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New Mural Honors Denver’s Forgotten Chinatown

Bright splashes of red, yellow, green, purple, and blue now adorn the side of Denver Fire Station 4 on the corner of Lawrence and 19th Streets. The new mural, painted by Hmong American artist Nalye Lor, depicts a traditional long-life noodle connecting figures representing the first Chinese immigrants in Denver to their modern-day descendants. 

“I love the concept of eating one really, really long noodle with the wish of longevity,” Lor said via email. “With the burning down of the Chinatown and having no ample way to rebuild it afterwards, I can only imagine how hopeless the people left standing felt. But even without an official Chinatown, their people pushed forward and thrived in Colorado, and the long-life noodle speaks to that continuous push and resilience.” 

Lor painted the mural in partnership with Colorado Asian Pacific United, or CAPU, an organization determined to recognize the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders’ history and presence in Denver. The mural is located in what used to be Denver’s Chinatown, the area residents now know as LoDo. The city’s Chinatown—also called Hop Alley—formed along Wazee Street in the 1870s and became the residential and business center for Chinese immigrants. Anti-Chinese hysteria grew throughout the decade, hitting its peak on October 31, 1880, when a mob rioted, virtually erasing the area both physically and historically. 

Colorado Asian Pacific United was founded in 2020 as an answer to the lack of awareness surrounding AANHPI history in the state and to reckon with the post-COVID-19 surge in racism. Joie Ha, vice chair of CAPU, remarked on the impact this mural will have in the Denver area towards recognizing Chinatown and its history that has been erased, forgotten, or destroyed.

“It was truly in the heart of Denver,” Ha said. “So if you’ve ever been to 16th Street Mall, or if you’ve ever been to any of the clubs or bars on Blake Street, then you probably have walked in Denver’s historic Chinatown. But you’ll probably also notice that there isn’t really any evidence of its existence.”  

Lor’s inspiration for the mural stemmed from previous work.. She learned the significance language can have. The design and lettering of the mural was a collaborative effort with several other Chinese designers and local Chinese native speakers who inspired her to incorporate the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of moving slowly, be afraid of stopping,” featured on the left side of the mural. 

Dr. Soon Beng Yeap, CAPU’s board chair, said via email that because the AANHPI population in Colorado is small, members of CAPU feel like it is their responsibility, “to proactively tell the stories of our community in our own voice and through our own lens.” 

CAPU has helped create several different historical landmarks to represent Chinatown, the past controversies and present celebrations and monuments. In addition to Lor’s mural, which was made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the organization has created three historical markers, “strategically placed to represent different parts of Chinatown’s story,” Ha said. 

The first marker will be on 16th Street Mall which highlights the neighborhood’s general history and why Chinese immigrants moved to Denver. The second will be installed on Wazee Street near the saloon where the anti-Chinese riots initially began. The third will be located near Lor’s mural and will commemorate the life of Look Young, who was lynched during the riot.

“The three historical markers represent our way to physically and metaphorically reclaim our Chinatown by installing these permanent structures,” Yeap said. “These markers tell the story of the Chinese immigrant community at specific and memorable locations where Denver’s historic Chinatown was located. Two of our board members, who are architects, were behind the concept and design of the markers.”

The organization is hoping to have all of the markers installed by the end of July and plans to unveil them at a block party on August 12. According to Lor, attendees of the block party will also vote on the name of the mural. 

“We are extremely grateful to the City of Denver, the crew of Fire Station 4, and the neighborhood for allowing us to have the mural on its wall of the fire station,” Yeap said.

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