Tyrus Wong: Chinese-American artist behind Disney's Bambi

By Paul Welitzkin in New York | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-09-08 12:00

Tyrus Wong: Chinese-American artist behind Disney's Bambi

Filmmaker Pamela Tom will tell the life story of ChineseAmerican artist Tyrus Wong on the PBS series "American Masters," on Sept 8. IIDIKO LAZSLO / FOR CHINA DAILY

About 20 years ago, filmmaker Pamela Tom sat down with her then 4-year-old daughter to watch the Disney animated classic Bambi. At the end a bonus feature showcased some of the production personnel involved with the movie.

"One of the animators who worked on the film referred to a Chinese artist named Tyrus Wong, who was responsible for the look of the movie," Tom recalled. "I thought 'Wow a Chinese artist was involved with this project'. I immediately set out to locate him."

Upon further research Tom uncovered the remarkable life story of Wong, who came to the US as a 9-year-old with his father. Despite enduring discrimination, he went on to become an accomplished artist and film professional. His story will be featured in the PBS series "American Masters: Tyrus," which premieres on Sept 8.

Tom said that until his death at the age of 106 in 2016, Wong was America's oldest living Chinese-American artist and one of the last artists from the golden age of Disney animation.

"When he was young, he got a full scholarship to art school,' said Tom. "To get an idea of how talented he was, in his early 20s his work was exhibited with artists like Matisse and Picasso."

The group that Wong was exhibiting with was referred to as the California Orientals, said Tom, which represents a group of Japanese- and Chinese-American artists who were helping to shape modern art in California in the 1930s.

"Once World War II came along and the Japanese were placed in internment, that whole movement fell apart," said Tom. She is convinced that Wong never achieved a proper level of acknowledgement because of the war.

Wong experienced discrimination early when he and his father came to the US in 1919 from what was then called Canton (now known as Guangzhou). They were sent to Angel Island, an immigration station in the San Francisco Bay. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, many Chinese immigrants spent years on the island, waiting for entry.

Wong eventually was hired to work for Walt Disney Productions, which produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Bambi, based on the book Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten, was Disney's fifth animated film.

Tom said production of Bambi dragged on for several years until Wong was hired as art director and used his impressionistic paintings of a forest to shape the movie's look.

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