Chinese immigrants’ contributions run deep and far in U.S. history, and both Yosemite and the National Park Service (NPS) may not have existed if not for one skilled backcountry chef’s lavish meals.
Early Chinese contributions
Almost a decade ago, Yosemite National Park shared a YouTube video titled “A Glimpse Into Yosemite’s Chinese History.” The video, which was narrated by Park Ranger Yenyen Chan, noted the impact Chinese men had on the area. In 1848, news of the California Gold Rush drew an initial surge of Chinese migrant workers seeking a better way of securing money to send to their families facing famine and social and environmental disasters. However, in just a few years, the gold dried up and the discriminative 1850 Foreign Miners’ Tax shoved out the Chinese miners.
With a majority of them out of work, Chan found that many became celebrated cooks and rose to become head chefs for hotels in the Yosemite area. One example is the Victorian-style Wawona Hotel, where a generation of the hired help were once Chinese immigrants. For decades, these people supported the historical hotel, which has existed since 1856. They ran their own side building for laundering and fabric work purposes. The restored building was a testament to the Chinese manpower that bolstered the national park and laid down essential parts of its foundation since its early days.
Obscured in a thicket of trees were the makeshift and mobile cook stations of one of Yosemite’s best and lesser-known culinarians, Tie Sing. In 1915, Sing, who was already the head chef of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), was asked by the assistant to the secretary of the interior at the time, Stephen T. Mather, to join him on a two-week expedition into the mountains for his Mather Mountain Parties.
Mather, who would later become the NPS’ first director, was tasked with securing funding and Congressional support for the national parks. To do this, he invited influential bigwigs to trek alongside him as he showed them the beauty of nature and why the parks were worth protecting. Congressmen, journalists, entrepreneurs, cartographers and conservationists, which included the likes of National Geographic Society Director Gilbert H. Grosvenor, attended the party and would eventually determine the fate of Yosemite.
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Despite being in his 20s, Sing already commanded broad knowledge on how to prepare sumptuous meals in a collapsible sheet-iron stoveand how to keep them fresh in the backwoods despite the sole presence of pack mules for transport between camps, as well as the lack of refrigeration. He used tricks such as wrapping meat with wet newspaper and putting it in the direction of cool breezes to keep it chilled. He even used the mules’ body heat to help his fresh dough rise throughout the day so he could bake bread in the evening.
The backcountry chef also brought along his assistant Eugene, who was also Chinese. The two of them would cook and prep extravagant dinners in the outdoors. Sing and Eugene worked in a time of deep anti-Chinese sentiment from the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but they succeeded despite it. Their guests raved about their dishes, and the two men received such highly positive reception that some of them wrote about the spreads in their notes.
“To me, Tie Sing had assumed apocryphal proportions. The extraordinary recitals of his astonishing culinary exploits had been more than I could quite believe. But I believe them all now, and more,” writer Robert Sterling Yard penned. “I shall not forget that dinner — soup, trout, chops, fried potatoes, string beans, fresh bread, hot apple pie, cheese and coffee. It was the first of many equally elaborate, and equally appreciated.”
Sing earned the nickname “The Wizard” from these influential men who thought of his work as nothing short of magic. They couldn’t believe how they were eating so well in the middle of nowhere.
The NPS is formed
Mather believed in Sing’s abilities and mentioned during a 1915 conference that it is essential to have the right food to pair with the right views.
“Scenery is a splendid thing when it is viewed by a man who is in a contented frame of mind. Give him a poor breakfast after he has had a bad night’s sleep, and he will not care how fine your scenery is,” he said. “He is not going to enjoy it.”
With full bellies and satisfied attitudes, Mather and the men were successful in persuading Congress. In under two years, the Organic Act was passed in 1916. The act created the NPS, whose goal is to conserve and protect the natural environment.
“Because of the way he made that a memorable and enjoyable experience, that contributed a substantial part toward influential people having a very positive perception of the mountains and the need for doing something to preserve the wilderness,” said former president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Eugene Moy, according to NBC.
In 1918, Sing reportedly died from a cooking or backcountry accident. The celebrated chef, however, was not forgotten. In 1899, former USGS Chief Geographer Robert Marshall named Sing Peak after him, and ranger Chan leads the annual Yosemite–Sing Peak Pilgrimages up the 10,552-foot mountain to ensure that his story never dies.
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