After popping the seal on a tube of biscuit dough, I poked my thumb into each blob, plopped them into the pan, fried them to a golden brown on the Coleman stove, and rolled them in cinnamon and sugar. The morning air, fresh and cool, promised adventure on our summer vacation. As my husband and 5-year-old twin boys gobbled the camp doughnuts under the pine trees, basking in the smoky scent of campfires, I gazed at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and thought about Sing Peak in the mountains beyond.
In 1915, Stephen Mather, an assistant Secretary of the Interior and millionaire who made a fortune in borax mining, was lobbying for a single bureau to oversee the national parks. A master of public relations, he dreamed up a 10-day camping trip in the Sierra Nevada, inviting a U.S. Congressman, a filmmaker, National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor, and other influential leaders to gain their support.
He tapped a Chinese-American chef named Tie Sing with a vital duty: to provide creature comforts to the campers. Sing was so beloved by U.S. Geological Survey mapmakers that, 16 years earlier, they named the craggy 10,552-foot peak at the southern edge of Yosemite after him. “Give [a man] a poor breakfast after he has had a bad night’s sleep, and he will not care how fine your scenery is,” Mather told a March 1915 conference of park employees, government officials, Sierra Club officers, and concessioners.
Thirty men and 50 horses and mules set off on what came to be known as the Mather Mountain Party. They circled their hands around the General Sherman giant sequoia, the biggest tree in the world, dipped into the icy waters of the Kern River, and climbed up Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states—wonders matched only by Sing’s sumptuous meals.
In his memoirs, Mather’s assistant, Horace Albright, devotes line upon line to Sing’s meals, cooked on a portable sheet-metal stove, served on white linen tablecloths and under Japanese lanterns. Dinners of soup, salad, fried chicken, venison and gravy, apple pie, cheese, and coffee. Breakfasts of hot cakes and maple syrup, eggs, hot rolls, tenderloin steaks, trout and potatoes, honey and biscuits. A plum pudding with brandy sauce dished up after the men had been soaked by snow, sleet, and rain.
I could relate to Albright’s obsession. When my family camps, meals take on an outsized importance, a reward for our exertions. Hunger is the best sauce, but after I read about Sing’s feasts, our salami and pita sandwiches and boil-in-a-bag Indian meals seemed paltry in comparison. I admired his ingenuity: To keep meat fresh, he wrapped it in wet newspapers soaked in the icy river. Because the party was on the move, he had no time to raise biscuits next to hot coals. So, each day, he prepared a new batch of dough that he stored next to the mule’s warm body, using the heat to ensure fluffy biscuits by dinner.
He persisted through disasters that would have felled lesser cooks: A mule loaded with fresh lemonade, cantaloupe, sardines, and other delicacies wandered off, never to be found. Another mule fell asleep while walking and tumbled down a 300-foot cliff, sending its load—knives, grapefruits, and more—flying. The mule survived; the sourdough starter did not.
On the final night, Sing had a special send-off for the campers. He made fortune cookies, with messages written in Chinese and English: “Long may you search the mountains”; “The sound of your laughter will fill the mountains when you are in the sky”; and “Where but in the mountains would such a man be spirit with the mountains.”
The chef and philosopher of the Sierras made the trip unforgettable for the campers who widely extolled the majesty of their surroundings and pushed for protections. Just over a year later, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence.
Decades later, in search of Sing Peak, Jack Shu lost his way. After the trail ended, the retired California State Park superintendent cut across the wilderness, armed with only a compass and a good map.
“Quite often when you’re backpacking, when you get up to the peak, that’s when you can see where you really are,” Shu says. “Down in the meadows, in the brush, it’s hard to know.” He let out a long chuckle. “I got lost going around, and that’s why I know the area well now—why I know all the angles.”
For the last five years, he’s led a pilgrimage to Sing Peak in the hopes of bringing the spotlight to a man exemplifying the many unsung Chinese who helped bring Yosemite into existence, whether by swinging pickaxes to break up rocks through the winter to build Tioga Road, or by manning the kitchens of the park’s finest hotels. The event, sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, is marked with days’ worth of interpretive talks and historical presentations throughout Yosemite.
“John Muir, you see him everywhere at Yosemite, but his contributions are one of many,” says Shu, referring to the famed naturalist who fought to preserve the beauty of the region. “We need to talk about the others if we want the full benefit of the park’s legacy.”
The bond Sing forged with his diners came at a time when Chinese were battling virulent xenophobia and unjust laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act—passed in 1882 and in place for more than 60 years—was America’s first federal moratorium barring immigration based on race and class, banning Chinese laborers and permitting only a trickle of merchants, teachers, students, and their servants to enter. Sing said he was born in Virginia City, Nevada—year unknown—and in those days, because Chinese had limited options for employment, many ended up working laundries, in kitchens, or as laborers.
“We don’t often think about the people who work really hard to make things accessible for us,” says park ranger Yenyen Chan, whose 2011 video segment about the role of Chinese in Yosemite inspired Shu to start the pilgrimage. “Sharing the story of the many different cultures that are part of Yosemite’s history helps people feel a stronger connection to the place.”
Although the National Park Service has long tried to attract visitors from diverse backgrounds, a survey found that 78 percent of visitors are white, 9 percent Latino, 7 percent African-American, and 3 percent Asian-American—lagging far behind the demographics of this country. Those polled said they didn’t visit because they lacked information and were unfamiliar with the national parks; hotel, food, and entrance fees were too high; or the locations were too far from home.
For my immigrant Chinese parents, sleeping on the ground held no attraction, not when they had a bed their ancestors could only dream of. Although we tried camping once, I grew to love the outdoors through the Girl Scouts and school field trips.
“There’s this stereotype that’s been put upon various ethnic groups of not liking the outdoors, but how do you get kids to love nature?” says Shu. “Give them access, and nature will do its own magic.”
It’s not easy to get to Sing Peak, and that’s part of its appeal. If you hike on the Pacific Crest Trail or John Muir Trail, those are like freeways, Shu says. The path to Sing Peak, though, is secluded.
There are two routes, which both begin just outside of Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest at the Quartz Mountain Trailhead and at the Fernandez Trailhead. Both routes take you through stands of pine and fir, open meadows, burbling creeks, and into rocky granite terrain as you gain elevation. After a day’s hike of 6 to 7 miles, you pitch your tent by various alpine lakes, where the trail ends. The next morning, you navigate through the wilderness to Sing Peak, hiking uphill 3 miles to reach the top. At some points, you may have to get on all fours.
Annette Bay Pimentel, who wrote Mountain Chef, a children’s book about Sing, joined the pilgrimage last year. She struggled on the peak, as rocks shifted underfoot. This is crazy. Why am I doing this? she thought part of the way up the mountain. But then it struck her: This was a Tie Sing moment. He faced challenge after challenge, but never gave up. When she reached the top, it was clear, sunny, breezy, and exhilarating; she could see forever.
In the months after my family’s trip to Yosemite Valley, Pimentel’s book captivated my twin boys, who asked if Sing was a real person, or if Sing was a girl (because the illustrations show his hair in a long braid, a traditional queue), and about the discrimination against the Chinese—lessons in history I wished I’d learned as a kid.
“Is Tie Sing still alive?” they asked, snuggled beside me at bedtime.
No, I told them. He died in an accident in 1918, while out in the field.
I reminded the twins of our camping trip, how we floated in the Merced River and hiked to the base of Yosemite Falls, and vowed to myself that, someday, we would make the trek to Sing Peak, too.