The Pivotal Role in Chinese Immigrant Involvement with Yosemite

Who would have guessed that the spectacular and breathtaking Yosemite National Park has its early origins firmly anchored to Chinese immigrants who played a crucial part in the establishment of the national park. These Chinese immigrants became so  instrumental that the development of the park would never be this successful without them. Cheers for that!


Let us dive a bit deeper into this marvelous piece of history and unravel a chunk of it as we appreciate our fellow Chinese people who contributed and sacrificed their time and effort in building the one we now love, Yosemite national park!


It all started when…


Chinese people first started migrating to the West Coast in the 1840s. They were often looking for opportunities during the gold rush so that they could provide for their families in China, which was, back then, experiencing a number of social and environmental calamities throughout its many regions. 


Settling in was never easy for them, and It was long when things became tough following the implementation of the foreign Miners' Tax of 1850 in California, forcing Chinese immigrants to seek employment in industries other than gold mining, such as agriculture and railroad construction. This restriction kind of paved a way to open new doors for the Chinese immigrants to explore other opportunities rather than just gold mining.


With their new occupations and valuable skills that they brought with them, these Chinese immigrants are later seen working throughout the region.


It was later known that the majority of the people who worked on the construction of the Wawona Road were Chinese immigrants. The road was constructed in just eighteen weeks, over the winter, and solely with hand picks and shovels! In addition to that, it was also Chinese workers who had contributed to the construction of the 56-mile Great Sierra Wagon Road, which is now known as Tioga Road. This road had been constructed in the 1880s. In order to clear the path, they labored on foot and without any equipment in the difficult terrain. They even used risky blasting powder to clear the path and built retaining walls using hand tools. According to one estimate, the road was finished in about 130 days with the help of 250 Chinese and 90 European-American workmen! Isn’t it amazing?


The legacy of Chinese road workers can still be seen and is now preserved in the Washburn trail, which is maintained by the conservancy groups. The trail runs for about two miles from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza up to the famed giant sequoias. The hiking path was constructed over the course of two years, and it was later opened to the general public before the end of the year 2018.


A taste of culinary tales


The wonders of Asian cuisine were later introduced by key individuals. It was with these chefs that helped paved a way to a more refined state of the park. One prominent chef was Ah You. He was born in China in 1848,and migrated to the United States when he was 21 years old. In the year 1886, the Washburn family appointed Ah You to the position of head chef at their Wawona Hotel which was the oldest hotel of the park. He continued to work in the hotel until Ah Louie took over the position of head chef in 1910.


Both of these men remained to cook for the hotel until the ownership of the building was transferred in the early 1930s. 


One significant event took place when Stephen Mather's "Mountain Party" in July 1915 was catered by Tie Sing, a legendary Chinese cook who had worked for the US Geological Survey for over three decades. At the time, Mather was special assistant to the secretary of the interior and organized an expedition to Sequoia National Park in order to rally support for a federal agency to oversee the nation's national parks. The trip lasted two weeks and included participants from government, publishing, engineering, business, and conservation.


The culinary party was a blast and many believed that the experience offered by Sing accompanied by the majestic presence of the park during their hike fast tracked the approval for the government to give support to oversee our national parks.


Sing's reputation as a wilderness cook was well-established that a peak in the southern Sierra Nevada had already been named after him. That was 16 years before that infamous “Mountain party” in 1915.


Indeed these great Chinese culinary legends had contributed so much that until to this day, we are experiencing the same passion that they helped build for us to enjoy.


Walking the same path to continue the legacy


The question is, what now?


History has again proved that if we worked together hand in hand we can accomplish great things. But if we all leave it down to history, eventually, everything will be forgotten. 


It is but a step to walk again the same path that these great men once took and relive the legacy. Conservation groups that are now at work are giving all their best to accomplish this. Various activities such as the ones Ranger Yenyen Chan, a Chinese American ranger at the Yosemite national park, is helping to arrange yearly, is one of those that empowers such legacies and we thank her for shedding light on this piece of forgotten history.


As part of an annual event that focuses on the park's Chinese heritage, a hiking trip is headed to Sing Peak, which is located on Yosemite's southern edge. Following it, a short halt was made at a modest wooden building in Wawona by those who were participating in the annual Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage a few years ago. Chan discovered via her investigation that the structure had once functioned as a carriage shop and had more recently been utilized as a laundry that was operated by Chinese laborers. However, as the years went by, the structure has deteriorated, and as a result, a significant portion of its history was lost.


As a result of this discovery in the investigation, donors Sandra and Franklin Yee were interested when they learned about the 2019 grant to the National Park Service to restore the laundry building to preserve its connections to Chinese history.


They were so inspired that they decided to significantly increase their support by making a generous major gift to fully fund the work. This gift will then eventually allow the Conservancy to make the grant to the National Park Service.


It was with this that the Yees saw the chance to celebrate Chinese American history, the immigration tale, as well as their own family's strong personal links to Yosemite, in contributing to the restoration of the laundry as part of their philanthropy. Her parents, Hogan and Ruth Wong, purchased a cottage in Wawona in 1953, and Sandra's family has been going to the park since 1949 for the duration of the summer. Yosemite is still very important to the Yees' children and grandkids, and it serves as a location where they can go to remember and commemorate their ancestors.


It is with these people that a piece of history continues to live forward through time. Cheers!

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1 comment

EXCELLENT piece of historical factoid!!! Not enough stories about Asian history being told these days. Kudos to Featherstone!!!!

Steve Matsumura

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