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Chinese and Japanese communities have experienced struggle, strife and success in Colorado

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The last spike was driven into the first continuous transcontinental railroad in Comanche Crossing about 40 miles east of Denver. It's just one of many contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to our country's and state's history, infrastructure and culture.

However, those contributions have often been overlooked or forgotten, so CBS News Colorado is shining a light on a lost history in our state.

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was critical to trade, expansion and development in the U.S. Without it, you would have to take the six-month route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America by boat just to get from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Chinese workers were recruited by Central Pacific for the extremely dangerous work of building the tracks, eventually making up 90% of the labor force for the railroad. After it was finished in 1869, many Chinese immigrants settled here in Colorado, looking for gold.

Chinese miners work in Colorado in the 1880s. Courtesy / History Colorado

The Colorado Tribune announced the arrival of the first Chinese immigrant on June 29, 1869, writing, "he's come–the first John Chinaman in Denver."

Unfortunately, that name stuck for many Chinese immigrants who made Colorado home including Chin Lin Sou. He immigrated to California in 1853 from a wealthy family in China and was fluent in Chinese and English. After recruiting Chinese laborers to help build the railroad, he set his sights on Colorado.

"He heard there was gold here," said Lin Sou's great-great-granddaughter Linda Jew. "They thought they could come here and just pick it up off the streets. And they were wrong."

Linda Jew CBS

Lin Sou settled in Black Hawk in 1870 to mine gold and silver. He was prohibited, however, since he was Chinese, Jew said.

He would pan for gold since he didn't have the equipment to mine, but eventually, he managed more than 300 Chinese miners and became well-known and respected. Lin Sou was so successful that he was honored with a dedicated chair at the Central City Opera House and, eventually, a stained glass window at the State Capitol. But the image of him is offensive.

"When we saw the stained glass, they had him in a Mandarin collar Chinese outfit," Jew said. "He never wore clothes like that. He always wore Western suits."

Courtesy / History Colorado

There was much success for Lin Sou and others in mining and businesses. But soon, an effort started to drive Chinese laborers out.

"Whenever the country suffered from an economic dislocation, or what we refer to as 'depressions, recessions,' that sort of thing. They look for individuals to blame. And naturally, they would blame those that they thought were the source of the problem," said William Wei, professor of Chinese history at the University of Colorado. "This included Chinese workers, who, as far as they were concerned, work too hard for too little."

In places like Nederland and Leadville, Chinese people were warned not to come and those communities took pride in driving them out.

"They refer to them basically as representative of this group of people who would later be considered an invasive species in Colorado and, like other invasive species, they would eventually be, unfortunately, rooted out," Wei said.

Anti-Chinese racism takes root

That's exactly what happened here in Denver. The area we now know as LoDo was the core of Denver's historic Chinatown in the 1870s. This was also the site of a riot that would burn it down. Denver's Chinatown was called "Hop Alley," an offensive nod to the rise in opium use blamed on the Chinese at the time.

"You get the impression that all Chinese were hopheads or drug addicts," Wei said. "The Chinese were, in many ways, the victims of opium rather than the promoters of opium."

On Oct. 31, 1880, several Chinese residents were playing pool at John Saloon in Denver.

"A group of drunken White laborers came in and started a fight with them. And that fight escalated into a riot," Wei said. "Approximately a quarter of Denver's population descended upon Denver's Chinatown on Oct. 31, 1880, where they raped and pillaged and nearly destroyed the community."

A scanned copy of an illustration that appeared in the Nov. 20, 1880 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper showed a sketch of the Oct. 31, 1880 riot in Denver, as interpreted by artist N. B. Wilkins. Courtesy / Denver Public Library

It was a racially motivated riot and one designed to drive Chinese residents out, but the plan backfired.

"Some left of course, but the Chinese remained because it was home," Wei said.

They started to rebuild. But just two years after the riot, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept more Chinese laborers out of the country.

William Wei CBS

"That, combined with the anti-miscegenation laws, meant that the Chinese could not bring their families over. They could not establish families here," Wei said.

The number of Chinese residents would naturally dwindle. As more left the state and even the country, a door opened for more Japanese immigrants.

A new wave of immigration

The first big wave of Japanese immigrants began coming to Colorado in the early 20th century. They worked in the mines, on railroads and farms and started their own businesses. But the racism the Chinese dealt with would plague the Japanese as well and it would uproot so many lives during World War II.

In Denver, Sakura Square, which was once named Little Tokyo, statues honored the leaders of the Japanese community. Among them is former Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr. Many of the Japanese immigrants who arrived here back in the 1940s did so because Carr told them they were welcomed.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, fears of Japanese people in the U.S. grew, prompting the removal of Japanese from their homes to concentration camps, or what the government called "internment camps," like Camp Amache in southeastern Colorado. More than 7,000 Japanese-Americans -- U.S. citizens -- were taken to Camp Amache and lost their homes and businesses as a result.

Fourth-grade children weed their victory garden at Camp Amache in June of 1943. Courtesy / U.S. National Archives

But it was Carr who stood up to racism against Japanese-Americans.

"It was un-American to be doing this," Wei said. "But nevertheless, it was a period of time in which most other leaders -- and that includes his fellow governors in the West -- turned their backs on their fellow citizens.

That led to some Japanese people thriving in Colorado, including one man who opened his store in 1944. The Pacific Mercantile Exchange at 19th Street and Larimer Street, and its owners from then to now, play a role in the lost history of Colorado.

Preserving history and a family business

It's a typical weekday at Pacific Mercantile Exchange. Products need to be stocked for customers. The store has come a long way since its meager opening 80 years ago. But in many ways, it remains the same.

"To this day, we still carry eggs, bread, detergent," said Jolie Noguchi, who, along with her brothers, currently owns the store.

They're third-generation or "sanseis." Jolie Noguchi's daughter, Alyssa Noguch is the store's bookkeeper and is next in line for running the store. They continue with the work success and struggles of their grandfather, George Inai.

"The reason why he chose Colorado was because, literally, Gov. Carr opening up the state, no questions asked, to the Japanese-Americans," Jolie Noguchi said.

Originally, Inai had a store in Sacramento, California in the 1930s.

But as anti-Japanese sentiment grew, Jolie Noguchi said, Inai, "was taken away and they were only able to take what they could carry."

When Carr opened the door for Japanese people to come to Colorado, Inai walked right in.

Founder and original owner George Inai sits in the Pacific Mercantile Exchange Courtesy / Noguchi family

He wanted to name the store "Nippon Market," but because Japanese and American tensions were high at the time, the governor told him to rethink that name. "Nippon" refers to the formal pronunciation of the native name of Japan.

"He thought about it," Jolie Noguchi said. "He came from the Pacific coast. So that's how 'Pacific Mercantile,' the name, came about. And so the name itself has history."

It caused considerable difficulty for him at the time.

"Being Japanese-American, they said 'why are you here?' You know, you don't belong here. You know, you need to go back to Japan,'" Jolie Noguchi said.

But just like her grandfather, each day is an opportunity to show her culture and to be there for others.

"I am American. I am Japanese-American. And so I belong here too," she said.

Jolie Noguchi, left, and her daughter Alyssa own and operate the Pacific Mercantile Company, a Japanese and Asian market in Denver that's been owned by the family for 80 years. CBS

"For me, the biggest takeaway from the store is not losing the history," Alyssa Noguchi said. "Not only of us as our family but also as Japanese-Americans and the internment camp and incarceration of Japanese-Americans. I don't want that history to be lost."

Of course, times have changed since the store first opened. The owners are now talking about expanding or perhaps even moving to a different location. But one thing that will not change is the store's motto, which is that the customer is always right.

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