Past, present and future of Denver's Chinatown honored in new mural

Hmong American artist Nalye Lor created the concept for the mural at Fire Station #4 in Denver
Posted at 5:57 AM, Apr 03, 2023

DENVER — A mural that will honor the historic Denver Chinatown is in the works right now. It's on the side of Fire Station #4, right on the outskirts of the once vibrant economic and cultural center which is now modern day Lower Downtown.

"They had different businesses, places to live, truly an ethnic enclave," said Joie Ha, vice chair of Colorado Asian Pacific Unite (CAPU), the group behind the mural. "Oct. 31, 1880, there was an anti-Chinese race riot where a white mob of several hundred people descended on the Chinatown and they destroyed all the businesses, they brutalized the people and unfortunately, they also lynched a man whose name was Look Young."

In August 2021, CAPU successfully removed a plaque on the side of a building on the corner of 20th and Blake Street that included a derogatory term referring to the race riot and didn't mention Young's name.

Past, present and future of Denver's Chinatown honored in new mural

"After [the riot], the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed federally, there was a huge wave of anti-Chinese sentiment and people at that time just didn't want any Chinese people in their neighborhoods. As a result, the Chinatown was never really able to rebuild," Ha said.

CAPU has now launched an effort to reclaim Denver's Chinatown.

"Physically and metaphorically," Ha said. "To say this used to be a Chinatown, and there used to be a thriving Chinese population here — there are still Chinese people here, and will still be here in the future."

CAPU put out a prompt to artists: represent the past, present and future of Chinatown.

Mural to represent the past, present and future of Denver's Chinatown, by local artist Nalye Lor

"When they picked me I was like, 'Wait are you sure? Did you send the wrong email?' I know my name gets spelled wrong a lot," said Nalye Lor, the artist who created the winning concept for the mural.

"The color was super important because I wanted the image to be happy and fun and really match what Denver is today. It's representing a timeline from the past, present and future. It was inspired by Long Life Noodles," explained Lor. "I wanted people to also move their eye with the image. Then we have the silhouettes that represent ancestors that were here before, as well as the ones who will be here in the future, and the ones who are currently here now."

The phrase on the left of the mural is something Lor said she wants the entire community to take to heart.

"Don't be afraid to keep moving. Be afraid of standing still," she said.

Before sketching out her first draft, Lor hit the books to learn all she could about Denver's Chinatown. That's when she realized there was not a lot of information on it that was public knowledge.

"I had to dig a little deeper and look at articles, read through them, make notes. Then I was, after all the research, able to sit down and start sketching," Lor said.

With so much visual interest going on in the piece, she hopes it encourages people who pass by to dig into the story behind the mural and Denver's Chinatown.

"I want them to ask why. Why it's here? What is it? Who did it? And what's the message behind it?" said Lor.

This will be the first mural launched by CAPU, and they said they have plans in the works for other art projects and historical markers for downtown.

"We understand that the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have so many different cultures and so many different languages underneath that umbrella. We definitely want to continue this work beyond just the Chinatown. We want to make sure we are including folks from different backgrounds and doing that important work as well," Ha said.

Lor said the mural should be finished sometime in May if the weather cooperates.

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