Denver’s First Race Riot, 141 Years Later

Remembering the destruction of Denver’s Chinatown—has the city done enough?

This Oct. 31 marks 141 years since the anti-Chinese race riot that obliterated Denver’s Chinatown, severely injured dozens of people, and claimed the life of one man, Look Young. Historians acknowledge this as Denver’s first race riot.

According to Colorado Public Radio, the riot was the city’s breaking point after months of anti-Chinese racism in Denver. It occurred mere days before the 1880 presidential election. Just before the riot, an argument broke out between white and Chinese patrons of John Asmussen’s Saloon, on the 1600 block of Wazee Street—only a few blocks from what is now the Auraria campus. When the Chinese patrons fled the saloon, a mob attacked them; about 3,000 people followed suit, burning Chinatown to the ground and killing Look Young. Damage estimates range from $536,405 to $1.4 million in today’s dollars (Denver Library).

Such damage proved to be irreparable. Denver still lacks a central Chinatown like other major cities, such as San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles.

In 2020, the city of Denver commemorated the location of the riot—and former Chinatown—with a small plaque at the intersection of 20th Street and Blake Street. It is labeled, “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880,” and it describes Chinatown’s former location, “bounded roughly by Blake and Market, 19th and 22nd streets.”

The plaque and its wording have generated controversy since its installation. While Chinatown still stood, anti-Chinese residents who disliked the area’s opium dens called it “Hop Alley” in a derogatory fashion, blaming just the Chinese population for the area’s perceived moral failings. The plaque’s title features that same derogatory term. The plaque also emphasizes white residents who “showed remarkable courage in protecting the Chinese,” naming them and describing their occupations in detail. However, it does not name the riot’s sole fatality, Look Young, beyond an acknowledgement that “one Chinese man lost his life.”

To correct this information, the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission (DAAPIC) has worked to update Denver’s historical knowledge of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, of which the “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880” plaque is one flawed part. In a May interview with 9News, then-DAAPIC member Gil Asakawa took issue with the plaque title’s assignation of blame. “The headline talks about the Chinese race riot and it wasn’t Chinese,” he said. “It was anti-Chinese.” Former state historian and University of Colorado Boulder professor Dr. William Wei also told the Colorado Sun, “[the plaque’s wording] inadvertently deprives the Chinese of their own agency, and describes them as victims. I think it’s a misplaced emphasis.”

Upon the plaque’s installation in 2020, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock designated Oct. 31 as “Denver’s Chinatown Commemoration Day.” Hancock’s official proclamation from that day stated that the plaque on 20th and Blake is but a small part of Denver’s obligation to its many diverse communities. In addition to emphasizing remembrance, the proclamation said, “We all share a responsibility every day to share this history and build bridges across communities to ensure something like this never happens again.” The continuing work of the DAAPIC, along with other AAPI organizations and leaders, could bring that responsibility to bear on the city of Denver.

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