AAA Magazines

Tracking the tiger in Yosemite: A personal odyssey in search of the national park's Chinese American history

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park Yosemite Valley at sunset, Yosemite National Park. | Photo by CHBD / Getty Images

The trail in front of me rises almost vertically as I make my way up the mountain. The route is lined with sage, black oak, and sugar pines, and dappled by a mild summer sun, but I’m almost too exhausted to enjoy it. You can do this, I say to myself. You are here to meet the tiger.

As a Chinese American growing up in Los Angeles, I sometimes heard this Chinese proverb: “Go to the mountain, meet the tiger.” It’s interpreted various ways, but an Asian history buff offered me this meaning: “When you face adversity, and still force yourself to climb, you will be rewarded with magnificent views of the world. That is the tiger on the mountain.”

On this July morning, I’m in Yosemite National Park, whose iconic landmarks—Half Dome, Vernal Falls, and Cathedral Lakes—draw thousands of hikers every year. But I’m not headed to any of those postcard monuments. Instead, I’ve joined others panting their way up Sing Peak, named after Tie Sing, a Chinese American cook who a century ago played a pivotal role in the establishment of America’s national park system and is part of a lesser-known history of Yosemite. 

While many visitors are well acquainted with John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams, all of whom championed Yosemite’s otherworldly beauty and sought to protect it, few have heard of the hundreds of Chinese workmen who helped in establishing the park. For many of us of Chinese descent, this isn’t a mere walk in that park. It’s a pilgrimage.

Every year, Yosemite ranger Yenyen Chan and members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the National Parks Conservation Association organize this “Yosemite National Park Pilgrimage.” The three-day program, with an optional backpacking trip to Sing Peak, draws visitors from all over the West to connect with the history of the Chinese in Yosemite. 

Ranger Yenyen Chan leads hikers on a Yosemite trail. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Ranger Yenyen Chan leads hikers on a Yosemite trail. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

As a kid, I’d made the 5½-hour drive from Los Angeles to the park many times with my family. I’d always held my breath as we emerged at Tunnel View to the luminous sight of El Capitan and Half Dome. My awkwardly large Chinese American family first visited in 1972, when we rarely saw people in the park who looked like us. Yet there was something about the way my mercurial father’s mood shifted once he got here—one glance at Yosemite Falls, with its lace-like mist, and Ba became a whole other person, his dark moods floating away like a cloud. Amid the giant sequoias, he became his best self: an amateur botanist, a skilled burger chef, and the dad with an endless supply of knock-knock jokes.

My connection to Yosemite has always been deep and undeniable, and I’ve long wondered why—maybe there was another reason for my bond to this landscape?

Traveling into Yosemite’s past

On the first day of the pilgrimage trip last summer, about 65 of us meet at the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center: a sea of mostly Chinese Americans who, brandishing binoculars, mosquito repellent, and wide-brimmed hiking hats, look like they’ve just raided a Patagonia store. One leader of the group is Jack Shu, a retired superintendent of the California Department of Parks and Recreation and a hiking devotee who has climbed Sing Peak annually seven consecutive years. “I’m aiming for 10 years in a row,” says the 68-year-old who lives near San Diego. “But I have to admit it’s getting harder each year.” 

And then there’s Chan, the park ranger who was the first to delve into this fascinating Chinese legacy.

Ranger Yenyen Chan shows archival photos to the group. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Ranger Yenyen Chan shows archival photos to the group. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Chan was a college intern with the National Park Service in Yosemite when her supervisor told her that Chinese workers in the 1800s had built the original Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows. After graduating from Yale, working various environmental jobs, and earning a master’s degree, Chan joined the park service as a ranger in 2003. Three years later, she began to research the workers’ lives in earnest, and she has been lecturing publicly and writing articles about Sing and his pioneering compatriots ever since.

“The story of Asian Americans in Yosemite had been lost, and it’s never been highlighted until recently,” she says. “The Chinese are a big part of the park’s early history, and that’s a big source of pride.” 

Where the Chinese workers lived

The historic Chinese Laundry Building at Wawona. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

The historic Chinese Laundry Building at Wawona. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Our group follows Chan across a verdant sweep of meadow. A small black bear crosses our path, and everyone squeals with delight. We then gather in a clearing, once called the Chinese Quarters, where small houses once stood. The Chinese who lived there worked in the Valley’s hotels as cooks and launderers throughout the late 1800s. They gravitated to their own camps, sharing language, culture, and food with their fellow countrymen.

The houses were torn down about a century ago, but over the years, visitors to the area have found ceramic shards from workers’ dishes, Chan says. “Somebody even found a ceramic Chinese stamp ink holder wedged between rocks in an area called Soap Suds Alley,” she says, adjusting the brim of her ranger’s hat. 

Hikers head up a slope in Yosemite National Park. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Hikers head up a slope in Yosemite National Park. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Later that afternoon, not far from Bridalveil Fall, we hike up a wide trail to see a stone embankment. At first glance, it looks like any 19th-century retaining wall. But Shu says the wall’s interlocking stones woven together as one solid mass have all the hallmarks of Chinese engineering. 

“The Chinese who came to work in Yosemite weren’t mere laborers,” Shu explains. “They came with skills. This wall was built without any mortar, and it still stands after 130 years.”

He added, “The workers didn’t always get credit for their labor. The government passed laws against Chinese labor during that time—many Americans felt threatened having to compete with Chinese workers.” 

These workers had come from southern China as early as 1848, first drawn to the West by California’s gold rush. By 1850, however, the government had levied a tax on foreign miners, which, along with the dwindling natural supplies of gold, made mining a losing proposition. Facing hostility—and, on occasion, robbery and 
assault—the men searched for other work to support their families back in China, and some found their way to Yosemite. 

Taking the road the Chinese built

In the 1870s, some 300 of them turned toward building roads around Yosemite. In the winter of 1874–1875, for example, the owners of the Wawona Hotel hired Chinese workers to construct Wawona Road so that the hotel could welcome tourists the following spring and summer.

The Chinese carved the thoroughfare, sometimes using blasting powder and handheld picks to cut through solid rock. They worked in bitter frost and slept in tents. And in 1882, some 250 Chinese and 90 Americans of European descent began work on a 56-mile road that led from Crocker’s Station, at 4,200 feet above sea level, to Tioga Pass, at 9,945 feet.

The Chinese were paid $1.20 per day, while the European Americans made $1.50 per day. It was during this period that Mark Twain famously described the Chinese as being “as industrious as the day is long.” He added, “A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.” 

The next morning, our group hikes through sequoia forests along a road the Chinese built. “Take a moment to think about how hard it must have been for our ancestors,” Chan says. I look up at the trees and question if these brave men ever took a moment to enjoy the beauty around them. I wonder if they knew that their labor would transform Yosemite into one of America’s most cherished places.   

A backcountry gourmet

On the night before the Sing Peak hike, we meet at the Wawona Community Center for a potluck. The dinner’s theme—designed to recall Sing’s plight a century ago—is Cooking Chinese Dishes Without Chinese Ingredients. I fear it will be a horrible night of mediocre food, but I get it: By doing without these native foodstuffs, we might understand, if only for a moment, what our ancestors had to endure in the Sierra.

Yet dinner surprises me with its innovation: In a wok on a camp stove, Shu makes spectacular fried rice, substituting bacon for Chinese sausage. Another pilgrim uses short ribs, barbecue sauce, and soy (the one exception) to concoct a delightful char siu served with fluffy buns she made by hand. 

Leader Jack Shu cooks at a camp in Yosemite National Park.  | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

Leader Jack Shu cooks at a camp in Yosemite National Park. | Photo by Eric Paul Zamora

During dinner, Chan tells us more about Sing, the legendary cook. Sing was one of the Chinese workers who, when the gold ran out, sought employment in Yosemite. The facts about him are fuzzy: Like the majority of Chinese workers, he might have come from China’s Guangdong Province, but some who knew him wrote that he was born in Nevada. 

Instead of building roads, Sing parlayed his kitchen skills into decades-long seasonal work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), where he often cooked for cartographers mapping the region. He was beloved, and, in 1899, USGS named Sing Peak after the affable cook.

But Sing is best known for the delectable dinners he prepared for the Mather Mountain parties, 
the powerful industrialists and politicians invited to Yosemite by Stephen T. Mather, then the assistant secretary of the Interior. Mather wanted to show the influential men Yosemite’s splendors in order to inspire support for a proposed national park system.

Tie Sing (in apron) presides over a meal he prepared during the 1915 Mather Mountain Party Expedition. Seated at the far left is Stephen T. Mather, who became the first director of the National Park Service.. | Photo by Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor / National Geographic Creative

Tie Sing (in apron) presides over a meal he prepared during the 1915 Mather Mountain Party Expedition. Seated at the far left is Stephen T. Mather, who became the first director of the National Park Service. | Photo by Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor / National Geographic Creative

During Mather’s 1915 and 1916 excursions into Yosemite’s backcountry, Sing reportedly worked culinary magic, with innovative tricks up his sleeve. To keep beef and chicken fresh for barbecuing, for example, he wrapped the meat in wet newspapers soaked in the chilly mountain rivers and placed it in a cool breeze. For biscuits, it’s said that Sing placed the dough near one of the accompanying mules so that the animal’s body heat helped the dough rise. Sing then baked biscuits in a portable iron oven, serving them hot, with freshly brewed coffee, for breakfast.

The Mather men raved about the meals and dubbed Sing “the gourmet chef of the Sierra.” In August of 1916, Congress created the National Park Service, and Mather became its first director. 

Sing gave his life to the wilderness in 1918; he was killed in a backcountry accident. It was a tragic end, but when I look back on Sing’s legacy, I’m filled with awe: Sing’s dedication helped to preserve Yosemite and other wilderness areas, and he lived long enough to know that his memory would endure in the Sierra thanks to his namesake peak. 

Rewriting history

Early the next morning, we set out for Sing Peak. The trip to the summit requires several hours of rigorous hiking and overnight camping at the base of the peak before a final scramble to the top. Even after having climbed it several times, Chan finds it a challenge, a “real wilderness adventure.” 

A hiker in Yosemite National Park takes advantage of a break to repair gear.

A hiker in Yosemite National Park takes advantage of a break to repair gear. | Eric Paul Zamora

Meeting the tiger

In most years, all the hikers make it to the top. “But in some years, there’s a lot of snow, people slip and trip, and decide to turn back before summiting,” Chan says. After hiking for most of the morning, I turn back, as planned—my backpacking abilities are limited; my camping skills, nonexistent. But others, including several senior citizens, push on. For Shu, who has led a small group to the top every year, the struggle is worth it. 

“Sing Peak is one of the prettiest peaks in all of the Sierra,” he says of the mountain that stands 10,552 feet above sea level. “It has neat features. It’s above the timberline, so there are no trees. And from the top you get a view of the park you would never otherwise see—lakes, the Minarets, and a sweeping view of Yosemite. There’s nothing like it.”

In other words, you meet the tiger. 

Because I didn’t make it to the top, I’d been telling myself after the trip that I didn’t meet the tiger. This echoed through me like a reprimand I couldn’t un-hear. Then a week after the Sing Peak hike, Shu calls to tell me how the trek went after I left the group. With abundant snow on the ground, the journey was arduous. Only seven hikers made it to the top. He muses about all the hikers he’d led to the summit over the years, including Gladys Wong, a former San Francisco teacher who’d never backpacked before. 

“She was a retiree, and had to scramble on all fours to the top, but she persevered,” Shu says. “She told me that even though she wanted to quit, she thought about her mother, a Chinese immigrant, and everything she had to go through during her journey to an American life. She did it for her mother’s spirit. Gladys made it to the top.” 

History, Shu says, has the power to bring people together, to cultivate respect and understanding and peace among cultures. For that reason, he believes the story of who helped build Yosemite needs to evolve. 

“So my question to myself has always been, ‘How do we change that narrative?’ ” he says. Shu hikes to “commemorate the history of everyone who had a part in establishing Yosemite.” He adds: “It wasn’t just John Muir. It was our ancestors, and other immigrants, too. The untold Yosemite stories have to be told.” 

I realized after my trip that my connection to Yosemite ran much deeper than my own family’s visits. This new appreciation of a mostly lost history meant more to me than reaching any summit. Perhaps I did meet the tiger after all.

Alison Singh Gee is the author of the memoir Where the  Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home.

If you go

Pilgrimages typically take place in July. For updates about future outings, check the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California website, chssc.org, or send an email to yosemitesingpeak@gmail.com. 

Park ranger Yenyen Chan has been developing an exhibit on Chinese history in Yosemite that’s due to open at the historic Chinese Laundry Building at Wawona this fall.

A variety of lodging is available around Yosemite. The author stayed at Tenaya Lodge. Rates vary but start at about $199. 559-683-6555; tenayalodge.com.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

Travel offers and deals

Mom on kids on roller coaster

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

Learn more

Woman at airport looking at arrival and departure screen

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

Learn more

Infinity pool

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

Learn more

Makena Beach, Maui, Hawaii

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

Learn more

back to top icon