Yosemite restoration of 1917 Laundry Building showcases ‘almost erased’ history of Chinese workers

Yosemite building

A Chinese laundry facility built in 1917 has been restored and opened to the public to honor the “almost erased” history of the Chinese migrant workers who built vital roads in Yosemite National Park and supported its foundations since 1874.

Cultural significance: The building served a generation of Chinese workers who were employed at the historical Victorian-style Wawona Hotel, which has existed since 1856.

  • In the restored facility are exhibits on how the immigrants ran the space —  where they showed an incredible depth of skill in working with textiles and laundering fabrics — as well as their contributions to creating and supporting a welcoming environment in the hotel from the shadows.
  • Adam Ramsey, supervisory park ranger of interpretation in Yosemite’s Wawona District, said the cluster of old buildings was a place mistakenly thought to only cover Anglo American history when the opposite was true. “Pretty much nobody associated with these buildings is Anglo American,” he said.
  • Chinese immigrants were some of the founders of that established area’s history, and their story is staked in a culture of endurance. Because they were so hardworking and efficient, they often faced racism from rival workers and were the scapegoats of anti-Chinese legislation.
  • The building also highlights the Chinese workers who built two of four essential roads in Yosemite: Wawona Road and Tioga Road, according to AP News. The former was commissioned by the Wawona Hotel owners, who hired at least 300 Chinese workers. From December 1874 to April 1875, they laid down the foundation for a 23-mile road using their bare hands and tools such as handpicks, shovels and wheelbarrows to shape the land while living in tents on the roadsides.
  • Then in 1883, they topped that feat by completing the latter road, which stretched 56 miles and cut into the almost 10,000-foot high wilderness, in a rapid 130 days — a little over four months.
  • Park Ranger Yenyen Chan pointed out that history and more was “almost erased” because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Image via Yosemite National Park

Unnoticed: Since the ‘50s, the building stood in plain sight as a converted stagecoach storage facility with a sign that read, “Carriage Shop.” To former California State Park superintendent, Jack Shu, it was a sign of erasure and symbolic of the way Chinese American stories were untold, according to the Fresno Bee.

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  • Deputy Superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks Sabrina Diaz pitched the idea of restoring the building in 2017 as a means of preserving the shared history.
  • On Oct. 1, and on the park’s 131st birthday, the Chinese Laundry Building, located in Yosemite Valley, was officially unveiled. Surrounded by supporters of the restoration, attendees included park rangers and officials, philanthropists, conservationists and Chinese Historical Society of Southern California members.
  • Among the philanthropists who attended were principal donors Franklin and Sandra Yee, who donated a hefty $100,000 to restore the building. They said their donation is to honor the Chinese people who arrived in Yosemite before them, which includes Sandra’s parents.
  • “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. “The new Yosemite History Center shares the histories of people, mostly immigrants, who made the park what it is today.”
  • Former President of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California Eugene Moy spoke of his own grandfather operating a laundry in the 1800s and how the building “resonates” with his generation, who are still perceived as perpetual foreigners, despite having multi-generational families within the U.S. 
  • “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,” he said.

Featured Image via Fresno Bee (left), Yosemite National Park (right)

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