Denver’s Chinatown: How Descriptions of Space Condemned a Community

In January of 1890, The Rocky Mountains News, a prominent Colorado newspaper, ran an article on the recent unrest, scheming mobs, and murder plots allegedly unfolding in Denver’s Chinatown.  The story revolved around John Taylor, a Chinese immigrant and the owner of the businesses which comprised Chinatown.  The events had apparently “attracted considerable attention all over the country,” not only for their intrigue, but because Chinatowns, and Chinese immigrants, across the U.S. were under attack by the media.1 Situated in Denver’s central business district, Chinatown covered less than a block, with one report claiming it was only 125×100 feet, and much of it was rebuilt from what had been destroyed in an anti-Chinese riot ten years earlier.2 The reporter from The Rocky Mountain News claims that readers were curious to know what the headquarters of “John Taylor and his murderous band” looked like, and the article recounts the author’s tour of the area.  It reveals how the characterization of space was used not only to reinforce intolerant attitudes towards the Chinese community, but how descriptions of space were employed to control where Chinese people were allowed to live and work.

The article is primarily concerned with criminality and a large portion of it focuses on the prevalence of opium, gambling, and prostitution in Chinatown.  The US Government’s attempts to control opium in the late 19th century — specifically an 1887 law passed by Congress which, “prohibited Chinese from importing opium and allowed only non-Chinese American citizens to manufacture smoking opium” — demonstrates the government’s intolerance of Chinese immigrants and its attempts to control Chinese populations.3 These policies increased opium smuggling, and created strong associations with Chinese immigrants and organized crime.  U.S. media also perpetuated fears of opium corrupting white women, and by extension, Chinese communities corrupting American society.  The reporter for The Rocky Mountain News drew on these fears in the article, claiming that “Many women were ruined by the Chinese in the old quarters,” and proceeds to give a description: “A celestial leads her through the dark hall. She is assigned a bunk, where she cooks her opium, smokes it while the police are outside vainly endeavoring to find them.”4 This account of the interior categorizes Chinatown as a place of corruption: impenetrable to light and the law.

Descriptions of dark hallways are prominent throughout the article and are repeatedly used to create ominous and threatening impressions.  According to the reporter, the very structure of Chinatown is designed for criminality.  He relates that smoking opium is prohibited, but “to elude the law these elevated smoking rooms have been built in such a manner that the front and rear door can be seen. It is so dark there it is impossible for a person coming in from the street to see exactly what is taking place, so that the occupants have ample time to hide their pipes in the event of a police raid on the place.”4 The rest of the buildings are described in a similar way.  False doors and narrow passageways suggest maze-like complexity with the clear objective of classifying space as criminal, dangerous, and impenetrable.  While dark hallways and false doors suggest criminal activity through the built environment, observations about the upkeep and cleanliness of the space are used to cast judgment on its inhabitants.  The reporter uses descriptors like “rickety roof,” “foul air,” “squatty buildings,” and “filth” to characterize it as uninhabitable.5 

All this precedes the reporter’s description of the businesses in West Denver owned by John Taylor’s rival and the object of his supposed murder plots, Chin Poo.  The article reads: “there are no alleys, no passages or dark hallways, the floors are kept clean, are scrubbed daily, and all the houses are well lighted and ventilated… The police permit the Chinese here to gamble and smoke opium, and will allow Taylor’s crowd the same privilege it they move over there, away from the business portion of the city, where no objection is raised against their presence.”5 The author makes no attempt to veil the true purpose of the article, and expresses no concern for Chin Poo despite his insistence that Taylor is a dangerous threat.  Instead, it’s revealed that the location of John Taylor’s businesses was the reporter’s main concern.  

The situation of Chinatown in Denver’s central business district combined with the threat of cheap labor provided by Chinese immigrants led to campaigns against the Chinese community and attempts to undermine their businesses.  The rivalry between Taylor’s “gang of cut-throats” and Chin Poo became an excuse to emphasize associations between Denver’s Chinatown and criminality through descriptions of the physical location.  While another report suggests that Chinatown was also home to three restaurants, fifty policy shops, a morgue, and a butcher shop, these legitimate businesses are conspicuously absent from the article (despite a brief reference to a restaurant which the reporter predictably describes as “filthy”).6 The Rocky Mountain News ran numerous articles arguing that Chinese businesses posed a financial threat to white businesses and warned of the social cost of the projected growth of the Chinese population in such a central part of Denver.  Chinese spaces were transformed by the media into places of corruption, criminality, and unsanitary practices which increased intolerance toward the Chinese community and ultimately led to the eradication of Denver’s Chinatown.

  1. “Three Chinatowns,” The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), January 6, 1890, Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. []
  2. “A Home for Plague,” The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), July 13, 1889, Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. []
  3. Jeffrey Scott McIllwain, Organizing Crime in Chinatown (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 1969), 59. []
  4. The Rocky Mountain News, “Three Chinatowns.” [] []
  5. Ibid. [] []
  6. The Rocky Mountain News, “A Home for Plague.” []