Tyrus Wong (1910–2016), a Chinese-born American artist, remains best known for his stunning designs for the classic Walt Disney animated movie Bambi. Born in the waning days of Imperial China, Wong left his homeland with his father as a nine-year-old, ultimately settling in California. He endured poverty and discrimination while growing up and, while educated as a fine artist, worked in obscurity for most of his professional life. Recognized late in life for his artistic genius, Wong lived to see his art appreciated by collectors, his movie contributions honored by Disney, and his remarkable life story shared by filmmakers.
Tyrus Wong is legendary among production artists in the movie industry, both for his exquisite scene design for Disney Studios' 1942 animated classic Bambi, and his mentorship of younger colleagues both there and at Warner Brothers Studios during the mid-20th century. Wong lived to the advanced age of 106, and in his 90s was a familiar sight flying his handmade kites on Santa Monica Beach in Southern California. The elaborate dragons, butterflies, and centipedes he sent aloft were merely the latest among many art forms he mastered over the course of his long life. Aside from decades in the movie studios, Wong illustrated greeting cards for Hallmark and painted elegant dinnerware for manufacture, in addition perfecting his skills in printmaking, sculpting ceramics, and painting landscapes in his private home studio. His long and remarkable life was chronicled in a television documentary for the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) American Masters series, titled simply Tyrus.
Born Wong Gen Yeo, Wong was born on October 25, 1910, in Taishan, a farming village in China's Guangdong Province. The last of the Qing emperors and royal family were losing their grip on power amid interference from foreign governments and internal rebellion. Decades of war and deprivation had made life harsh and difficult by the turn of the 20th century, with many Chinese departing for a better life in the United States. Wong's parents struggled to support him and his sister, and when he turned nine, he and his father departed for America. Although Wong would write home, he would never see his mother or sister again.
Immigrating to North America in 1919 was not a simple matter for the Chinese. Having arrived on the continent in great numbers since the mid-19th century, they were now the least welcome of all immigrants. Although the numbers allowed into the United States were sharply reduced under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, those with relatives living in the country, or those who were “paper sons” traveling under assumed identities, might still be admitted. The devastating 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, a port of entry for most Chinese, had destroyed birth and immigration records and this created a possible loophole: Emigrants could claim that they had American relatives but their immigration records had been destroyed. Wong and his father managed to enter the country through this method, traveling under the guise of a merchant named Look Get and his son, Look Tai Yow.
Sailing across the Pacific, new Chinese immigrants disembarked at a special center on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay. They were closely questioned by immigration agents, whose job it was to discover those with fake identities and put them on the next ship back to China. Wong and his father carefully rehearsed the answers to numerous questions about their origins, which had to match those of the alleged relative sponsoring them. Wong's father, who had been to California previously, was quickly approved, but the boy was held at Angel Island for a month, enduring several more rounds of intensive questioning. He often wept but managed to keep his answers accurate. Finally approved and released, Wong was reunited with his father and they began their new life in Sacramento, California.
After Wong reunited with his father, they lived in a squalid Los Angeles boardinghouse located near the gambling den where his father worked. Wong was a student in junior high school when an art teacher noticed his talent for drawing and set up a special scholarship for the preteen, enabling him to attend a summer program at the city's Otis Art Institute. Wong loved art school so much that when the program ended, he refused to return to regular school. While few in the Chinatown neighborhood where he lived viewed art as a viable profession, Wong's father—who had taught him kite-making as well as Chinese brush calligraphy—recognized and appreciated the boy's potential and saved enough money to pay his tuition. Wong gratefully stayed on as a student at Otis Art Institute, working as a janitor at the school to help subsidize the cost of his studies. His father lived to see him graduate in 1937, but he died shortly thereafter.
Following graduation, Wong joined the governmentrun Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a mural painter, while also working at a Chinatown restaurant. The United States was in the midst of the economic downturn known as the Great Depression, and the government kept talented artists working by hiring them for a range of public projects, one of which was beautifying public spaces. While with the WPA, Wong met several other Chinese artists, with whom he founded the Oriental Artists's Group of Los Angeles as a way to stage exhibitions of their art. The Oriental Artists exhibited, on occasion, alongside the great modern artists of the day, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, becoming the first Asian artists so recognized.
Wong and his Asian colleagues were part of a new generation of Asian Americans then breaking ground. Employment opportunities for Asian Americans were limited at the time, with most working as waiters, laundry workers, and household help. Although Wong was a talented new artist, there was little opportunity to support his passion financially. He depended on his restaurant job for a steady paycheck, especially with marriage in mind. He had fallen in love with Ruth Kim, a co-worker at the restaurant, and the two were married in 1937.
By 1938, Wong and his wife were expecting their first child, and he needed to find better-paying work. Ruth suggested he apply at Disney Studios, where they were hiring animators. At the time, animation required handdrawing every frame to create the look of a movie. The main animators drew just the key frames—the characters's main actions and gestures—and entry-level artists would fill in the frames in between, a painstakingly repetitive task which led those artists to be called “in-betweeners.” Wong found work as an in-betweener and found it to be like working on an assembly line, with no room for creativity.
Wong got his chance to advance at Disney when the studio began production of a new movie, Bambi, based on a popular children's novel by Austrian writer Felix Salten. The studio was having trouble coming up with a way to design the movie; their typical, highly detailed style made the frames too dense, and the forest creatures that were the characters of the movie were lost. Wong knew just what to do. He went home and created several tiny watercolor paintings that night, depicting dreamy, elegant forest landscapes and deer. He brought them to the movie's artistic director, who immediately saw their potential. Walt Disney himself was deeply impressed with the elegant, atmospheric style of Wong's paintings, and Wong joined the production crew of Bambi as an inspirational sketch artist.
Wong's paintings and background art were lushly beautiful, conveying a feeling that the producers and animators wanted to carry through the entire project. They consulted with him on every aspect of layout and color. Even the music followed the feeling of his designs, helping to make Bambi an international sensation. Wong received no corresponding on-screen credit, however, and his name was buried in the scrolling list of the film's many animators. Walt Disney never acknowledged his contribution or took the time to meet him. Wong was well aware that racism played a part in his situation, but he weathered the slight with characteristic humility. Six decades later, in 2001, acknowledgment would come: he was named a Disney Legend and belatedly credited for his substantial role in Bambi.
In 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked U.S. Naval ships berthed at Pearl Harbor in Hawai'i. World War II, already begun in Europe, now became a two-front war for the United States, and Asian Americans bore the brunt of the public's anger toward Japan. Wong and his artist friends saw their artist collective dissolve as suspicion toward Asian Americans festered. Japanese living in California, including Wong's colleagues, were ordered to report to internment camps located inland, and many lost everything they owned in the process. Wong and other Chinese Americans began wearing a lapel button identifying them as Chinese rather than Japanese in order to avoid public confrontations or more overt violence.
Let go from Disney Studios after the success of Bambi, Wong moved to Warner Brothers Studios, where he worked for the next 26 years and designed the look of dozens of films. More importantly, he worked as a mentor, passing along his knowledge and insights to younger movie artists and designers. He also designed greeting cards for Hallmark, Inc., one of which sold over a million copies nationally. He painted dinnerware with elegant designs, and also worked with ceramics, bringing his characteristic precision and artistry to whatever media he chose.
Wong continued working until 1980, when his wife Ruth was diagnosed with dementia. He retired in order to care for her, doing very little in the way of art until after her death in 1995. During his final years, he returned to his studio and found new expression for his talent, becoming a kite maker in his old age. Grounded in the techniques learned from his father as a young boy, his creations were elaborate and ranged in size from a few feet to well over 100 feet in length. His three daughters and two grandchildren would accompany him to Santa Monica beach, where they would fly his latest creations—frogs, birds, fish, centipedes, clusters of geometric shapes—all original, all magnificent.
Beginning with Disney's Legend Award in 2001, the 21st century brought Wong the recognition and respect that eluded him during his career. He was acknowledged for his role in bringing a Chinese sensibility to animation and an elegance to everything he touched. His paintings and illustrations were the subjects of special exhibits on both coasts, and he was featured in documentaries on Asian-American art and his life story. He remained active well past age 100, at one point carving a walking stick from a fallen branch rather than using a metal walker. Wong and his kites continued to soar above Santa Monica beach until shortly before his death on December 30, 2016, at his home in Sunland-Tujunga, California.
Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1989, Rip Rense, “Tyrus Wong Preserves His Father's Kite-Making Hobby.”
CBS News Sunday Morning, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/artist-tyrus-wongs-remarkable-life/ (January 8, 2017), “Artist Tyrus Wong's Remarkable Life.”
New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/movies/tyrus-wong-dies-bambi-disney.html?_r=0 (December 30, 2016), Margalit Fox, “Tyrus Wong, ‘Bambi’ Artist Thwarted by Racial Bias, Dies at 106.”
Observer online, http://observer.com/2015/04/meet-the-104-year-old-artist-whose-art-inspired-disneys-bambi/ (April 22, 2015), Ben Shapiro, “Meet the 104-Year-Old Immigrant Artist, a ‘Disney Legend’ Whose Art Inspired ‘Bambi.’”
Tyrus, http://tyruswongthemovie.com (December 10, 2017).
Variety, https://variety.com/2016/film/festivals/bambi-artist-tyrus-wong-tribute-asian-world-film-festival-2016-1201895718/ (October 21, 2016), Diane Garrett,“‘Bambi’ Pioneer Tyrus Wong Gets Two Tributes for 106th Birthday”□