Goal Is To Create New, More Inclusive Business District For AAPI CommunitiesBy Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders in Denver want to revive the historic Chinatown that played a major role in the development of the city in the 19th century before its eventual decline decades later. They hope to create a more inclusive AAPI business district that accurately tells the story of Chinese Coloradans and provides a brighter future for all cultures to be celebrated in downtown. 

“Creating a space for our Asian American communities specifically to feel safe, to feel proud, and to be supported during such tumultuous times,” said Shauna Medeiros-Tuilaepa, a member of Colorado Asian Pacific United. “There’s a whole ton of different ethnicities that are under our umbrella and we need to, especially now more than ever, we need to be more supportive of each other and have a collective voice.” 

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A neighborhood that covered several blocks, Chinatown included 14th Street to 17th Street and Blake Street to Wazee Street as part of its perimeter in Lower Downtown. Wazee is the word where Dug Creek comes from, the name for Denver’s Chinatown. It was growing at a time when cities across the country were seeing rapid change in their size. Not just a collection of businesses but also a residential area many immigrants called home.

“It was a wonderous place, a wonderful place, people would go there on tours back then,” said Dennis Martinez, a guide for historic walking tours who has studied Denver’s Chinatown. “There was romance here, there was drama and intrigue here.”

For decades, the story of Chinatown has been reduced to a place for visitors to pursue their vices away from home and the inaccurate telling of the 1880 Anti-Chinese Race Riot that destroyed much of what the community had built over several years. A plaque located near 20th & Blake and across from Coors Field tries to acknowledge the crimes of the past. But experts say it fails to respectfully account for this part of Denver’s history, beginning with the terms used on it. 

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“It’s titled Hop Alley, and the very term Hop Alley indicated that it was most associated with the smoking of opium,” said Dr. William Wei, a professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They faced all kinds of challenges in their lives and nevertheless, they persevered because they wanted to support their families.”

Medeiros-Tuilaepa is on the Denver AAPI Commission and asked other leaders from the community to create a nonprofit advising the process of replacing that plaque and envisioning a new Chinatown. Martinez and Wei are also a part of the group. One of their initial goals is to provide accurate information with markers at three different locations. The first will take the place of the current plaque at 20th & Blake, they want to replace it and send the original to History Colorado. Another would go around 18th & Wazee, where the riot began, while the third would honor the death of Look Young, the one riot death of official record on Arapahoe Street & 19th.

“The start of the riot was a group of men walking into a bar and intentionally trying to instigate a fight with a couple of Asian people who were playing pool,” Martinez explained. “These people had a bigger intent though, they didn’t just want to start fight, they really just wanted to raise hell.”

The arrival of Chinese immigrants in the region is often tied to the expansion of the railroad system across the country including this part of the West. But experts say they were likely here even before that. For 30 years, Chinatown was a lively part of the city providing a mix of businesses and services. Chinese goods from the East including tea and silk were available, laundromats and restaurants were in the neighborhood as well. But gambling, opium dens and prostitution were also a presence. These operations cast a shadow on the place and the people who lived there. 

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“This was no ordinary alleyway, it wasn’t even an alley, it was a community, it was a space, it was an enclave,” Martinez said. “Their way of living was completely different from anyone else when at the same time, it was a lot alike.”

Just as it is difficult to believe that only one person died in the riot, these experts also wonder whether the actual population of Chinese immigrants at the time was higher than officially recorded. The riot took place at the height of Denver’s Chinatown and was not what led to its decline. But 3,000 to 5,000 Denverites descended into the neighborhood and destroyed it, according to Wei. The Chinese tried to fight back but were outnumbered. Martinez explains that the white men who instigated the fight eventually led to a mob who killed Young.

“This past is very important if you are to understand the development of Colorado. Indeed, without acknowledging the role of the Chinese immigrants, you have an incomplete understanding,” Wei said. “If you really want to have an accurate and complete history, you need to take into consideration all the people involved and that certainly includes the Chinese Coloradans.”

The political climate soon after the riot eventually brought on the Chinese Exclusion Act in the country, with urban renewal and World War I all contributing to the end of Denver’s Chinatown. The rise of the KKK was also a factor, according to Martinez. Wei says one step to correct the inaccuracies of the past is to bring Asian American history into the education of students in Colorado. Martinez adds that a museum is needed to collect and protect these stories.

“Some of our people in the community are scared, they’re scared to speak out, they’re scared to be seen, and so what we would really love to do is to empower our community, it is safe, you can celebrate who you are, you should be proud of who you are,” said Medeiros-Tuilaepa. The recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes is not lost on her, but during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month she wants to highlight what is possible in her own city.

“Denver is by and large a fairly inclusive and progressive place and so for us to continue to build on that, we think that we really have a great opportunity, to continue to lift our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities up also hand in hand with other BIPOC communities.”

Ultimately, a new Chinatown will try to honor the five to six generations of Chinese families that have been in the state for more than a century. Sakura Square and the Far East Center have emerged as new cultural hubs for small businesses in Denver so any new endeavor will have to complement the progress made by those two locations.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Medeiros-Tuilaepa says it will need to not only celebrate AAPI families but also take into consideration the perspective of Indigenous people who were here before all others. The vision of this new business district may be 5 to 10 years in the future but by this fall, the process could begin with a mural at the site of the original plaque. 

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“There is really a great opportunity and it’s super exciting to know that we are in a place that we have that potential,” she said. “We’re hoping that through education of our histories that we can all celebrate together and collaborate together.”

Shawn Chitnis