New Landmark Celebrates Chinese Immigrants' Lasting Impact on Yosemite National Park
The Mandarin Chinese name for Yosemite is a phonetic translation of its sounds, but it happens to mean "Excellent winning beautiful lands" — a fitting happenstance because of Chinese immigrants' impact on the building of the national park in the 1800s. And the long overlooked history is finally finding its way into the spotlight, thanks to a new landmark that was unveiled on Friday, which happened to be the park's 131st birthday.
The Chinese Laundry Building at the Wawona Hotel received a new sign, properly reflecting the 1917 landmark's past as a historic site that the Chinese workers used as a laundry, the Fresno Bee reported. Inside are now exhibits highlighting Yosemite's Chinese history.
"It was symbolic of how the stories of Chinese in Yosemite was not being noticed," former California State Park superintendent Jack Shu said at the dedication ceremony on Friday. "This building was a storage facility for the stagecoach program. A sign, right over there, hung that said, 'Carriage Shop.'"
The new sign now properly reflects the building's origins, a project that Shu happened upon more than a decade ago. As a lifelong visitor to the park, he had seen a video the park produced back in 2011 about Yosemite's Chinese history, featuring ranger YenYen Chan, and decided to dig deeper into the past. During his research, he learned about the building, the local paper reported.
Efforts soon ramped up to renovate the landmark and properly honor its story, with support from the Yosemite Conservancy and Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, as well as donors like Franklin and Sandra Yee — whose family has had a cabin up the road from the site since 1953 and contributed $100,000 to the project.
"Chinese people have been a big part of communities throughout the Sierra Nevada for a really long time, and it's about time that we started sharing that history here in Yosemite," park ranger Adam Ramsey said, according to the Fresno Bee, adding that this is just the beginning, with the former Pioneer Yosemite History Center recently dropping the first word of its name. "The new Yosemite History Center shares the histories of people, mostly immigrants, who made the park what it is today."
Indeed, according to Chan in the park's video, Chinese immigrants — many escaping famine and droughts in southwest China — had arrived in the area in 1848 during the time of the gold rush, hoping for more opportunities. Some found success with their culinary skills, including backcountry cook Tie Sing, who now has a peak, Sing Peak, named after him. Others built roads, including the 23-mile Wawona Road from 1874 to 1875 and the 56-mile Great Sierra Wagon Road (now called the Tioga Road) from 1882 to 1883, using limited resources, often in harsh conditions. Even Mark Twain wrote about them being "as industrious as the day is long."
However, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stopped immigrants from entering the country for nearly 60 years, in essence wiping away much of their contributions, Chan said.
"The early Chinese in Yosemite faced numerous challenges and yet they made incredible contributions to this park...they helped make this place the place we can visit today," Chan said in the video. "And I think it reminds us of how important it is to remember the stories of these early people that came and helped shape this park's history and also why it's so important for us to remember that we, too, can have a lasting impact and contribution to this park."