the entry of Chinese into the country. Meanwhile, anti-Chinese sentiment made intermarriage between Chinese people and whites a very rare occurrence. The gender imbalance prevented the establishment of stable families and the creation of a succeeding generation in Denver. The imbalance would begin to correct itself with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and the influx of Chinese immigrants after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Only in 1990 did the Chinese community in Colorado attain a balanced ratio of male to female. Chinese in early Denver also had limited employment prospects.
As a frontier community, the city offered few occupational choices. The Chinese were unable to avail themselves of many of these, being excluded from those occupations that placed them in direct competition with whites. They were, however, able to find work in service occupations that white workers avoided—notably and stereotypically, as laundrymen. Seeing the demand for laundry services, Chinese people began opening hand laundries in the 1870s. Starting a hand laundry was relatively easy, requiring no more than a scrub board, an iron and ironing board, and a small place to work.
A hand laundry was easy to operate since it required little skill and no knowledge of English. As a business that required little capital, a laundry allowed a common laborer to become a small businessman. As such, it gave a Chinese worker a modicum of status in his village in China, but in the United States it was a low-prestige occupation thought of as women’s work. Most importantly, laundry businesses allowed Chinese workers to earn enough to provide for their families in China. In some instances, men even saved enough money to return to China, where they bought land to farm or started another business. Until steam laundries displaced the hand laundries at the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese held a virtual monopoly on the Denver laundry business. As the Chinese were forced out of the business, many opened restaurants catering to the general population.
Among the ethnic enclaves that emerged in nineteenth-century Denver, Chinatown was the most visible. Because of that visibility, the Chinese were easily singled out for persecution, a phenomenon that resulted in Denver’s first recorded race riot. Though there were few Chinese people in Colorado, and their work was too specialized to constitute competition, they were still perceived as an economic threat. European immigrant laborers saw the Chinese as a potential peril to their livelihood and as docile laborers who would thwart efforts to improve pay and working conditions by accepting low standards for both. Ironically, both groups suffered from conflicts with mainstream society thanks to their alien status. The essential difference between the two groups was that the Chinese were considered alien on account of their race rather than their status as outsiders.
On October 31, 1880, Denver’s Anti-Chinese Riot began when an altercation broke out between several whites and two Chinese men playing pool in a saloon. Thousands of rioters then marched on Chinatown, some shouting, “Stamp out the yellow plague!” and destroying everything in their path. The following day’s Rocky Mountain News reported that Chinatown was “gutted as completely as though a cyclone had come in one door and passed . . . out the rear.” The only fatality was a laundryman named Look Young. According to the popular 1951 account in Forbes Parkhill’s The Wildest of the West, Look was “lassoed and dragged to death, and his body was strung up on a lamppost.” But an autopsy reported that Look had actually died from a “compression of the brain, caused by being beaten and kicked.”
After the riot, one might have expected the Chinese to abandon Denver. Instead, they chose to remain and rebuild. Five years later, the Chinese population had actually grown, paralleling the growth of the city’s general population. By 1890, the population of Chinatown had reached its apex, with nearly 1,000 residents. The steady growth in Chinatown was a result of the anti-Chinese movement in Colorado. From the moment the Chinese arrived in the territory, anti-Chinese incidents occurred throughout the state. In Nederland, Chinese were expelled from the Caribou mines. In Gregory Gulch, their queues (the iconic pigtails most Chinese men wore at the time) were cut off and they were run out of town. They were completely shut out of Leadville. Alpine, Aspen, Balfour, Black Hawk, Creede, Cripple Creek, Gothic, Ouray, Rico, and Silverton all saw their own anti-Chinese episodes. This racial antagonism forced Chinese people across Colorado to flee to Denver’s enclaves for safety and work.
Denver’s Chinatown was razed in 1940 to make room for warehouses in the Lower Downtown district. By that time, mostly on account of the Exclusion Act, it had very few residents, the fates of whom remain unknown today.
Adapted from William Wei, “History and Memory: The Story of Denver’s Chinatown,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 22, no. 4 (2002).