Wazee: A Brief History of Denver's Chinatown

Updated: Sep 5

This brief history starts with an article published in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, July 5th 1887. It is a detailed description of Denver's Chinatown several years after the Anti-Chinese Riot of October 31st, 1880. In it we are presented with not only a window into the environment but a glimpse into the lives of two important individuals of Denver's Chinatown as well.

I made two tours of Chinatown yesterday, one by myself, and the second in the company of a policeman. Chinatown is located in the half block between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets and Wazee and the alley between Wazee and Blake Streets. It is near the Union Depot. A more thickly settled area does not exist even in the most crowded tenement districts of New York. The town does not occupy all of the half block designated. About one third of it to the north is up to stables and stores, and along Sixteenth Street there are saloons and small business places of one kind or other.

Denver Chinatown
Panorama of Lower Downtown Denver c.1880 from three photos taken by William Henry Jackson. The intersection in the middle is 16th and Wazee.

Possibly not more than half an acre is embraced in the site of the town; yet in this limited space over 300 Chinaman Live, and seven or eight China women. The entrance to the town is by way of a public alley, and access to the different yards and courts, if the narrow spaces between the houses can be called courts, is had through gates and by-ways that are called the names of the Chinaman who own the property. The houses are squatty brick structures- one story in height, and usually contain but one room. There are twenty five or thirty of these houses, and they are set on the ground in such an irregular way with reference to each other that the town is a perfect labyrinth, and the stranger that wanders through it is likely to devote much time to wondering how in the world he is going to get out again.

Denver Chinatown
Close up of the panorama showing the Chinese Quarters. The building in the center is where the riot started (now 1620 Wazee)and the buildings in the alleyway are where the initial melee spilled into.

Fronting on the Wazee street the houses occupied by those paragons of virtue the slant eyed Mongolian belles. These houses too are only one story, but some of them have basements in which opium joints are run by chocolate faced gentleman in loose linen costumes, who sit near the entrance and take the small coins from their brethren who come in to hit the pipe. Signs on the front of the houses announce the business of the gentlemen in the subterranean apartments-as for instance: “Quong Sen _ In the Basemen”- but the basements cannot be reached from the street; the only entrance is from the rear, unless the visitor has the run of the place and makes the trip via one of the China women’s tapestry chambers.

Denver Chinatown
Nellie Gin (Chin/Jin?) sitting at the window of what is now 1622 Wazee street. Sketch made by authors of the 1887 article.

Denver Chinatown
Manchu Business man taking an opium smoke break in a Denver Chinatown establishment. They know they are being photographed as the man to the right is raising his hand to the Qing flag as a sign of solidarity.

The most common picture circulated of an 1800s Asian opium smoker, this picture was and is used to paint all Asians as "Hop Heads" and contributes to the derogatory practice of referring to Chinatowns across the U.S. as "Hop Alley's"

A scene of opium smoking seldom seen. This scene, staged for the viewer, shows a different kind of opium setup. There were also opium joints that were run by Caucasians, that were Caucasians only.

The Joss house, near sixteenth, is the only two-Story structure in the town. Its front is of brick, and there is a shaded porch over-looking Wazee street. The first door is devoted to opium smoking and gambling; on the second floor is the place of worship, which is also used as a masonic lodge room; and back of the shrine, is a kitchen and sleeping room, occupied by an old Chinaman who has care of the new premises. The doors and walls of this building, on the Wazee front. Are flecked all over the tea-chest literature; long red board signs are over the second story door and down its sides, and the closed windows and bolted doors on the first floor are patched with inscriptions that look like wash bills on red papers. The doors of all the houses in Chinatown are adorned in this crazy quilt fashion. And give the surroundings a rather picturesque air.

Denver Chinatown
The Wazee Row Joss House in 1887 as sketched by the author of the article. The southern half of the building at 1612 Wazee is where this structure once stood.

Scene from inside of a Joss house in New York City; compare with picture of the inside of a Denver Joss house further in the article. Illustration from 'New York's Chinatown'.

In the pigtail precincts.

My first venture into the pigtail precincts was made as I have said in the afternoon. The sun was beating down ferociously and Chinatown seemed to be asleep. I went into the store on the corner of the alley and asked a drowsy looking Chinaman who rose up from the counter with a pipe stem a yard long protruding from his mouth, if he could tell me where John Taylor was. He didn’t seem to know he didn’t seem to care. I asked him who had charge of the Joss house, but he was still ignorant or indifferent. I turned into the alley. John Taylor is a Chinaman who owns property in the “town” and I had been referred to him by some newspaper friends here.

Denver Chinatown
Scene from an Asian owned business in Denver.

I got a short distance up the alley, when I spied in a shadowy recess, behind Dr. Hung Wah’s office, a dozen or more Chinaman sitting on benches and on the ground smoking long stemmed pipes and otherwise taking life easy. I asked them if John Taylor was around. They looked at me for a few moments and said nothing. Then one of them pointed up the alley with his pipe stem. “Go up: way up” he said; and I went up. I stumbled into a lane or passageway, and peered into a dozen or more open doors. Nobody was at home. A high table of coarse pine with a covering of mat stood in each room; there were colored papers with fantastic inscriptions on the walls and that was all. Wooden partitions divided the rooms into two or more stalls, and usually there was an opening in the first partition, like a box-office window- and through the opening a small table covered with sheets of paper and small books, writing brushes of bamboo, wells of India ink, pipes of the long stem pattern and a few other articles. Occasionally from the rear of the apartment came the murmurs of voices, and there was a suspicious smell of opium in the atmosphere; pairs of shoes lay at the calico curtained entrance, and there was an instinctive feeling that the curtains concealed some individuals, but repeated vociferated “hellos” rang like echoes through the rooms, and there was no other response. In another open space Chinaman were smoking and looking at each other, and a dozen questions concerning John Taylor drew from them no reply. They simply looked at each other and smoked.