By Henry Wong
Tyrus Wong (born October 25, 1910), the leading animator of Bambi, died at age 106 on December 30, 2016. While Bambi (released by Disney in 1942) gained worldwide fame and success, few people know this pioneering Chinese-American artist who remained unrecognized for his artistry and contributions to the film until he was in his nineties and remains one of the most renowned Chinese-American artists of the 20th century.
Wong worked for Disney from 1938-1941 and started out sketching Mickey Mouse. He was influenced by landscape paintings from China’s Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). This influence coupled with his sketching of deer in a forest created the look and feel of animation Disney wanted for Bambi. Wong left Disney to work for Warner Bros. in 1941.
Wong endured great hardship, poverty and discrimination in his life. At ten years old, he immigrated to America with his father from a farming village in Guangdong Province, China and would never see his mother again (like the character Bambi). Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it impossible to immigrate to the US if you were Chinese, Wong and his father used false identities to enter the US as many “paper sons” did who pretended to be sons of Chinese who were supposedly born in the US, thereby gaining citizenship through these American-born fathers. Wong was also detained for almost a month on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay as a child before being freed and reunited with his father.
As a Disney and Warner Bros. artist, he also faced discrimination when a colleague called him a racial slur and when another thought he was a cafeteria worker. In addition, he also faced discrimination when trying to buy a house with his wife being lied to that a house was no longer for sale when in reality it was still on the market.
As a child, Wong’s father nurtured his talent by encouraging him to practice calligraphy on newspapers and “paint” with a brush and water. Wong’s gift was noticed by a junior high school teacher who secured a summer scholarship for him at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. His father would work to pay the $90 tuition so Wong could continue his studies there for five years. In 2001, he was inducted into the “Disney Legend” hall of fame. Tyrus Wong is survived by three daughters (who were not given coloring books as children because he thought this would stifle their creativity) and two grandchildren.