If you were ever dazzled by the Magic of Disney as a kid, you were probably secretly enchanted by the quiet genius of Tyrus Wong. At a time when Disney studios were peddling crass ethnic caricatures, the virtually anonymous young artist infused Disney with misty woodland skylines and sweeping hilltops in brilliant color. He gave Disney a third dimension, beyond the cinematic vanguard of the time, drawing from his hybrid heritage as a migrant, skilled painter, and descendant of the Chinese diaspora. Wong died at the far end of childhood last week, at 106. But he effectively lived for a century through a child’s eyes.
Before he climbed the ranks at Disney, Wong started off as a boy searching for light in the shadows of Gold Mountain--what the Chinese called San Francisco back in the day. He cultivated an escapist imagination growing up at the intersection of illusory American Dreams and the cobblestones of traditional craftsmanship.
HIs father managed to finagle a first class ticket to the Golden Gate in 1920--a rarity at a time when Chinese were mostly banned from entering the country. In later interviews, Wong recalled getting seasick on the voyage from Guangdong to Angel Island, the Pacific port where hundreds of thousands Chinese migrants discovered their destinies in America.
Wong’s destiny was far from predetermined, though. When he and his father came ashore, they were defying longstanding Exclusion Laws that banned the “Heathen Chinee”. though the migration of laborers and merchants ebbed and flowed throughout this time in spite of the racist border regime.
His enterprising father, Look Get, had entered under an exception in the ban for merchants. The father and son were separated by the authorities upon arrival, and Wong was placed in detention for weeks for interrogation. Like many migrants at the border today, the boy had to prove he was really his father’s son and not just a “paper son”--using the false papers many purchased to slip past the immigration authorities.
He got his first taste of an American childhood in detention, discovering how to chew gum. But overall he was traumatized: "I hated that place, just like a jail" he later recalled. A few weeks later he was released and joined the churning rhythm of San Francisco’s Chinatown, a notoriously seedy enclave where his father hustled as a retail trader. BUt after work, in their tiny boarding room, father and son let their imaginations run loose: a watercolorist by training, Look Get encouraged his son to explore art by painting and penning calligraphy on newspapers--using only water. Young Tyrus learned how to color his invisible ink with the exotic pigments welling up in his observant mind, a absorbing the neighborhood’s chaotic messiness, snaking streets, crowded storefronts and restaurants,s and “vice dens.” The real color of his childhood was the energy with which Chinese migrant workers struggled to weave themselves into the urban social fabric, despite family separation, racial segregation and poverty.
No model minority, young Tyrus got in trouble for skipping school and neglecting arithmetic for obsessive drawing. A high school teacher spotted his talent, though, and encouraged him to apply to art school. His father borrowed money to support Wong’s art studies at the Otis Art Institute, hoping his son might nurture an inherited talent. Wong thrived there and after graduating in 1935, at the peak of the Great Depression, he joined the Works Progress Administration, the massive art-labor program that put millions of artists, dramatists and writers to work on some of the century’s most monumental public artworks, literary ventures, and theater projects.
Around the same time Tyrus was laboring with his New Deal comrades, he was also building his local progressive art scene (while gigging as a waiter and mural painter at the Dragon's Den club). With his friend, Japanese American artist Benji Okubo, he co-founded the Oriental Artist Group of Los Angeles, launching a new school of ecletic painting that drew from East Asian brush painting along with Western styles.
One of Wong’s first major works was an epic mural on the garish mock-temple wall of a grandiose Chinatown commercial plaza in Los Angeles: a majestic celestial dragon, soaring over Broadway. At a time when Chinese immigrants were still banned from the border: the heavenly kingdom’s mythos still reigned over the City of Angels.
He later joined Disney studios as a peon illustrator, doing mind-number in-betweener sketch work, joining one frame to the next in the old assembly line technique of animation. He often faced severe discrimination from coworkers, as many doubted a “chink” could achieve the same level of skill as a native-born artist.
Then Disney entered pre-production for Bambi, based on Felix Salten’s 1920s novel about a deer prince and his forest kingdom. Wong seized on a plot that he knew could be his creative paradise. He drafted conceptual paintings, impressed the higher ups, and finally got a chance to showcase his talent as the leading artistic vision behind the film. Far from the human realms of Chinatown and cluttered studios, Wong casted a mythical sphere of dramatized woodland creatures and forest landscapes in a style wholly foreign to the conventional cartoon film industry: the trees and light took on lives of their own in a playful dance with the animal characters. Even in the scariest scene, a forest wildfire, the woods are charged with the same sense of terror that has stricken the fleeing critters. Even the licking flames are animated like beasts of prey.
Wong ultimately created one of the most sophisticated and enduring works of animation in cinema, though he never got due credit for his work at Disney. But as a lead designer of the project, he nonetheless achieved an extreme rarity for an Asian American artist, decades ahead of Disney’s own artistic evolution as its films gradually moved toward more realistic depictions of non-Western cultures and communities of color.
In depicting Bambi’s fairytale narrative as a romantic bildungsroman, Wong’s greatest contribution was the holistic nature of his forest landscape. The chief inspiration was Asian brush painting techniques that he had inherited from his parent culture, and he enhanced the mystical perspective with a classic American charm. As art conservator Ron Barbagallo explained in the LA Times: "Tyrus simplified things and made them elemental and made them atmospheric. You can really create a genealogy chart of everything today and line it back up to what Tyrus' influences were. You can't underestimate this person's impact on the industry.... He's probably one of the most unsung heroes in animation."
From the 1940s onward, Wong shifted into a career as a studio illustrator and designer, working on such classics as Rebel without a Cause. But his radical aesthetic had a habit of spilling into his labor politics as well, and he ran afoul of management during a strike and spent a night in jail with coworkers.
His later painting accented watercolor brushstrokes with Hollywood flair. His ceramic work and elaborate kites melded function with beauty. Throughout his career, colleagues marveled at a succinct style that made his creations both accessible and complex, mirroring his own multifaceted identity as an artist, craftperson and immigrant. And throughout his century on earth, he remained something of a child, who found his way through a cosmos of hardship and fantasy by distilling it all into a story that embraced all of humanity. In a biographical documentary, “Tyrus”, he put it simply: “If you can make a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.”
Perhaps that was the key to his longevity, knowing that however many barriers he faced en route to his creative destination, each step paved the way for the unsung artist behind him. And that’s how the boy scrawling on newsprint grew up to color the American imagination, one frame at a time.
--January 2, 2016