'Time that we started sharing that history': Yosemite honors national park's early Chinese laborers

Associated Press
Ricky Leo of Thousand Oaks, California, takes a photo of old stoves in the restored 1917 Chinese laundry building at Wawona in Yosemite National Park.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — A century-old building originally used as a laundry by Chinese workers at Yosemite's iconic Wawona Hotel has been restored and turned into a visitor's attraction, recognizing Chinese Americans' contributions to the early history of the national park.

Officials unveiled a new sign Friday marking the Chinese Laundry Building in Yosemite Valley, the Fresno Bee reports. New exhibits inside tell the story of Chinese workers who helped build Tioga Road and Wawona Road, critical infrastructure that made tourism to the park possible.

The building — later used as a storage facility — is part of a cluster of structures that will make up the new Yosemite History Center, which will tell the histories of immigrants who made the park what it is today, said Park Ranger Adam Ramsey.

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From left, Yenyen Chan, Yosemite Park Ranger, Frank Dean, President of Yosemite Conservancy, Cicely Muldoon, Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, Jack She, Yosemite Park advocate and Adam Ramsey, Supervisory Yosemite Park Ranger, cut the ribbon at the dedication ceremony of the restored 1917 Chinese Laundry building at Wawona in Yosemite National Park.

"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,” Ramsey said.

According to research conducted by Park Ranger Yenyen Chan, in 1883 Chinese workers helped build the 56-mile Tioga Road in just 130 days. The stunning route across the Sierra Nevada reaches 10,000 feet in elevation and serves as one of the park's main roads.

Chinese workers were also employed in Yosemite as cooks, laundry workers and gardeners.

Many first came to California during the Gold Rush, bringing with them skills learned in China about construction, engineering, agriculture, medicine and textiles that made a significant impact in America’s early success, Chan said.

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She said Yosemite’s Chinese history and their contributions were erased from memory because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress to prevent any more Chinese from entering this country in search of work. The law blocked Chinese immigration for 60 years in this country.

Members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, who supported the building's renovation, said they were gratified to see Yosemite include the Chinese in the park's origin story.

“Something like this really resonates with a lot of people in my generation,” said Eugene Moy, a past president of the society. "We’ve been here since the 1870s, so to be able to see this has deep meaning, because a lot of us, oftentimes, are relegated to the margins. We aren’t always perceived as being full-fledged Americans when the reality is that people have been here for three, four, five generations, for 150 years.”

Ed Hung of San Francisco takes a photo of a Chinese laborer exhibit at Yosemite National Park.