Chinese workforce has helped fuel Yosemite’s growth – and it’s finally being recognized
In the spring of 1875, about 300 Chinese laborers accomplished a monumental feat: They built a 37 km road in Yosemite National Park in about four and a half months.
Construction began in December 1874 with a crew of 50 who worked in snowy conditions to build a road that gained 3,000 feet in elevation. When completed, the road connected an area near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to Yosemite Valley.
It is one of the four main roads that lead to one of America’s most famous national parks. Of the four, Chinese immigrants built two.
They were among the hundreds of Chinese immigrants who helped develop Yosemite National Park. Their history in the park has remained largely unknown, prompting defenders in recent years to launch efforts to raise awareness of their role.
One of those efforts is the restoration of a Chinese laundry that will open to the public on Friday. The building will be dedicated to telling the story of Chinese immigrant workers in Yosemite National Park, including the stories of those who built the roads in the park.
Sabrina Diaz, who was chief of interpretation and education at Yosemite National Park and is now deputy superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, pitched the idea of restoring the building after learning in 2017 that ‘it was used for storage. She told NBC Asian America in an email that it was the last laundry building from Yosemite’s debut.
“I felt like we weren’t preserving their part of our shared history in a way that would make them or us proud,” she said.
The building will present various parts of Yosemite’s Chinese history through text and photos projected on the walls. The parts of the story that will be highlighted are the workers who built major roads, including the Tioga Road, north of the Yosemite Valley; the contributions of Tie Sing, a cook, to the creation of Yosemite National Park and the National Park Service; the story of Ah You, who was the chef at the Wawona Hotel in California for 47 years; the contributions of the Chinese who worked in the hotels of Yosemite; and the story of the Buffalo Soldiers who helped put out forest fires and evict poachers.
Yenyen Chan, a Yosemite Park ranger who has conducted extensive research into Chinese history in Yosemite, wrote in The George Wright Forum newspaper that many Chinese have been hired into Yosemite hotels because of their work ethic and their culinary skills.
Beth Lew-Williams, associate professor of history at Princeton, said the work ethic of Chinese immigrants to the United States was directly influenced by the conditions under which they worked and the choices they were forced to make. Men often immigrated without women or children, which made work a central part of their lives. Domestic demands were different without their families, which affected their free time, Lew-Williams added. Workers have also faced economic pressure to send part of their income to support their families in China.
These conditions led them to become stereotypical as industrious and servile, which affected the way employers treated them.
Chan told NBC Asian America in 2018 that Sing played an important role in preparing meals for a two-week wilderness expedition in 1915, intended to convince business and cultural leaders of the importance of a network of national parks.
“It wasn’t a minor role,” Chan said. “I think they were amazed that he could cook meals that were essentially multi-course meals in the backcountry.”
Sing’s work seems to have been appreciated. Members of the group that embarked on the expedition recorded his meals in their notes – including how Sing was able to cook a “fabulous dinner” even though a supply mule carrying “delicacies” like cantaloupe and the fresh lemonade had moved away. The following year, the federal government created the National Park Service.
Lew-Williams said there has been a general pattern of 19th-century Chinese immigrants forgotten in the larger history of the American West. This is in part because many Chinese who came to the country were transient and illiterate, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 left the country with few descendants from that period, and history has traditionally Eurocentric summer.
“That’s not to say that individuals in the park system were trying to keep the Chinese out of this story,” she said. “But I think it was more the choices they made about how they represented the history of their park reflected their own biases over time on what should be celebrated and remembered.”
She also said that the contributions of Chinese immigrants to the country, including national parks and the transcontinental railroad, have long been recognized in the Chinese-American community, by Asian American organizations and activists. The wave of anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic appears to have drawn wider American attention to this story, she said.
Jack Shu, who oversaw the information that will be displayed in the laundry building, has been involved in efforts to raise awareness of Chinese history in the United States. In 2013, he created an annual Yosemite-Sing Peak pilgrimage to honor the Chinese who helped develop Yosemite National Park. Six years later, he organized a trek along a 10-mile stretch of the first transcontinental railway that Chinese and Irish workers built in a single day 150 years earlier – a record-breaking feat.
He told NBC Asian America in 2018 that he was saddened to learn that Sing’s story was not widely known. He had worked in the California Department of Parks and Recreation for 29 years and worked with the National Park Service during this time, and felt it was a missed opportunity for the agency to share more about Chinese history. .
“While he has done a good job of preserving this story, they are a long way from changing the narrative for the general public,” he said.
Shu said in September that he was thrilled when he first heard about the Laundry Building in 2012 because it is a physical structure that people can point to and experience, as opposed to a site where something existed before. In addition to the information that will be projected on the walls, he hopes the building can display irons used by Chinese workers – those that had to be heated on a stove or were loaded with hot coals.
“These objects weigh around 4 pounds, much more than current electric irons,” said Shu. “So we give a visitor an iron and say, ‘Hey, imagine using it to iron on so many sheets of paper. That’s how people remember things, and that’s what having a facility like this helps provide. So when you hear about Chinese people working in the service industry and helping in hotels, it sticks because your arm hurts.
A crucial contribution that made the restoration of the building possible came from Franklin and Sandra Yee, residents of Sacramento who donated $ 100,000 in commemoration of Sandra Yee’s parents’ love for Yosemite.
At a time of rising anti-Asian hatred, Shu said he hoped the laundry building could serve as a solution to the problem.
“I hope we can contribute in this way, that when someone knows part of this story, they know that the Chinese are not foreigners – that they are part of American history,” Shu said.