Documentary explores Chinese-born Tyrus Wong’s break into Hollywood

China 24

Documentary explores Chinese-born Tyrus Wong's break into Hollywood

He’s an artist whose work is famous around the world, but until recently few people knew who he was. Tyrus Wong was a Chinese-born American fine artist who broke down barriers and made it into Hollywood at a time when U.S. laws still discriminated against Asians.
CGTN’s May Lee has the story.

Tyrus Wong has never been a household name, but his work is legendary.  And a new film on PBS’ “American Masters” series shines a light on Wong’s life that was full of both great beauty and harrowing struggles. 

The film, “Tyrus”, was directed by Pamela Tom who first learned of the artist who immigrated from Guangdong, China at the age of 9, after watching the animated Disney classic “Bambi” with her daughter.    

Tom recalls, “And at the end of the film I discovered that there was this artist of Chinese descent who was responsible for creating the look of the film and his name was Tyrus Wong and my first thought was ‘what, wait a minute’ there was a Chinese artist working in the 1930s in Hollywood at Disney?”

What Tom unveiled was how much of a lasting impact Tyrus Wong had on the film… and it all started because Wong hated his entry level art job at Disney.  So he had a unique idea.

“Bambi” was in preproduction, so Tyrus got 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, who then showed the sketches to Walt Disney who instantly decided this was the look that “Bambi” the film needed.  

“What was so unique about Bambi”, says Tom, “is that Tyrus brought his Eastern influences to the art, to the film and so he was influenced by song dynasty painting and so it was great because Tyrus was mostly a landscape painter and look at Bambi it all takes place in the forest.”

Wong went on to work at several movie studios as a live action artist on hundreds of movies including the “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “Gypsy” and “Rebel Without a Cause.”  But even with his successes, came incredible challenges.  Racism, for one, was still overt in Hollywood and animation in particular was very much an old boys club. On his very first day at film small studio, Tyrus Wong’s boss said “you’re a chink!”

But the always resilient and focused Wong didn’t let racism or anything else stop him from paving the way as a courageous pioneer.  Not only did he excel in fine art and film art, he also designed beautiful greeting cards for Hallmark as well dinnerware with Chinese motifs. 

After a lifetime of pursuing his passion as an artist, Tyrus Wong passed away in December of 2016 at the age of 106.