Tyrus Wong, who arrived at Angel Island as a 10-year-old immigrant from China in 1920 and went on to a career as one of the California's most important modern artists, has died at age 106.
The Los Angeles Times reports Wong died Friday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles.
Late in life, Wong became widely known for his landmark work on Walt Disney's 1942 animated feature "Bambi." He was also recognized in Hollywood for his contributions to other landmark films, including "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild Bunch."
Wong's career received public recognition in the last two decades of his life. That was due in part to a 2003-04 retrospective at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles and belated attention from the Disney Co. itself. Wong was more recently in the spotlight because of the 2015 documentary "Tyrus," by Los Angeles filmmaker Pamela Tom (see the trailer above).
As recounted in Tom's film, Wong rose in California's art world despite the many obstacles -- both those written into law and those woven into daily life by a society that had long viewed Chinese immigrants with disdain and hostility -- that he encountered upon his arrival as a child.
As detailed in The New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox, the first hurdle Wong had to get over were the barriers imposed by the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1880s-era law that sought to shut off Chinese immigration.
In 1920, seeking better economic prospects, Gen Yeo and his father embarked for the United States, leaving his mother and sister behind. Gen Yeo would never see his mother again.
They were obliged to travel under false identities — a state of affairs known among Chinese immigrants as being a “paper son” — in the hope of circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Act ...
... United States immigration officials put Chinese arrivals through a formidable inquisition to ensure they were who they claimed to be.
The questions came like gunfire: In which direction does your village face? How many windows are in your house? Where in the house is the rice bin? How wide is your well? How deep? Are there trees in your village? Are there lakes? What shops can you name?
The sponsoring relative was interrogated separately, and the answers had to match. For the new arrival, a major mistake, or a series of smaller ones, could mean deportation.
To stand a chance of passing, aspirants memorized rigorous dossiers known as coaching papers. The ensuing interrogation was hard enough for adults. Ten-year-old Gen Yeo would undergo it alone.
On Dec. 30, 1920, after a month at sea, the Wongs landed at Angel Island Immigration Station. The elder Mr. Wong was traveling as a merchant named Look Get; his son as Look Tai Yow....
... Because Mr. Wong’s father had previously lived in the United States as Look Get, he was able to clear Immigration quickly. But as a new arrival, Gen Yeo was detained on the island for nearly a month, the only child among the immigrants being held there.
“I was scared half to death; I just cried,” Mr. Wong recalled in “Tyrus,” an award-winning documentary directed by Pamela Tom, which premiered in 2015. “Every day is just miserable — miserable. I hated that place.”
On Jan. 27, 1921, in the presence of an interpreter and a stenographer, young Gen Yeo, posing as Look Tai Yow, was interrogated by three inspectors. His father had already been questioned.
Gen Yeo was well prepared and answered without error. In Sacramento, where he joined his father, a schoolteacher Americanized “Tai Yow” to “Tyrus,” and he was known as Tyrus Wong ever after.
The Wongs eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where Tyrus Wong began his formal training as an artist. In the mid-1930s, Wong joined the Federal Arts Project, a publicly funded agency that employed artists to create paintings and murals for public buildings. In 1938, Disney's studio hired him as an "in-betweener," someone whose job was essentially to create visual filler in animated films. The Times' Margalit Fox takes up the story from there:
Asians were then a novelty at Hollywood studios, and Mr. Wong was made keenly aware of the fact, first at Disney and later at Warner Brothers. One co-worker flung a racial epithet at him. Another assumed on sight that he worked in the company cafeteria.
Then there was the affront of the in-betweener’s job itself: Painstaking, repetitive and for Mr. Wong quickly soul-numbing, it is the assembly-line work of animation. ...
... A reprieve came in the late 1930s, when Mr. Wong learned that Disney was adapting “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” the 1923 novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten about a fawn whose mother is killed by a hunter.
In trying to animate the book, Disney had reached an impasse. The studio had enjoyed great success in 1937 with its animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a baroque production in which every detail of the backgrounds — every petal on every flower, every leaf on every tree — was meticulously represented.
In an attempt to use a similar style for “Bambi,” it found that the ornate backgrounds camouflaged the deer and other forest creatures on which the narrative centered.
Mr. Wong spied his chance.
“I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery,’” he recalled in a video interview years afterward, adding: “I said, ‘Gee, I’m a landscape painter!’”
Invoking the exquisite landscape paintings of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), he rendered in watercolors and pastels a series of nature scenes that were moody, lyrical and atmospheric — at once lush and spare — with backgrounds subtly suggested by a stroke or two of the brush.
“Walt Disney went crazy over them,” said John Canemaker, who wrote about Mr. Wong in his book “Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists” (1996). “He said, ‘I love this indefinite quality, the mysterious quality of the forest.’”
Mr. Wong was unofficially promoted to the rank of inspirational sketch artist.
“But he was more than that,” Mr. Canemaker explained. “He was the designer; he was the person they went to when they had questions about the color, about how to lay something out. He even influenced the music and the special effects: Just by the look of the drawings, he inspired people.”
Mr. Wong spent two years painting the illustrations that would inform every aspect of “Bambi.” Throughout the finished film — lent a brooding quality by its stark landscapes; misty, desaturated palette; and figures often seen in silhouette — his influence is unmistakable.
Disney fired Wong in 1941 after a strike at the studio. He went to work at Warner Brothers, retiribng in 1968. Amid many other accomplishments, Wong became known as a creator of striking kites. From a catalog for a 2003-04 retrospective of the artist's work and career:
"After retirement Wong felt restless. One day his wife, Ruth, said, "Why don't you go fly a kite?" Wong rose to the lighthearted domestic challenge by embarking on the traditional and complex art of Chinese kite making. His kites are amazing works of art -- a centipede a hundred feet long, a fluttering swarm of butterflies with individual moving parts, and schools of intricately painted goldfish -- for which he was been inducted into the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame."
And Wong told the L.A. Times in 1995:
“You get a certain satisfaction in making them, and you get a certain satisfaction flying them. Some are attention-getters, but that’s not what I’m after. I used to go fishing a lot, and I love fishing. This is just like fishing, except in fishing you look down. Kite flying, you look up.”