The Road to Chinese Exclusion

The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West

Liping Zhu

Caroline Bancroft Prize

Denver in the Gilded Age may have been an economic boomtown, but it was also a powder keg waiting to explode. When that inevitable eruption occurred—in the Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880—it was sparked by white resentment at the growing encroachment of Chinese immigrants who had crossed the Pacific Ocean and journeyed overland in response to an expanding labor market. Liping Zhu’s book provides the first detailed account of this momentous conflagration and carefully delineates the story of how anti-Chinese nativism in the nineteenth century grew from a regional political concern to a full-fledged national issue.

“Liping Zhu takes what others might see as local events and shows that they, in fact, rose from outside events. He also shows how such events can sometimes have multiple impacts on the larger world.

—Pacific Historical Review

“A superb local history, The Road to Chinese Exclusion also makes fruitful efforts in placing Colorado’s increasing hostility toward the Chinese in the larger contexts of American national politics surrounding issues of race, sectional conflict, and the growing prominence of the West. . . . Zhu’s study sheds valuable light on the extraordinary importance of the Chinese American experience for understanding the development of the United States in the late nineteenth century.”

New Mexico Historical Review
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Zhu tells a complex tale about race, class, and politics. He reconstructs the drama of the riot—with Denvers Rocky Mountain News fanning the flames by labeling the Chinese the pest of the Pacific—and relates how white mobs ransacked Chinatown while other citizens took pains to protect their Asian neighbors. Occurring two days before the national election, it had a decisive impact on sectional political alignments that would undercut the nations promise of equal rights for all peoples made after the Civil War and would have repercussions lasting well into the next century.

By examining the relationship between the anti-Chinese movement and the rise of the West, this work sheds new light on our understanding of racial politics and sectionalism in the post-Reconstruction era. As the Wests newfound political muscle threatened Republican hegemony in national politics, many Republican legislators compromised their commitment to equal rights and unfettered immigration by joining Democrats to pass the noxious 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—which was not repealed until 1943 and only earned congressional apologies in 2011 and 2012.

The Denver Anti-Chinese Riot strikes at the core of the national debate over race and region in the late nineteenth century as it demonstrates a correlation between the national retreat from the campaign for racial equality and the rise of the American West to national political prominence. Thanks to Zhus powerful narrative, this once overlooked event now has a place in the saga of American history—and serves as a potent reminder that in the real world of bare-knuckle politics, competing for votes often trumps fidelity to principle.

About the Author

Liping Zhu is professor of history at Eastern Washington University, author of A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, and coauthor of Ethnic Oasis: The Chinese in the Black Hills.