Filmmaker Pamela Tom discusses the influence of pioneering artist Tyrus Wong

China 24

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Filmmaker Pamela Tom worked on the documentary “Tyrus” for 17 years. The hard work has paid off — the film is receiving a lot of praise from audiences and critics alike. 

CGTN’s May Lee sat down with Tom to find out more about Tyrus Wong — and the making of the film. 

Pamela Tom: “When I first met Tyrus, my first introduction was through art, through Bambi, but after having met him and myself being a fifth-generation Chinese American, I felt the story of his experience as an immigrant, a Chinese immigrant in America, was equally important. And so I wanted to tell the story of an artist but though the lens of a Chinese immigrant, and you have to remember Tyrus came here in 1919, the Chinese exclusion act was in place and his first experience in America was being detained at Angel Island which was a detention center. So here was Tyrus at 9 years old, detained at Angel Island by himself for over a month.”

(narration from film: “The immigration inspectors had these interrogations and the goal of the inspectors was to trick the person to make a mistake so they would be automatically deported. 

Tyrus Wong: “They ask you about your village.  Who lived next to you on your right hand side, your left hand.  How many windows you have in your house?”) 

Pamela Tom:  “He was a very resilient person and was not a bitter person, but he recognized early on that the Chinese were not welcome, that you really had to be careful, you had to work twice as hard, you had to sort of pick your battles, sort of lay low when you needed to.  Not to say that he didn’t have a lot of spit and vinegar and was a really feisty guy.”

(narration from film from Wong’s daughter:  “One time we walked as a family up into the town of Sunland and a car drove by and said something racial, and I remember my dad turning around and giving them the finger. (laughing).”   

May Lee: “Let’s talk about Bambi, because that is a film that he (Wong) worked on that everybody credits that he really set the tone and the look of the entire film.”

Pamela Tom:  “It was like a perfect storm.  Tyrus was fresh out of art school, he had gotten married, and he needed to find a job and like he says in the film, ‘you’re Chinese, you have to support your wife.’  So what were the options for a fine artist in that time?  The studios!  He was in Hollywood, he was in Los Angeles.”    

“Bambi was in pre-production, so he got the book — this is how resourceful Tyrus was — he picked up the book, took it home, read it and drew some tiny little sketches of deer in the forest and brought it back to work and showed it to the art director.”

(narration from film:  “After Walt saw Tyrus Wong’s sketches of Bambi, he gave the go-ahead to hire him.” 

“It’s only happened a few other times, where the entire studio will cleave towards one artist’s style. 

“You could actually see the brushstrokes on the screen.  He is legendary and constantly on the minds of everyone here.”)  

Pamela Tom: ”These are the art forms where you’re not necessarily recognized. You do your job, you get your paycheck and that’s it, but I’m really glad that Disney has recognized him to the degree that they have.  They made him a Disney legend, and they’ve honored him with a retrospective at the Disney family museum and everybody within the Disney and animation community knows who Tyrus is and is influenced by him.”

May Lee: “But it took a while, he didn’t get that recognition until much later in his life, right?” 

Pamela Tom:  “That’s correct, probably not until his 90s. 

May Lee: “90s!!”

Pamela Tom:  “Yeah.”

May Lee: “So when he started getting the recognition, how did he feel?”

Pamela Tom: “You know Tyrus is very modest and whenever there was an award that was being given to him, or an event he would always say ‘Oh, what’s all this about?  Why are they honoring me?’  And it’s not false modesty, he really was, ‘what’s the big deal?’  But I think that despite that, there must have been some great satisfaction knowing that he was recognized and that he had made it as an artist which was his dream all along.”     

May Lee: “I think he’s left an incredible legacy and I’m so glad that you were able to tell it in this way, so more people would know about his life.  So thank you for making the film.”

Pamela Tom: “Oh, thank you for letting me share his story. I can never stop talking about Tyrus Wong.”