The watery backgrounds of Disney’s Bambi are uncharacteristically modern for animation of its time. Images are evocative and spare. Art aficionados might even compare the impressionistic landscapes of Bambi to Sung Dynasty Chinese paintings. The iconic look of the Disney classic animated film would not have been possible without Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong. Pamela Tom’s documentary, TYRUS, the CAAMFest 2016 opening night film, takes us behind the scenes in the life of a Chinese “paper son” who began his life in America at Angel Island and rose to be one of the few Asian Americans in the rarefied movie studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “It epitomizes what our festival is all about, presenting the life journey of a supremely talented artist, and more importantly, a wonderful human being,” said CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. “TYRUS is a beautifully made film, full of art and love. In the end, it’s about life itself.”
Like many parents, Tom watched Bambi with her young daughter, letting the VHS tape roll through the bonus features, when one sound bite caught her attention. “One of the filmmakers referred to Tyrus Wong as this Chinese American artist who was responsible for creating the look of Bambi,” Tom recalls. “Did I hear this correctly? A Chinese American artist working at Disney in the 1930s?”
And so began the nearly two decade long project of making the documentary TYRUS. A fifth-generation Chinese American living in Southern California, Tom worked through her connections, locating Wong in the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood of Sunland. She invited him out to lunch at her family’s restaurant. “The moment I met him, I realized this is not your typical 89-year old,” says Tom, who decided by the end of that first lunch that she needed to make a documentary about Tyrus’ life story and his contributions to the field of animation.
At the time of that meeting in 1998, Tom, an independent filmmaker, had no funding and a staff of one: herself. But she recognized the uniqueness of Wong’s life, and at his age, there was no time to waste. Documentarian Freida Lee Mock advised her to “just get the interviews in the can,” Tom explains. By the completion of the film, Wong was over 100 years old. [Editor’s note: TYRUS is a CAAM-supported film, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting].
Wong is a lively presence onscreen. In interviews spanning twenty years, he recounts anecdotes both bitter and sweet. His story is a quintessential American tale of transformation. Although Wong’s father meted out tough love during his son’s scrappy childhood on the streets of Sacramento, the elder Wong also recognized his boy’s artistic talent. At a time when most Chinese Americans were struggling to make a living doing laundry or working as domestic help, Wong’s father encouraged him to pursue art. A mediocre student, Wong preferred sketching over arithmetic, drawing the attention of a junior high teacher who encouraged him to apply for a scholarship to the Otis Institute of Art. The film details the pains the father took in order to sustain his son’s fledgling career after the scholarship ran out. But Tom says the painter’s humble nature also made him a challenge to interview. “’Why do you want to make a movie about me?’” Tom recalls him telling her.
One of the most unique—and most painful—aspects of Wong’s life is his narrative of coming to America through Angel Island. At the time of Wong’s arrival in 1910, the Chinese Exclusion Act outlawed Asian immigration to the United States, with the exception of a very limited number of family members. Wong and his father entered as “paper sons” with a set of fake documents linking them to unrelated American-born Chinese, making him what some would now consider an illegal immigrant. In fact, the name Tyrus is a Romanization of the given name on his fake papers, Look Tai-Yu, although Wong is his family’s actual surname. Wong was detained at the Angel Island barracks for one month, separated from his father when he was just 9 years old, until he was given clearance to enter the United States. Wong had already left his mother behind in China, never to see her again.
In fact, convincing Wong to visit Angel Island to film the segment proved to be one of the most difficult parts of producing the documentary. “If you were in prison, you wouldn’t want to go back and visit,” Tom recalls Wong telling her. Wong is eventually persuaded to make the journey back to Angel Island, which is the setting for some of the most significant scenes in the documentary, as the now elderly artist traces his fingers on characters carved into the wood plank walls of the barracks.
Albeit painful, the Angel Island experience frames Wong’s achievements in an important context. “Immigrating during the exclusion era – when Chinese were considered unfit to enter the country or become citizens – was a time that many Chinese immigrants of that generation wanted to forget,” says Erika Lee Ph.D, author of The Making of Asian America. Wong has been the subject of other documentaries, such as a video interview produced by the Angel Island Foundation and Erik Friedl’s 1989 short documentary Flights of Fancy, which focuses on the elaborate kites he began building during retirement. Some of the opening footage from TYRUS even comes from a 1950s Encyclopedia Britannica educational film that profiled him as part of a series on Chinese and Japanese brush painting. But none of the previous films have comprehensively detailed Wong’s creative achievements and personal life in context of the racism and xenophobia of the early 20th century.
“Had Tyrus been successfully sent back to China, what a loss to our country, culture and the world of animation today,” Tom muses, noting that in this age of growing wariness of open borders, “Tyrus puts a face on immigrants.”
The one-hour and 17 minute documentary explores Wong’s broad creative success—including fine art paintings, movie studio story boards, greeting cards—and in his later years, handmade kites. The visuals include 80 years of rare and many never before seen pieces, dating back to Wong’s early years at Otis and among the Art Students’ League led by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who encouraged Wong to combine Chinese aesthetics with modern art. Not only does the film showcase Wong’s work, but that of his coterie of Asian American artists in California, including Hideo Date, Chiura Obata, and Gilbert Leong. Hundreds of pieces of art were tracked down through studios, curators and even decades-old receipts of sale. Since some of the pieces had been aged or damaged, art director Susan Bradley (herself a 20-year Pixar veteran) worked to restore some, leaving others to show their age. “I’ve never worked on a film that had such a massive quantity of art,” notes Bradley.
The film doesn’t shy away from the negative experiences Wong faced in Hollywood, including being dismissed from Disney before the completion of Bambi. “I just let him talk,” says Tom, “And I’m letting the viewers decide how much they want to read into his firing and his experiences with racism during his years in Hollywood.” Wong’s daughters say their father had an overall positive experience at Disney, and the company actually played a role in the production of the film, with a $25,000 grant from the Disney Studio Foundation (along with other sponsors such as AARP, Women in Film, Visual Communications, and many individual donors). Wong was honored as a Disney Legend in 2001 and his work was also the subject of a 2013 exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. Tom was able to access much of the Wong’s old artwork through the studio, and also culled more from other studio employees who kept drawings instead of tossing them per studio protocol. Disney’s Don Hahn, whose career highlights include producing Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, served as executive producer on TYRUS. More than anything, TYRUS is a film about how art affects so many aspects of our society. “Through his hard work and his talent and his humor and humanity he achieved this American Dream,” says Tom.
While TYRUS is a film that puts a human face to our nation of immigrants, it is also a love story about family and art, from his father’s early encouragement to Wong’s own paternal instinct. Among all his professional successes, some of Wong’s most poignant anecdotes recall his courtship and marriage to Ruth Kim. Over and over, Wong recounts choices made for the betterment of his three daughters, who are also featured in the documentary.
In conjunction with the screening of TYRUS, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will be displaying a newly uncovered Tyrus Wong painting. The painting, originally commissioned by a Los Angeles area church, was until recently, buried in storage at the Chinese Methodist Church at Stockton Street. Who knows? Maybe the film will help locate other long-forgotten works of art created by Tyrus Wong.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs about Asian fusion family and food at HapaMama. Her work has also been published on PBS, Salon, and xoJane, and she is a regular contributor to BlogHer and Mom.me. Follow her on Twitter @HapaMamaGrace.