Absent from most people’s image of Yosemite’s vast wilderness are the immigrant hands that created the park into the quintessential American landmark it is today.
Even veteran park employees are unfamiliar with these historical details. Jack Shu, who worked for the California Department of Parks and Recreation for nearly three decades, found out only after he retired in 2011 that Chinese workers played such a pivotal role in the early development of Yosemite.
“We learn of how great John Muir was in establishing national parks; Teddy Roosevelt and other individuals that helped build the national parks. And that story gets repeated year after year after year,” Shu said to NBC News.
“Hundreds of Chinese go to Yosemite. They take pictures in the valley and are gone,” he said. “They’re traveling on roads that were built by Chinese. Imagine what the experience would be for them if they knew that Chinese worked on these roads over a hundred years ago.”
It’s true: Chinese Americans played key roles in the development of the country’s most popular national park on expeditions, in road construction and as hotel employees.
For example, Tioga Road, the park’s original 56-mile pass that carves across the Sierra Nevada high peaks took about 130 days of work to complete and about 340 laborers. Of these, 250 were of Chinese descent.
To make sure these contributions aren’t forgotten by the millions who visit the national park each summer, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California first partnered with the park’s rangers in 2013 to host a six-day event each year called the “Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimmage.” This year, it’s scheduled to kick off this week on Friday, July 27.
Activities planned throughout the week include walking tours through Old Yosemite Village (once the home of many Chinese American laborers) and lectures on how the building of Yosemite’s roads related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The last three days are spent backpacking to the top of Sing Peak — named in 1899 to honor the expedition’s 21-year-old Chinese American head chef, Tie Sing.
According to park ranger Yenyen Chen who helps lead the pilgrimage each year, the number of participants has risen since the program’s start in 2013 — from about 25 participants to more than 60 last year.
“I think that the annual Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage has helped spread the word among the Asian American community about the significant role that Chinese immigrants had in Yosemite,” Chan said to NBC News. “I hope that Tie Sing’s story inspires more diverse cultures to visit our national parks, seek out these diverse human stories and feel a greater sense of connection to our national parks.”
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