Attendees at the opening of the new Chinese Laundry Building exhibit in Yosemite National Park. [Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Al Golub]

Forgotten No Longer: Yosemite National Park Honors Contributions from Chinese Americans

Asia China

On October 1, 2021, its 131st birthday, Yosemite National Park unveiled a restored Chinese laundry in its Wawona Hotel to recognize the contributions of Chinese Americans to the park’s founding. The result of extensive research conducted by Yosemite ranger Yenyen Chan and support from the Yosemite Conservancy and Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the restoration holds the stories and artifacts of Chinese immigrants who built the Tioga Road and Wawona Road, which are integral to tourists being able to visit the park today. Just a year after the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which in 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for 60 years until 1943, Chinese laborers built the 56-mile Tioga Road across the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in 130 days in 1883.

Yosemite National Park is no stranger to honoring Chinese Americans integral to its founding. Sing Peak, located on Yosemite’s southern border, is named for Tie Sing. Sing, who over the course of his life encountered extreme prejudice, worked for the US Geological Survey for 28 years, including most famously as the Survey’s head chef. In 1915, Stephen Mather, who would later serve as the first director of the National Park Service, asked Sing to accompany him and a group of fellow industrialists and political leaders to Yosemite, where Mather hoped to persuade them to create a government agency to oversee the conservation of America’s greatest natural treasures. The expedition to Yosemite was a great success, due in no small part to Sing’s expert hospitality of elaborate meals in the wilderness to keep the Mather Party, as it was thereafter known, in good spirits. The combination of rich food and scenery convinced members of the party to advocate for the creation of the National Park service the following year in 1916.

Yosemite also has two sister park partnerships with China, Huangshan National Park in Anhui Province and Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province. These partnerships allow Yosemite and its sister parks to exchange park rangers for conservation trainings and work towards solutions for common issues like overcapacity which can harm fragile wildlife habitats. Yosemite and Huangshan also share a similar reckoning with their history, as both parks were established on land once belonging to indigenous populations; today members of those indigenous populations are employed in/around the parks in cultural demonstrations for tourists.

The contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in national parks and US history more broadly are increasingly seeing the light of day thanks to grassroots initiatives and studies. The National Park Service recently conducted a theme study to highlight the importance of bringing this stories into the public eye, including historical landmarks.

Sarah Wang is a Programs Coordinator with the East-West Center in Washington.