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Wazee: A Brief History of Denver's Chinatown

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

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.

Although we recognize this as a "bong" used for cannabis, this type of smoking utensil was also used for tobacco. Illustration from ' New York's Chinatown'.

The sun scattered its rays in the open doorways. Dogs slept on some of the thresholds, cats rolled their paws skyward and yawned and stretched; but that was the only sign of life in the town which my presence and my hellos and questions about John Taylor evoked. It was very much like a trip through a graveyard, or perhaps it would be better to say that it recalled the legend of the sleeping beauty, Thompson’s ‘castle of indolence’ and other literary reminiscences that deal with dreams, and rest and slumber.

Denver Chinatown
The only known sketch from inside the Chinese Quarters Denver. This scene shows the view behind the Joss house and adjacent buildings; now 1612 Wazee Street. Illustrated by the authors of the article.

After considerable labyrinthine wandering, I stumbled upon “Taylor Alley”; and right there, staring me in the face on the brick wall, was the sign “John Taylors Office.” The door and the window were screened, and the screen door was fastened inside. I peeped in, but I saw nobody. I yelled “Halloo!” several times, but there was no reply to the telephonic message. I shook the screen door, but after the door got through its compulsory tremor all was a deadly silence. Taylor’s office was the first of a row of four houses, all brick and all one story. I hallooed in the next door, but to no avail. In the third house I found three Chinaman; one in the front apartment at a high table, filling small squares of paper with Chinese characters, and two in a rear apartment at a smaller table, doing the same thing. I wondered what this trio were doing. Could it be possible that they were litterateurs, who were writing books for the Chinese Market? They might be poets or historians. Their heads were well-shaped, their features intelligent; they seemed to be of a higher grade than the average washee-washee perhaps they were journalists reeling off sheet after sheet of copy-or they might be to China what the monks of the middle ages were to Europe-probably they were copying rare manuscripts and preserving them for future ages. All these thoughts all these thoughts came into my head as I stood beside the chap at the high table and asked him if John Taylor was anywhere in the neighborhood. No Reply. He was at any rate a very uncivil litterateur. I asked again. Again no response. Once more I put the question and the chap waved his his bamboo writing brush in the direction of the Chinawomen’s ranches in front. This was anyhow some sort of answer and I floated out of the literacy workshop, opened a gate and proceeded cautiously to investigate a celestial ladies premises. An outhouse the size of a dog kennel rested against the fence and the yard was so small that a man with No. 9 shoes would have to lift his feet high to turn around in it. Some boards against the end of the house made a summer kitchen, which was about eight inches wider than the tiny stove that stood in it. The door of the house was open and the place was apparently deserted. Board partitions and Calico curtains divided the single rooms into stalls, and along one side was a passageway through which I could see the barred front door. I leaned against the jams, put one foot across the threshold and helloed again and there was no answer. Surely the place must be empty. I was tired anyway of the helloing business, and thought I would push my investigations further than I had heretofore done, and ascertain whether the house was really empty of not.

Denver Chinatown
1887 Sanborn Fire Map With the locations filled in using the 1887 City Directory and the St. Louis Democrat article. This map can be used to trace the steps of the article writers and also show that seven years after the riot, the populace was far from displaced. The lot at 1620 Wazee, where the 1880 riot started, is still there and still owned by John Asmunssen.

Meeting a Chinawomen.

I entered, but my feet had no more than pattered on the bare floor when a black head was thrust from underneath the nearest curtain, and looking down I beheld a Chinawomen.

“Hello,” She Said.

“Hello,” I replies somewhat astonished at the suddenness of the apparition.

“W’at you want? “ The woman asked.

“I want John Taylor.” Was my answer.

“John Taylor? W’at you want fo him?”

“I want to see him on business.”

“O all light,” and the Chinawomen crawled out from under the curtain, fixed up her back hair, poked her bare feet into a pair of matting slippers and led the way through the yard to John Taylor’s office. She flattened her nose against the screen door and shouted something like “Hi-yi-e-yo!” Immediately there came an answering sound like “Yung-la?” The lady jabbered, and the party within gave her jabber for jabber for three of four minutes. Then the door was opened by a gentleman in white with a drab summer helmet on his head. This was John Taylor. He was very sleepy, and while he tried to be obliging, it was easily to be seen that he had no desire to prolong the conversation. I offered him a Globe-Democrat, but he said he took the paper regularly, and I saw some copies of it lying on his table. He asked about Jo Gong’s case after he got his eyes open and said he knew Lou Johnson, the murdered Chinaman very well. I think John Taylor belongs to the same faction Lou Johnson belonged to. He also inquired about Maxwell, and seemed to be thoroughly familiar with the trunk-murder. He explained to me that the literary workers whom I had seen in the second house from his office were engaged in writing lottery tickets. All good Chinaman played the lottery and gambled like soldiers. They did not favor Melican man’s lottery, but had a policy shops of their own. The largest was run by Sun Quong Wo, a prominent merchant on Larimer street. Others were run by other Chinese merchants, but not on such a large scale as Sun Quong Wo’s. They play what is known in China as the Chinese ladies’ game, the only difference being that in Denver, as elsewhere through-out the United States, the game is played for money. In China the ladies play it to pass away the time. A belle or matron of the Flowery Kingdom who finds the afternoon hanging heavy on her hands does not want to go to sleep gets out her eighty cards and plays a lottery with herself.

A Chinese Lottery Game.

Chinese Lottery ticket from Denver.

The method of playing here is the same as there. There are, altogether, eighty numbers used. These numbers are printed on separate slips of paper and placed in a bowl. From this bowl four numbers are drawn and destroyed; nobody ever knows what the destroyed numbers were; then twenty other numbers are drawn and recorded, and these twenty numbers furnish the key to the solution of the game. Previous to the drawing, which takes place daily at 4 o’clock, in a house opposite, tickets have been sold. Nearly every householder in Chinatown is an agent for Sun Quong Wo, and nearly every one of 800 or 900 Chinaman in Denver are purchasers. Tickets are sold the night before the drawing, or the morning of the day of the drawing- any time up to one or two o’clock. The purchaser pays all the way from 30 cents to $5.50 for his ticket, and he selects ten of the eighty numbers: these ten are marked off with Black India ink on his ticket, and he waits for the drawing. The real prices of the tickets vary from 25 cents to $5, but the agent gets his commission from the ticket purchaser, and that commission is ten percent and the purchaser must pay for it in advance; thus the buyer of a 25 cent ticket is compelled to pay thirty cents, of a 50 cent ticket 55 cents, of a $1 ticket $1.10, and so on. Should the ticket purchaser win, which he is not likely to do, as the chances are infinitely more remote than in Melican man’s lottery, the agent takes ten percent of the winnings. If a Chinaman wants to stake $1, he pays the agent $1.10, and if he wins $20 the agent gives him only $18; if he wins $200 the agent gives him $180; if he wins $1000 he gets only $900. It will be seen from this that between Sun Quong Wo and the agent, the lottery playing Chinaman has a very poor show for his white alley. The prizes are paid this way:

If a player has selected five of the twenty drawn numbers, he wins his stake and the agent’s commission, which the agent again retains; if six of his numbers are drawn, he gets twenty times his stake; if seven of his numbers have been drawn, he gets 1000 times his stake; if eight, 2000 times; if nine, 4000 times his stake; if ten, 10,000 times his stake. So you will see it is possible-or rather seems to be possible for a Chinaman to win 10,000 for 1. He must have five numbers, though, to get anything, and, as four of the originally eighty numbers from which he selected are removed and destroyed it will take a mathematical genius like R.A. Proctor’s to calculate the Players chances of even saving his stake. Some player won $200 last week, but that was the only big winning within John Taylors recollection.

John Taylor

John said that six of the Chinawomen were married, and the morals of only two were any way bad. John himself is married to the female whom your correspondent rousted out of her cradle. He explained, too, that the Chinamen whom I had seen smoking and lounging in the passageways were professional gamblers, who lived off the sweat of the brows of laundrymen, cooks, house servants and others who came to the “town” at night to play away their earnings. There were 75 to 100 of these professionals, who are the fattest and sassiest Celestials in Denver.

Taylor is about 50. He spent nine years in Australia and has been in Denver twelve years. He was worth $35,000 a few years ago, but gambling and business reverses have lessened his fortune. He owns a number houses in Chinatown, and the row in which his office is located and two of the houses on Wazee Street are his property. He told me that he rents rooms in the rear buildings at $12 to $15 per month, while the women on Wazee street pay $18 to $20 a month. Two of John’s houses are vacant, and he says times are dull. He gave me to understand rather plainly that he had no time to show me around, and said, though, that if I wanted to see the town in a blaze I should get around at 9 or 10 o’clock at night.

On the night visit I was accompanied by Fred Linquest, a patrolman, who has been on the Wazee block beat for several years, and who knows and is known by all the Chinamen. We invaded the town at 9:30 p.m., and I tell you there was a big contrast in the appearance of things with the quiet and sleepiness that had characterized the place during the day. The alleys and passages were thronged by Chinamen, and the paths were brightened by lights from dozens of doors. The musical clatter of their melodious monosyllables filled the air, and everything was wide open as in the daytime. Every door led to a gambling-room and every room was crowded, hanging coal lamps were suspended above the gaming tables, and tan or dominoes was played at each.

The Game of Tan

Fan Tan pieces and placement, taken from 'New York's Chinatown'.

In Tan the gamblers bet on the number of cash that will be left over from a pile from which four cash are drawn at a time. The cash are scooped up in a brass cup, which is turned upside down on the table. The dealer, who sits at the head of the table, has a long thick stick, with which he counts out the cash, sweeping aside each four as they have been selected. There may be 1,2 or 3 left over, or the count may result in even fours. A sheet of tin is placed in the middle of the matting on the table and the play is made around this in the following manner:

The dealer sits opposite the side marked 1, and the other players opposite the other three sides. Each puts up his money-25 cents or 50 cents or $1- and when the result is known the player opposite the side calling for the number takes the pot. If 2 of the cash are left over, the player opposite 2 wins; if 4; the player opposite 4 wins. These numbers are not marked on the table, but the value of their respective places is understood by the players. Between 50 and 75 cash are used by the dealer. There are several intricacies to the game, such as playing “off the corners,” etc., as in Faro, but the explanations I received were not satisfactory, so I will not venture to repeat them. The domino game I could not understand at all. It was played by eight or ten individuals, each of whom received a fist-full of dominoes, which were whacked down violently on the table after the manner of forty-five players in Kerry Patch. In one gambling house two Chinawomen sat at the head of the table and played recklessly with unvarying bad luck. One was a blear-eyed, bloated damsel of about 70, and she did some very artistic Chinese swearing every time the dominoes went against her. After a while one of the women, a little, hook nosed and shingle jawed creature, dropped out of the game and devoted herself to lending money to some of the men players, but she must have been a Jonah of her sex, for the men to whom she lent continued to lose. We dropped into a dozen of these gambling shops, all of which were full of Chinamen and excitement. On stools and benches in the passages were Chinamen who had enough of bucking the tiger, and who were spending their time-all they now had to spend-in gossip.

Lottery Tickets

We groped our way into some of the back rooms, and found pairs of Chinaman preparing lottery tickets and balancing their books for the day. The lottery tickets are all printed in blue on sheets of paper about four inches square. On each is eighty numbers in Chinese Characters, and across the middle of the ticket, between ruled lines, is the name of the lottery company. When the ticket is sold the name of the agent and the date of sale is stamped upon its edge, and the ten selected numbers marked out as I have before described. The record of the days drawing and of the sold tickets is kept in a long narrow book. In front of the man sitting at the table is his open book. He goes over his tickets, places them in order and, picking the first, proceeds to register it. In a box about 12x8 inches in the far right hand corner of the table are eighty wooden type, which are the numbers, and several larger type which have his name and the days of the week, etc., upon them. The type are face down in the box and the Chinaman grabs them up one after another, presses them against an inked pad and stamps them in his book, one under the other, beginning at the right hand edge of the page. Chinamen are very sparing of their words where an American is concerned, and the gentlemen we found engaged in fixing up lottery tickets only looked glum and would vouch safe no explanation of their work.

A lottery ticket from ' New York's Chinatown'.

Nellie Gin.

Denver Chinatown
Mrs. Nellie Gin (Chin,Jin?) wearing traditional Manchu clothing.

The only person we found in Chinatown willing to talk was Nellie Gin. Like the other Chinawomen of the town, married or unmarried, she sits at her window, on Wazee Street, and waits for the erring Caucasian to come by. We entered Nellie’s boudoir from the rear. Like the other house it has but one room, which is partitioned and curtained into three stalls. The first of these toward the rear was empty; in the second were three Chinaman smoking Chinese fine cut and opium. Nellie’s boudoir came next, and between that and the door was a 3-foot space, which she used for a reception room. Nellie knew my companions, and, pulling down her window curtain, told us to make ourselves at home. She speaks excellent English, and gabbled away to the police man about “her man, Cholly Tchaw,” (Charlie W. Shaw was his full name) who was in Burlington, and who had written to her to go to Lindquist if she got in any trouble. Charles W. Shaw is the first Chinaman I have ever heard of having a middle name. Nellie asked us to have a cup of tea. She took us into her boudoir, and, turning up the lamp, lifted a cushion cover from what I first thought was a work-basket, but which I soon saw was a padded tea-pot receptacle, in which the tea was kept warm longer than it would keep if the pot were exposed. The teapot was a dainty porcelain affair, and from it she poured the steaming, savory beverage into tiny handless cups that held about a spoonful of each. There was no milk or sugar, no spoon, no saucer-nothing but the mite of a cup and its contents, and all we had to do was to sip the liquid and let its delicious fumes envelop our souls. Nellie said she had cooked the tea at 8 o’clock, and it would keep warm until 1. Like other Chinawomen, she drank tea in sips all day long, and all night too. Then she offered us her pipe, but we declined. It was a knobby pipe of nickel or some shining metal, with the lower portion enveloped in Moroccan leather. The pipe is in two parts. The front half, out of which the stem rises, is a rectangular box, which is filled with water through an opening in front; into this opening fits the bowl topped tube which receives the tobacco; the tube goes almost to the bottom of the box; the other half of the pipe is tobacco box, with a hinged lid, and on either side of the stem are slender tubes to hold matches. Nellie took a pinch of Chinese thin cut, placed it in the bowl of the pipe, lit a match, and igniting the tobacco, drew two long puffs; then she lifted off the bowl, blew out the tobacco, and replacing the tube, inserted another pinch of fine cut, which was treated in the same way as predecessor, In this way she got a smoke. I asked her what he pipe cost.

“Fi dolla’ to Melican man,” she answered.

“Tlee dolla’ to Chinaman.”

Paktong water pipe (Silver,Nickel) as described in the article.

Tobacco, or any herb, pipes as illustrated in 'New York's Chinatown'. While it may be easy to jump to the conclusion that they were for smoking opium, the only way they were is if one would mix the opium with an herb. To smoke straight opium the process requires a routine much more akin to the modern "dabbing" of cannabis than it is to inhaling "combustibles".

The Joss

There was a little red concern in the wall like a small alter. A picture of a fierce looking celestial, with drooping mustache and rolling eyes, who was juggling a green dragon, filled the niche. I asked nellie what it was and she said it was a Joss, “allee samee melican Jesus.” These pictures hang in every Chinamans house and in every Chinawomans. They are nearly always the same. John Taylor had one hung upon his office which he said was a good thing to keep the devils away-a devil chasing Joss. Nellie resembled the Melican woman in more respects than in the agility of her jaw. She is very proud of her wardrobe, which she pulled down off the walls and exhibited to us. I found, by questioning her, that the Chinese husband has the advantage of his Caucasian friend in the matter of the expense of female dress. A Chinawoman can be rigged out in the height of fashion for $15 or $16. Her trousers cost, as Nellie said, $2.85; her tunic from $3 for ordinary cambric to $10 for flowered silk, and her shoes $2.75. Nellie told us she wore a No. 10, and when she pulled the article from under the bed it looked no bigger than a No. 3, as our ladies measure their sizes, but when Nellie put it on we saw that her whole heel hung over the end of the sole. She said if she wore her right shoe size she would have to call for a No. 24, and she was ashamed to go into a China store and ask for a pair of such canal boats. Just like "Melican" woman again. But in one thing she surprised us. We guessed at her age. I guessed 18; the policeman 20;Nellie said she was 37, and had been twice married. She had left China at 18, and had spent many years in San Francisco.

Queen of Denver's Chinatown
Lily Lin Sou, or with her fathers name, Lily Chin (Gin,Jin?). Her Chinese name was Lon Kwai which literally means 'Orchid Laurel', and she was the Queen of Chinatown. She was born in Black Hawk Colorado (That Water Village) in 1873. History states she was the first Asian born in this area, but more likely, she was the first person of Manchu decent born here.

Bidding Nellie good night, we went up into the Joss house, but the light was low, and we could only dimly see the grotesque chromo which the Celestials worship once every four months, when a priest visits the town. The Shrine was liberally decorated with colored papers, and perfume sticks stuck up around and in front of the Joss, like quills on a circus porcupine, Stools were placed against the walls of the room, and there was a dado of red paper strewn with hieroglyphics, which is a sacred record of the teachings of Confucius. Some bedding was tumbled on the floor. Showing that a tramp Chinaman now and then bunked under the alter.

Denver Chinatown
Scene from the Denver Chinatown Joss House 1880-1890. Compare this with the picture X-21498 in the Denver Digital Library. Why they display it that way is strange, Its bad "Feng Shui".

A Chinese Restaurant

Disparaging remarks about Asian cuisine was, and is, a common racist practice. Illustration taken from 'New York's Chinatown'.

Among the forty or fifty odors that floated around the entrance to Quong Seng’s opium joint in the cellar which we visited, and where we saw three Chinamen with their heads on cigar boxes in dream land, was one of a poignant porky nature, and I inquired about it. I was told it came from the Chinese restaurant, where food was being prepared for the gamblers who would flock in after midnight. We went to the restaurant. It smelled like a charnel house. The place was partitioned off from a Chinese store that opened out on Wazee street. Four little tables covered with dark oil cloth were fastened against a side wall. Benches were placed under for guests. A solitary Chinaman sat at one of the tables. From his seat he could look right into the kitchen, where a dirty Chinese cook was stirring a cauldron of some kind of odiferous soup over a brick furnace. In the upper corner of the dining room two Chinaman were working at a table. One was cutting dough into vermicelli strips; the other had a handful of thin wafer-sheets of dough, and with a stick he lifted from a plate of chopped meat about a half teaspoonful of the stuff and put it on the dough, which he then rolled up and threw into a pie plate in front of him. Pretty soon the cook came out of the kitchen, took a handful of the little hash dumplings and a bunch of the stringed dough and threw them into the cauldron of soup; then he seized a string of greasy fat bacon and chopped it up, and flung it into the caldron. What else he did I do not know, for I couldn’t stand the process any longer; but I suppose the Chinaman at the table enjoyed the soup when he got it, he knew what was in it anyhow, for he saw them making it. I left Chinatown with the flavor of that restaurant ringing in my nostrils I saw no rats, but I thought I smelt them, and they were not the healthiest kind of rats either.

End of article

Most people are surprised to hear that Denver Has a Chinatown. Situated in Lower Downtown Denver in what is now referred to as LoDo, this enclave was intended to be a “Chinatown” from Denver’s inception. William McGaa, who was responsible for the naming of several of the streets in the 1959 founding of Denver City, was trying to make sure that everyone that was in the Cherry Creek-South Platte area before the gold rushers came was included and represented in this new venture. History talks of rhe Arapaho and Cheyenne, but there was also another group that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the History books: the Wazee or 挖溪. But we are told that the Chinese weren’t present when the settlements of Auraria and Denver City were founded. An article from 1868 is one of the first written statements of an Asian person in Denver. It describes a “John Chinaman” entering Denver and travelling alone. There are a number of things questionable about this article; the most glaring is that he is travelling alone. Asians did travel east from California but hardly ever alone, they usually would travel in groups of several to one hundred. Another thing that stands out as odd is that he arrives with seemingly nothing to do… but the Denver Pacific Railroad had just been founded. We all know who were among the workers of the railroads in the west and we all know how they were left out of the photos of the completion of the railroads, apparently they were largely left out of the Denver area newspapers too. Also, According to United States History Asians were in California in 1948, as Rose Hum Lee shows in her book, there was a number of those new comers that were spread out into the west as far Nevada, Idaho, and Montana by the late 1850s to the early 1860s. To think that none of them came along the trapper’s trail that led to the area that is now Denver at that time would be disregarding their presence in all the areas they were at that time.

So if there were Asians present at the time of the founding of Denver City in 1959, and Wazee is a street that is really Chinese, then who were they, how did they get here, and why don’t we hear about them. Well we do, we just don’t realize that we are. While United States History records the first Asians coming in 1849, the year the U.S. won the war against Mexico, Spanish history records Asians coming to North America in the mid 1500’s.

I highly recommend you add this to your reading list.

In the beginning they mainly stayed around Acapulco and Mexico City and were mainly slaves taken by the Spanish from all around the Pacific Islands and as far west as India. A road called the “China Road” was the main avenue for transporting goods from Acapulco to Mexico City.

Acapulco from 'Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico'

From 'Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico'

At this time the Spanish empire combined the areas of what are now South America, Mexico, the western part of the United States, the Philippines and numerous pacific Islands, into a single territory dubbed New Spain.

From 'Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico'

From 'Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico'

This new territory was divided into two governments; the Spanish Government was centered in Mexico City and dealt with keeping control of the new territory and relations with Old Spain. The other government was the Republica de Indios and dealt with all of the matters that the indigenous people from all over the territory dealt with. They were tightly controlled in and around Mexico City but on the frontiers from what is now known today as California to Colorado, they had almost complete anonymity. This frontier became the place for people that were running from something a place to run. Moors (Muslims) from Spain, Escaped Slaves from the Mexico City area, and criminals that we would recognize as Pirates.

During the 1600s the Spanish Government decided against the enslavement of the indigenous peoples (Africans were a different matter) and granted all Indios freedom; with China going through another Dynasty change it made sense for a lot of the Asian Indios to stay in North America and try to start a new life. Because the Indios were still treated as “less than” in New Spain society, the frontier with its far reach from Mexico City was the perfect place to start anew. This area would also be attractive to those that would subsequently leave Asia in the decades after the Qing takeover of Ming China.

From the 1600’s through the 1700s and into the 1800s Asians came across the Pacific to the North American west in relatively small numbers. Because this area operated in almost complete anonymity, piecing together the absolute extent of Asian influence during this time will be difficult, but a good estimate can be made from clues and various sources.

To speed ahead to the founding of Denver, When the Spanish lost control of the west, these Indios became Mexicans, and when Mexico lost the war against the U.S. in 1849, under the treaty of Hidalgo, all Mexicans that stay in the territory gained by the U.S. were to be granted…Citizenship. Now whether citizenship was granted isn’t the point, the reason this change of designation is important is because before the founding of Denver, it is recorded that there was a settlement near the confluence of Cherry Creek called “Spanish” or “Mexican diggings”. Its natural to think of “Diggings” as referring to a mining site but at the most common usage, and one used in areas before or where there never was a gold rush, was in reference to a homestead. It is recorded that the reason this homestead was referred to as “Spanish” or “Mexican” was because of the Spanish or Mexican Indians that were “employed” there; Asian Indios, the 挖溪.

Denver 1858, founding of Denver
The central market of the 'Spanish Diggings', THIS was the beginning of "Denver". The most prominent feature is the "Merkat Cross" or the big limbless tree. The very top acts like a genome of a sundial. Sketch taken from photo, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Paper, Aug,20th,1859

The word 挖溪 (Wazee) translates literally into “dug creek” and there are a few reasons why this was either a name given to them or by them. First off, the Chinese were mainly the ones that “dug creeks” for gold. As Gerald Rodolph states in his doctorial thesis, The Chinese in Colorado, many people are unaware that it was the Chinese who had cleaned out the creeks and rivers of their gold through placer mining. Another reason has to do with spiritual beliefs. A deep belief in the power of Qi, which flows like the water in rivers, requires gathering as much as possible, hence, digging the river of Qi. While these two explanations are reasonable enough there is a third, more tangible, reason as well. As stated before, in Rose Hum Lee’s doctorial thesis The Growth and Decline of Chinese Communities in the Rocky Mountains, she mentions Chinese in Nevada 1858. The group she is talking about is employed creating a channel linking the Carson River to mouth of the Gold Canon Mines, in other words, they were quite literally Digging a Creek. They were widely know for their advanced capabilities of irrigation and constructing water ditches (called acequia in Spanish) and there is even a Denver business card from 1883 that was produced by and for a Chinese Goods Company advertising that they offer Chinese labors such as railroad construction and ditch digging.

Denver Chinatown
Sun Quong Wo business card advertising the labor of digging water ditches, i.e. Digging Creeks.

It should be noted that calling or referring to Denver’s Chinatown as Wazee or Dug Creek is not unusual at all. The Singapore Chinatowns name is called 'Ox cart Water' and that is because the Chinese that started that town made a living by toting water by ox cart, i.e. Water bearers. In China all overseas Chinatowns are known as T’ang-jen Chiah, or Street of the Tang (people), but every Chinatown has its own name, and that makes sense, as every Chinatown has its own origin story. Denver’s Chinatown started before the founding of Auraria or Denver City, in the place called Spanish Diggings.

There is evidence that this settlement had been established as early as 1854, five years before Auraria Or Denver City. Rose Hum Lee states as much in her book and in book of 'French Indian families in America West', Irma Miller states that Nicolas Janis was in this area at that time looking for resettlement. Nicolas Janis was on record as being in close contact with William McGaa and Charles Nichols who here instrumental in the founding of St. Charles which would become Denver City.

Janis here is spelled "Janesse". This family was well known in these parts before the gold rush.

When Denver City was founded, McGaa made sure that the Wazee got there own street, or Right Of Way (ROW) to build their own town, or row of cabins, along. Other groups were to build or make improvements on their respective streets. These small rows of cabins set in front of their groups respective ROWs would be the little towns that would make up the great Denver City. Due to disagreements in lifestyle among the parties this original plan failed to form and ALL Indians had been run out of Denver by 1860. The next wave of Asians would come to Denver Several years later as the “John Chinaman” of United States History and establish the first Chinese Quarters in Denver City. This presence is the one we hear about and explains the Wazee name being of Chinese origin even though the given history says they arrived after the founding.. When this wave of Gold Mountain seekers came they naturally started inhabiting Wazee ROW, and the first of the settlements popped up along the northern side of Wazee Street between 15th and 16th. This is attested to in an advertisement that was continuously run in the local pares. It advertises the place of one Buckskin Jim who was a Glover and arrived in Denver in the mid-1860s. For the first two years of his business location on the Southside of Wazee street between 15th and 16th he states that he is located “diagonal from the big tree, opposite the Chinese Quarters. At this time the major presence of the Chinese community was situated on the north side of Wazee across from Buckskin Jims but in 1872-73 that changed.

The city directory of 1873 shows that two lots were allotted to “Chinaman” on the south side of Wazee between 16th and 17th and a map drawn of the town in 1874 shows these two lots.

This is the start of what we would recognize as the Chinatown of Denver; two buildings. These two buildings would establish an Asian presence in this area.

Denver in the 1870s would see an explosive growth of population; it would become what is known as an “instant City”; a community that experiences an explosive growth of population that continues to grow into the nineteenth century. This was Denver and its sister city San Francisco, and like the Chinatown in San Francisco, the Chinatown in Denver swelled as well. During the 1870s Denver needed labor for building buildings and the Chinese that had helped build the railroads were more than willing to trade travelling work for a more stationary position. Through the 1870s they built Denver, brick by brick, into the sprawling city that it was in 1880.

During this time Denver’s Chinatown grew as well, and after the riot it continued to grow. It is a widely held misconception that the Chinese were “run out” in 1880 after the anti-Chinese riot. The fact is that they flourished after the riot. The Chinese Six Companies, an organization recognized by the U.S. government as being a voice for the Asian community at the time, designated one Chin Lin Sou as the first representative of the Six Companies in Wazee Town. For years Chin Lin Sou was the “Mayor” of Chinatown (a designation that might have been referred to as “Jin Pu” or “Golden General”) and he held that title until his death in 1894.

Denver Chinatown, Sing Lee laundry
Chin Lin Sou, guarding the Sing Lee laundry owned by the Six Companies. His right hand is ready to draw. Most likely, he's got a second one on his person at the ready. This is not a quiet "laundryman", this is a "gunfighter" in the Wild West.

Chin Lin Sou
A comparison of Chin Lin Sou during or shortly after the riot, with a photo of him in his younger years.

The 1887 Sanborn maps, maps drawn at the time of the tour that is related in the article above, show that seven years after the riot the area between 16th and 17th and Wazee was marked as housing “Chinese Gambling Ho(uses) and (Co)ompanies”. As shown in the article Chinatown was far from gone. The area at 14th and Blake at this time shows tenements and the area at of 20th and Blake (where the infamous plaque stands) shows a dwelling and single laundry across the street.

Denver Chinatown
Fourteenth and Blake in 1887, Wazee would be to the left and Thirteenth runs across the bottom.

Denver Chinatown
20th and Blake and Market in 1887, Blake runs across the top and Market runs across the bottom. 21st Street would be to the right of the page while 19th street would be further left.

This Changes in the 1893 maps. At this time the area at 20th and Blake is designated as “Kennedys Row” and several female “boarding houses” can be seen, as well as a Joss house, restaurant, and theatre.

Denver Chinatown