The true story of Denver’s Chinese community

`Reclaiming Denver’s Chinatown’ documentary premiers as part of Denver Film Festival

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Ask any Denver resident if they know lower downtown was once home to a bustling Chinatown, and the answer is probably “no.”

Denver’s Chinatown, which was located in an area known as Hop Alley that formed behind Wazee Street between 15th and 17th streets, was destroyed on Oct. 31, 1880, during an anti-Chinese race riot. Whites and Chinese Americans clashed following a brawl in a saloon, and a violent white mob burned down every Chinese-owned business in the area. One Chinese man, Look Young, was lynched during the riot, and others were severely beaten.

For decades, this violent piece of Denver’s past was relegated to a few paragraphs in local history books and remained relatively hidden — until the city erected a plaque at Blake and 20th streets near Coors Field to commemorate the riot. That marker, which was found to be inaccurate and racist, was removed in August just five months after Mayor Michael Hancock issued a formal apology to the descendants of Denver’s Chinese immigrants for the city’s role in the destruction of Denver’s Chinatown.

And now, a new documentary, “Reclaiming Denver’s Chinatown,” aims to further set the record straight and share the true story of Denver’s Chinese community. The 53-minute film, which was produced by the city’s Office of Storytelling as part of its #IAmDenver documentaries project, premieres Nov. 10 during the Denver Film Festival.

The documentary provides an overview of the history of Denver’s Chinatown and its destruction, but it doesn’t dwell on the past. Instead, it delves into how the city’s Chinese population was able to rise above that night of violence and become contributing members of the Denver community, despite adversity.

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Roxana A. Soto, who is the producer and co-director of the film, said the project took about a year and half to complete. It began with a call from Linda Lung, a descendent of some of Denver’s early Chinatown residents. She was familiar with the work the Office of Storytelling was doing and wanted to share her family’s history.

“This story actually came to us, which shows the power of what we (the Office of Storytelling) are doing is working, because people are now coming to us and saying, `I have this story,’” Soto said. “In trying to make sure the history of Denver is told from all points of view and not just the white male point of view, we’re trying to make it more complete, more equitable, more inclusive.”

Soto interviewed Lung and her cousin Heather Lung Clifton as part of the documentary. They’re both Denver natives, and in recent years, have spent a lot of time tracking down their family’s history, which they’ve traced back to the birth of their entrepreneurial great-grandmother, Ahmoy Lung, who was born in Oregon in 1871 and eventually moved with her family to Denver. She was the family’s matriarch and owned and operated several businesses.

Lung and Clifton said they got involved in the film project because they wanted to ensure that the history of Denver’s Chinese population was told — and told accurately.

“They were trying to make it better for us,” Clifton said.

She became a teacher and a school administrator and still works as an educational consultant. Lung was a social worker, worked in the telecommunications industry and eventually retired from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

Lung said the residents of Chinatown didn’t disappear after the riot. Instead, they stayed and found a way to survive.

“It was a thriving community, and it still continues to be a thriving community,” Lung said. “You have to remember that America didn’t want us here so they (Denver’s Chinese residents) did whatever they had to do to survive. It might be restaurants, it might be opium or it might be running a lottery.”

According to a directory that was published in the International Chinese Business Directory in the 1920s, only 40 years after the destruction of Chinatown, Denver’s downtown was home to a long list of Chinese-owned businesses. These included laundries, restaurants, groceries and stores selling general merchandise and Chinese goods. And as Denver’s Chinese population grew, families moved away from downtown and into other areas of the city.

The Lung family owned three restaurants in Denver: the Shanghai at 2130 Arapahoe St., the Yuye Cafe at 2801 Welton St. and the Rickshaw Boy on South Broadway. As children, Clifton and Lung have fond memories of big family gatherings in the home of their grandparents, Lucille and Charlie Lung, at 21st and Vine. The big wraparound porch would be filled with card tables lined up side-by-side, and those eating at the tables included aunts and uncles, cousins and people who were boarders at the big three-story home.

“Most of our family grew up fairly poor. We wore hand-me-down clothes, bought day-old bread and always washed clothes in a laundromat,” Clifton said. “Since then, we’ve all been able to establish ourselves in fairly good neighborhoods and positions. We all got college degrees, and became educated, and we have lots of people in the family who are doctors and lawyers and nurses. A lot of people really rose above the poverty we grew up in.”

In addition to the Lungs, the documentary features other prominent Chinese families in the Denver area, who also share their stories.

“The main thing to know about the Chinese is that they really have been in Denver since Denver became a city, and I don’t think most people know that,” Soto said. “It’s a common thread story among immigrants. They work extremely hard in whatever jobs they can find, so that the future generations didn’t have to do that kind of work. This documentary is almost like a window into what it was like to be Chinese American from the late 1800s to now.”

Soto said it’s heartwarming and satisfying when people see themselves on the big screen, telling never-before-told stories that they thought no one cared about.

“We’re bringing to light these stories, and there’s a lot of hardship, but at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do the same thing — survive and thrive, and you know, get ahead,” Soto said. “There’s a common thread. It’s humanity.”

Reclaiming Denver's Chinatown, Denver Office of Storytelling, Denver

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