Among CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Plan goals, becoming the nation’s first equity-serving institution and advocating for and supporting its Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities are top priorities. Along with the university’s emerging AANAPISI (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions)* status, campus leaders are committed to ensuring the AAPI community’s past, present, and future are represented within a CU Denver education and within the greater community.
Toward this effort, on Saturday, April 16, at the request of the Colorado Asian Pacific United Alliance (CAPU) and the City of Denver, CU Denver hosted nearly 200 AAPI families and community members for a historic event titled “Reclaiming our Past, Building our Future: City of Denver’s Chinatown Apology” in the Terrace Room at the Lawrence Street Center. On behalf of the City of Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock (a CU Denver alum) issued a formal apology to the descendants of the Chin and Lung families, who experienced the devastating effects of the 1880 anti-Chinese riot in the historic Chinatown of lower downtown Denver that decimated a once thriving Asian American community. The city’s apology to the AAPI community marked the fifth official declaration in the nation and the first outside of California.
“For too long, this painful history has been swept under the carpet and it is without question that a long overdue apology is warranted,” Hancock said. The city’s next actions will include removing a plaque that fails to adequately acknowledge the anti-Chinese riot, sponsoring public murals to depict the history of Denver’s Chinatown and Chinese community, and promoting traveling exhibits and historical land markers throughout the city that honor the AAPI community.
As Denver’s only public urban research university, CU Denver plays a vital role in educating the community about the city’s history and fostering a more inclusive community for all, Chancellor Michelle Marks said during the event. “This historic event marks a critical step for our city, our broader Asian American community, and our collective future,” she said. “It is consistent with our values at CU Denver, which is to acknowledge and honor history—not to hide or rewrite it. And to use dialogue, knowledge exchange, and partnership to reach greater understanding, respect, and a path forward.”
The Elimination of Denver’s Chinatown
Near today’s Coors Field, just a short walk from CU Denver’s campus, a Chinese American community once flourished along Wazee Street at what was known as Hop Alley Chinatown. “Denver’s Chinatown was one of the largest Chinese American communities in the West … It was a thriving community where miners, workers, and families could come to rest and recreate without fear of being tormented or attacked. It was, in many cases, a refuge,” William Wei, history professor at CU Boulder, said to the audience during a presentation.
In the late 1800s, anti-Chinese sentiment grew as settlers mistakenly linked Chinatown’s residents to social vices such as gambling, prostitution, and opium dens, according to History Colorado. On Oct. 31, 1880, tensions came to head when a saloon brawl erupted, quickly escalating into a riot. A mob of drunken white men set fire to every Chinese business in the area. Chinese man Look Young was hanged and others were brutally beaten, and almost all of the Chinese properties were destroyed, History Colorado reports.
The events represented a growing anti-Asian sentiment nationwide. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked an official ban on Chinese immigrants coming into the country and their ineligibility for naturalized citizenship. “Most (Asian Americans) were driven out of their communities, endured harassment, and suffered violence,” Wei said. “Today, there is scant evidence that there had even been a Chinatown in the American West.”
In Denver, Chinatown never fully recovered, and Denver’s Chinese population reached a historic low of 110 in 1940. Today, the only remaining reminder of the city’s Chinatown is a plaque, found on 20th and Blake streets, that misrepresents the anti-Chinese riot with the words “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880.” During the event, CAPU members announced that as part of their efforts, this plaque will soon be removed and replaced by a new historical marker.
Collaborative Event Shows the Power of Partnerships and Inclusivity
On Saturday, the Terrace Room buzzed with energy as generations of Asian American families came together to honor a landmark moment in Denver’s history. The event included catering from Twin Dragon, a CU Denver alumni- and family-owned restaurant that has been a staple in the community for 30 years, virtual reality goggles featuring a history lesson on Denver’s Chinatown, and a colorful Chinese dragon and lion dance celebration. Infants, children, grandparents, and great grandparents occupied the seats—a collective celebration of culture, community, and a brighter future for Denver.
Members of CAPU, a coalition of AAPI leaders and allies who are committed to racial diversity and equity, greeted families and welcomed the mayor to the podium for his official apology, during which he handed a signed letter to Linda Chin Jew and Linda Lung, descendants of families who once worked in Chinatown. Jew said the apology was “very nice,” though long overdue.
Zoe Henke, a student on the Auraria Campus and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Chin Lin Sou, who as among the earliest Chinese immigrants to Colorado, expressed a similar sentiment. “It’s commendable that they recognized their wrongdoing and did something about it,” she said. “Even though it was a long time ago, it’s so important to recognize what happened.”
The mayor was joined by Derek Okubo, the city’s executive director of Human Rights and Community Partnerships, who has been a staunch advocate for racial equity in the City of Denver. CU Denver’s representatives included Antonio Farias, vice chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Sam Kim, assistant vice chancellor for Student Community and lead for CU Denver’s AANAPISI Operational Team, Faye Caronan, PhD, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department; Miguel Morris, Farias’ executive assistant, who was instrumental in planning the milestone event; and other students, faculty, and staff.
“CAPU invited CU Denver to support their efforts as they work with the city of Denver to reclaim this lost history,” Caronan said. “As an emerging AANAPISI, we will have the resources to feature that history in our curriculum and help to make sure this is enshrined in what our students learn and do on our campus.”
Kim added, “It’s so important for us to acknowledge what has happened in order to heal and move forward. This is just the first step in the reconciliation process, but it gives me a lot of hope.”