When the Colorado legislature gathered for the 1870 session, there were many votes encouraging any measures that would lead to the expedited completion of the transcontinental railroad. At the time, many of the railroad laborers were Chinese immigrants. On Feb. 11 that year, the legislature approved a house joint resolution that would encourage Chinese immigration because they believed that the measure would “hasten the development and early prosperity of the Territory by supplying the demands of cheap labor.” The impact of this legislation was so great that it led to a deadly riot on the streets of Denver within the span of just one decade.
State historian and history professor at the University of Colorado Dr. William Wei noted the legislation in Colorado mirrored in some ways laws being created at the national level – including the Naturalization Act of 1870, which revoked the citizenship of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Wei said that the “impact [of this legislation] was implicit rather than explicit.” He said, “it made life difficult for Chinese immigrants. It kept them on the lowest rung of society.”
After the 1870 legislative session, tensions rose rapidly as many Denverites and Coloradans began to display a feverish xenophobia similar to the rest of the nation. Wei said that “[Chinese immigrants] were discriminated against because they were so able to compete.”
Racial tensions became so high that, within just one decade of the resolution, on Oct. 31 1880, Denver residents marched into what was then called “Denver’s Chinatown” or more cruelly, “Hop Alley,” and destroyed buildings with large wooden beams, dragged Chinese residents from their homes and beat them in the streets.
The national political climate was such that just two years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers to the country. The law was in place for more than 60 years before it was repealed in the early 1940’s.
The Denver Anti-Chinese Riot is memorialized at the corner of 20th Street and Blake with a plaque that notes the cause of the event and lists the names of the “courageous whites” who came to aid the Chinese immigrants who were being targeted. But notably, the plaque neglects to name the Chinese man who died in the altercation, Sing Lee.
Wei said that “we strive for these great ideals but we have yet to achieve them.”
– Jess Brovsky-Eaker