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A plaque near Denver’s historic Chinatown marks a race riot. Its critics see it as an opportunity.

An effort to replace the Lower Downtown marker has raised the possibility of reconciling a painful chapter in the city’s history -- and reimagining a new Asian district

A plaque memorializing the Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880 at 20th and Blake streets in downtown Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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After a summer of contentious racial reckoning regarding historic monuments in Denver, one more public display — an easy-to-miss plaque on the wall of a building across from Coors Field in Lower Downtown — has raised objections for the manner in which it describes the city’s first race riot, an anti-Chinese rampage in 1880 by a white mob.

But those critics have turned the display, and fading recollection of a critical moment in the national dialogue on race, into the impetus for rekindling the memory of a once-prosperous Chinatown district. 

Though that 19th-century enclave virtually disappeared in a sudden spasm of violence, the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission, one of nearly a dozen city panels that track ethnic issues, has launched an effort to re-envision those streets and alleyways. 

Conversation around recognizing the cultural contributions of Chinese Americans touches on murals and informational kiosks, historical markers, projection art and — in moments of grand optimism — a reborn Asian district. 

“It could draw upon satellite communities that currently exist,” muses William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado and a member of the commission. He sees Sakura Square, at the intersection of 19th and Lawrence streets, as a possible anchor. 

“It’s purely at the idea stage, and we want to do it correctly,” he adds. “We have to figure this out, how to create such a district, one that would involve a lot of discussion and collaboration and cooperation. It would certainly benefit existing commercial enterprises in the area. More people, more foot traffic, better for businesses all around.”

The wide-ranging plans, which include both short- and long-term goals, may be simply talk for the moment — but the talk is gaining traction among groups like the Downtown Denver Partnership and the LoDo District Inc., which recognize the moment as ripe for a recommitment to the city’s diversity and the often difficult history behind it.

The Downtown Denver Leadership Program, with sponsorship from Molson Coors, is still finalizing plans for a mural project in 2021. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office even issued a proclamation noting the 140th anniversary of the violence on Oct. 31, 1880.

William Wei, left, and Gil Asakawa hold up Mayor Michael Hancock’s proclamation that made note of the Anti-Chinese Race Riot of Oct. 31, 1880, and marked the 140th anniversary as “Denver’s Chinatown Commemoration Day.” (Ken Arellano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We recognized that a lot of these stories have not really been told or shared as much as they should have been over time,” said John Wetenkamp, director of operations for LoDo District Inc., which reviews plans of designers, builders and architects. “And we absolutely want to support both the AAPIC effort and larger movements to reclaim and reframe history.”

Britt Diehl, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Denver Partnership, notes that in October, the organization hosted a diversity and inclusion speakers panel that delved into the history of diverse neighborhoods downtown, and how to honor their cultures, that featured Gil Asakawa, a member of the AAPIC.

“There was an outpouring of positive feedback from the downtown business community,” Diehl says. “Folks want to make an impact to make sure we are honoring the cultures of those who were here before us.”

Asakawa filled them in on Chinatown. 

“I talked about the plaque,” he says, “and the 1880 race riot. That got the ball rolling.”

What the plaque gets wrong

The marker, one of several explaining the area’s history to walking tours, recalls the “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880” that shook the city’s so-called Chinatown district. After a pool-hall disagreement spilled into the streets, a white mob estimated at 3,000 people chanting among other slogans, “Stamp out the yellow plague,” eventually descended on the area, destroying property and handing out brutal beatings. One Chinese man, the plaque notes antiseptically, “lost his life.”

The plaque concludes that the “dark day” did not end Denver’s “struggles with the underlying issues of racial prejudice.”

An illustration depicting the 1880 Chinatown riot that virtually destroyed the middle-class Denver downtown district. (Provided by Library of Congress)

Wei, a former state historian, notes some of the problems with the plaque, starting with its title. “Hop Alley” was a derogatory term rooted in drug trade — and indeed, the area was blamed for vices from opium dens to gambling to brothels, which most certainly existed in the working class enclave but hardly were the sole province of the Chinese. 

And the “Chinese Riot” was more accurately an anti-Chinese riot, coming just days before the presidential election and signaling anti-immigration sentiment as a growing national concern. The 26 lines of text describing the violence mention the white saloon owner and single out three separate white individuals for heroic acts protecting the Chinese residents, including a barkeep, a gambler and a brothel madam, “whose girls armed themselves with champagne bottles and high heels to hold the mob at bay.”

Though it notes that none of the victims were ever reimbursed for the destruction of their businesses, the name of the lone fatality — Look Young — does not appear.

For Wei, who has written and often lectured on the riot, the omissions are disturbing, especially when the actions of the whites who rendered aid are highlighted.

“I’m all for good Samaritans intervening,” he says. “But when you read it, especially from a perspective of someone familiar with the Chinese American experience, it emphasizes the white saviors stepping in to save the hapless Chinese. I have no problems focusing on some of the characters on the margins of society. I’m one of the first to applaud what they did. When we talk about the American West, we talk of outlaws and people on the margins as heroes. But here it inadvertently deprives the Chinese of their own agency, and describes them as victims. 

“I think it’s a misplaced emphasis.”

Asakawa agrees that the title “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot” perpetuates a derogatory and misleading view of the Chinese community at the time. He, Wei and the rest of AAPIC started discussing the impropriety of both the title and the text on the plaque. 

“That to me is so indicative of the white-centered discussion that has become so important this year,” Asakawa says, “about white privilege and how history is written by people who have European American roots. 

“I think the plaque was put up there without malice, not meant to be racist,” he adds. “It’s just incorrect and in this day and age, in the post-Black Lives Matter environment, it just feels flawed. So we started talking about what we should do about this thing.”

Unexpected allies surface

That’s when the commission heard from Ben Niamthet and Adam Buehler, two Denver architects. They had recently immersed themselves in discussion about the Chinatown riot at work after Niamthet, a Thai immigrant, made a short presentation to his co-workers during a biweekly discussion of issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“In the discussion that week, we learned about what the history was, how it was framed and remembered and how it wasn’t remembered,” Buehler says. “We took a closer look at the plaque across from Coors Field. It was obvious the plaque was written from a white-centered, white-savior lens.”

The Historic Chinatown committee on a walking tour of LoDo with Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioner Joie Ha, left, architect Ben Niamthet, WewattaRow.com’s Dennis Martinez, and DAAPIC Commissioner Ken Arellano. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They, too, started talking about what it would take to make a new plaque or marker of some sort. After logging in to a Zoom meeting of the AAPIC, they connected with Wei and offered their services. They began imagining what Buehler calls “an architectural intervention to drive the more accurate reading of history.”

While the commission explored ideas to reimagine the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Denver, Niamthet and Buehler were uniquely positioned to translate those concepts to the drawing board. Though both architects were laid off from their firm because of the pandemic, they have continued to work on design possibilities for both short- and long-term projects.

“Eventually we all just kind of connected, met at the site of the current marker and had a discussion of what is and what could be,” Niamthet says. “That’s how things started.”

Their concepts were informed by a walking tour they took with Dennis Martinez, who has made a sideline for the last couple years of delving into the history of Denver’s Chinatown. He was studying to be paralegal when he was required to take a class in Colorado history. He already had an interest in Asian culture when he learned about the Chinatown riot.

This plan shows the short-range possibilities for new historical markers commemorating the 1880 riot in Chinatown and virtually destroyed the community and killed one of its residents, known as Look Young. (Provided by Ben Niamthet)

“The deeper I looked,” he says, “the more I went down the rabbit hole.”

Last year he started doing walking tours of the area that augment his web site dedicated to exploring the history of Chinatown, or what also was known as Wazee Row. His immersion in the backstory of the district makes him a strong ally of the AAPIC effort to make the public more aware of yet another chapter of Colorado history that has largely escaped public scrutiny.

“The populists were riled up. They were out for blood. This was more like a Chinese hunt.”

Dennis Martinez, Denver History Buff

The Chinatown riot, and particularly the divisive political rhetoric that fueled it, strike Martinez as the kind of history we try not to repeat, but often do. In 1880, much of the talk centered on immigrant Chinese stealing American jobs. The riot preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed two years later, that became the first and only immigration measure to target a specific nationality.

“The populists were riled up,” Martinez says. “They were out for blood. This was more like a Chinese hunt. They were enraged. Not only is the riot important, but so was the whole situation in the U.S. — one political party casting another ethnicity as an all-out enemy. They called it ‘the Chinese question,’ and it was all over the place.”

Much of the rage focused on the many Chinese laundries in the district, including the Sing Lee laundry, where Look Young — also called Lu Yang or 陆扬 in his native language — happened to work. Martinez says that the mob centered its vitriol on him only because he wasn’t able to escape once the riot began.

Dennis Martinez of WewattaRow.com holds up the script of a 19th century stage comedy set in a Chinese laundry, which shows the stereotypes and racism against Chinese immigrants. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“He died from being beaten to death,” Martinez says. “A couple of accounts said he was strung up and hung for at least a few seconds. He didn’t stay up for any length of time, because two ladies with a doctor trying to help him shamed the ringleaders into not hanging him there.”

When he looks at the plaque at 20th and Blake streets, Martinez figures that the white-centered account simply made for an entertaining narrative — “and that’s highly inappropriate. That whole plaque is nasty, and should be taken down as soon as possible.” 

But the history, he adds, needs to be told and understood. At the time, Denver collectively swept the account under the rug, and the result has been that even in this year of national attention to racial matters, the Chinatown riot only recently came up because “nobody knows.”

“The town itself felt disgraced, felt nasty and dirty about what happened, and decided that to talk about the incident was in bad taste,” Martinez says. “Everybody stayed away from it. Because of all the covering up of that history, there’s still a lot to find and piece together. These people all had their stories, too.” 

Long and short of it

Though the concepts around re-envisioning the district remain in the very early stages of conversation, there has been no shortage of imagination and enthusiasm. 

Ideas include reworking the original plaque at 20th and Blake, and possibly replacing it with a different landmark such as a mural, which could be highly visible amid the extensive foot traffic to and from Colorado Rockies games. Markers at the spot on Wazee Street where the riot began and at a corner at 19th and Arapahoe streets, where Look Young was briefly hung from a lamppost, would also focus attention on specific events and locations.

That’s the short term.

Niamthet, who has been doing most of the design work, describes a couple of longer-term projects. He’d like to create a remembrance of the history of the original Chinatown in the alley that runs from 14th to 17th streets, between Wazee and Blake streets. He imagines a gateway followed by murals created by local Asian artists, possibly kiosks that could serve as mini, self-guided museums with interactive video screens that  would provide educational material about the local history of Chinese Americans and the larger history of Asian Americans — including the significant population of Japanese Americans. 

Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioners and volunteers helping the Chinatown project listen to history buff Dennis Martinez explaining the thriving Chinatown that used to exist along the alleyways of LoDo. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another of the longer-term ideas would have a rear-projection screen built atop the building at 1620 Wazee St., the flash point of the 1880 riot currently occupied by a restaurant, that could be an ongoing display of video and still images.

Buehler acknowledges that all of these ideas would depend on a level of cooperation from local businesses and city planners. 

“I feel like now, we’re in the mode of still connecting with different groups that will likely have a say in this, so we can have their insight and guidance,” he says. Already, the architects made a presentation to LoDo District Inc., since that group originally commissioned plaques to be placed around Lower Downtown. (Oddly, though, none of the groups seems to know the origin of the original.) 

It has been suggested that the original plaque could be donated to History Colorado, where it might be displayed in a manner similar to the controversial Union soldier statue that came down during the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That exhibit provides context to the original placement of the statue as well as the criticism that prompted protest.

MORE: History Colorado unveils the toppled Union soldier statue with an exhibit that seeks to tell its story. Its whole story.

Wei is thinking, even longer-term, about an entire Asian district.

“It would be a destination for tourists,” he says. “There could be other commercial establishments with an Asian theme, where they hold regular Asian celebrations like Lunar New Year. Ideally, also be a museum that focuses on the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience.”

Wei figures the project is feasible because, other than both U.S. coasts, there’s not that much in terms of commercial and cultural districts that focus on Asian Americans in between. 

“It seems like a natural, to create this community,” he says.

The model, Wei adds, would be Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

“It may not happen in my lifetime,” he says. “But the idea is to get it out there, and hopefully, if not us, succeeding groups might carry the ball forward.”

WewattaRow.com’s Dennis Martinez holds up a map of Denver’s historic Chinatown district and a photo that shows the alleyway he’s describing to Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioners during a walking tour. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Correction: This story originally said that the Chinatown area was called Wewatta Row. Actually, it was called Wazee Row, though both names correspond to streets in Denver’s Lower Downtown.

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