By Albert Chang-Yoo
On Saturday, August 12, Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU) will host a public block party where they will officially unveil the completion of two major projects for their ‘Reimagining Denver’s Chinatown’ initiative: a mural and the installation of three historic markers. Funded by Andrew Mellon Foundation and Denver Arts & Venues, both projects revolve around CAPU’s efforts to recontextualize and reimagine Denver’s historic Chinatown that all but disappeared over the years due to discriminatory legislation, a xenophobic society, and outright racist riots. Here’s a condensed history lesson: As the transcontinental railroad finished construction, large numbers of Chinese immigrant laborers were suddenly in need of work. A scant but steady number slowly migrated away from the West Coast towards such metropolitan areas as Denver. Denver’s Chinatown was a vibrant section in now-LoDo, whose businesses served the immigrant community. By the time the year 1880 rolled around, anti-Chinese sentiment had started to slowly build across the country, with brazen outbursts of racial violence becoming more and more frequent. “Yellow Peril” as it was known, was set ablaze by fear that the influx of Chinese immigrants would threaten “American” jobs, and the many Chinatowns across the country become the symbol of such supposed economic depreciation. On October 31, after a fight between a white and Chinese man broke out in a pub, a mob of approximately 3,000-5,000 people descended onto Chinatown. The mob first began destroying Chinese-owned businesses, and then brutally beat any Chinese residents that they could. By the time the violence had ended, a 28-year old Chinese-American named Look Young had been tortured and lynched in the street. Dr. William Wei is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has served as Colorado State Historian and was one of the founders of CAPU. CAPU first formed in 2020 in an effort to lobby for the removal of a singular and outdated plaque. “I considered it to be, in some respects, a misrepresentation of the Denver Chinese community,” Dr. Wei said, referring to the plaque’s description of the “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880”.
CAPU successfully removed the plaque in 2022, as well as received a formal apology from the City of Denver. Since then, CAPU has expanded to work on numerous projects, representing the diversity of the Asian American Pacific Islander community in Colorado.
CAPU has worked to install three different historical markers around Downtown Denver providing a recontextualization of Chinatown. The first marker, Dr. Wei said, describes Denver’s Chinatown, “less as a den of iniquity which is what the old plaque implied when it called it Hop Alley and describe it as a thriving working class community that provided ser vices and goods to the Chinese living in Denver and in Colorado.” The second marker will tell the destruction of the 1880 Anti-Chinese Race Riot in Denver, while the third marker is situated where the lynching of Look Young occurred and tells the story of Young’s life.
The hope is that the markers will offer the public a much more complete telling of what happened to Denver’s Chinatown. Plus, that’s not the only thing CAPU is ready to celebrate.
Nayle Lor is a Hmong-American artist based in Denver. In August 2022, Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU) commissioned Lor to create a mural on Denver’s Fire Station 4 to commemorate the historic Chinatown. For the past year, Lor has worked to make an abstract piece of artwork into a reality. The mural’s name will be decided on August 12, during the official celebration. As Lor explained, the mural (finished in June 2023) was created to send a different message than the antiquated plaque:
“This art piece in particular is intended to speak primarily to the Chinese community, but it’s not limited only to the Chinese community in Denver. I wanted to show their progression through time in a fun, colorful way, particularly due to their negative misrepresentation with the plaque that was taken down and their buried history here.” In creating the mural, Lor drew inspiration from her identity, where she has felt split between her Hmong and American sides. “My American life was where I would be asked what Hmong was, which is a typical story you’ll hear from a Hmong American I’m sure, and have faced racism,” Lor said. “But, it’s that experience that helped me to relate to the historic Chinatown, of being unknown and unseen.”
The message is marked by the characters on the left side of the mural: “不怕慢，就怕停”proverb that roughly translates to “Be not afraid of growing slowly, Be afraid of stopping.” This is the theme of Lor’s mural. According to her, “that is the story I want to tell with my image, to show the past, that of a people who persevered in the face of adversity; to show the present, with the child representing new beginnings; and to show the bright, unknown future, where people may grow to be whatever they want to be through the course of time, represented by a long life noodle. I hope that this artwork and this history inspires people to learn from it, so that history doesn’t repeat itself, and to keep moving forward even when life is tough.”
It’s a theme that Dr. Wei touched on as well: “We have movies and books that bear the title of “True Grit”. Well, the Chinese had true grit. They had the ability to attain their goals. And that’s the sort of thing that has characterized people in the American West…In fact, they’d be heroes, if not for the fact that they were Chinese.”
Meanwhile, Colorado Asian Pacific United has much grander plans for the future. Another cultural mural is being planned on the Auraria campus, and CAPU is working on establishing a K-12 curriculum on Colorado Asian American Pacific Islander history that will be disseminated throughout schools. In the long-term, CAPU is hoping to build an Asian American Pacific Islander history and culture museum that will serve to educate future generations. CAPU is hosting its mural unveiling block party – Reimagining Denver’s Chinatown – event on Saturday, August 12 from 3:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 1890 Lawrence St, Denver. We love to see you there!
For more information or to get involved, visit coloradoasianpacificunited.org.