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Denver removes anti-Chinese plaque 142 years after anti-Chinese riot that destroyed its Chinatown

  • Due to historical inaccuracies, Denver removed a plaque titled “Chinese Riot of 1880” from a building in Lower Downtown on Monday.

  • The plaque was, in fact, not about a “Chinese riot” but an anti-Chinese riot that resulted in damages to homes, businesses and even the death of a man named Look Young.

  • The writing also lauded white people who showed “remarkable courage” during the riot and overemphasized the city’s Chinese drug problem as a cause for hostilities.

  • The move came after the city officially apologized to early Chinese immigrants and their descendants in April for the riot and historical injustices to the community.

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Denver removed a historical marker riddled with inaccuracies about the Chinese community’s presence and influence in the city in the late 1800s on Monday.

The plaque, located in the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, inaccurately described events surrounding the so-called “Chinese Riot of 1880,” which occurred on Halloween that year and stemmed from a saloon brawl between white patrons and two Chinese customers.

During the riot, an angry white mob destroyed Denver’s then-Chinatown on Wazee between 15th and 17th streets. Both businesses and residents were targeted, including a man named Look Young who was hanged.

The marker proved to be inaccurate and harmful through the years for several reasons, including its title.

“It wasn’t a Chinese riot,” William Wei, a University of Colorado, Boulder professor and former Colorado State Historian, told Rocky Mountain PBS. “It was an anti-Chinese race riot.”

The plaque also failed to identify Young as the Chinese man who died. Instead, it named and lauded several white people for their “remarkable courage” in protecting some Chinese victims.

It must also be noted that the day before the riot, critics of then-Republican presidential candidate James Garfield — who was eventually elected as the 20th U.S. president — held an anti-Chinese parade in Denver. His Democratic opponent, Winfield Hancock, had accused him of importing cheap Chinese labor, Wei told 9News.

Lastly, the plaque appeared to exaggerate Chinese drug use in the city, noting 17 known opium dens in the neighborhood “where one could ‘hit the pipe’ or ‘suck the bamboo’” which were supposedly connected by “tunnels and secret rooms accessible only by trap doors.” The problem was additionally linked to “hostilities” between Chinese and other immigrants, alongside increasing job competition.

Wei, who removed the plaque from the building at the intersection of 20th and Blake streets, slammed it as a racist relic that has “stigmatized Chinese people then and now.” He was joined by Soon Beng Yeap, a board member of Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU).

Mayor Michael Hancock said the plaque removal “marks another step toward reconciliation and righting the terrible wrongs that were committed in the past against our Asian American community.” In April, he signed a resolution that officially apologized to the city’s early Chinese immigrants and their descendants for “a shameful chapter in Colorado history.”

History Colorado, which was present at the event, will keep the plaque at its museum. The organization said it is “happy to officially make this part of Denver’s past.”


Featured Image via Rocky Mountain PBS (left) and 9News (right)

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