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Chinese Brushstrokes in Hollywood: The Works of Tyrus Wong

A segment based on this story was produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Asian Accents: This article is part of a series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

In the 1930s, when very few minorities were employed in Hollywood, Disney Studios made the rare move of hiring a young Chinese immigrant, Tyrus Wong, to design the backgrounds for its new animated film, "Bambi." As "background artist," Wong created a unique look that contributed to the film's lasting success, painting dreamy forest scenes using watercolor washes and rendering individual trees with single, dynamic strokes reminiscent of Chinese ink painting. In 2001, after a long career in Hollywood as a motion picture illustrator, he was honored as a "Disney Legend," the only Asian American to receive the title. Despite Wong's success, he has not received the wide recognition he deserves as a concept artist and artist, and Hollywood itself is still rarely praised for its diversity. Both facts have motivated Chinese American filmmaker, Pamela Tom, to create a documentary film about Wong's life and art. As a fifth-generation Chinese American woman, a filmmaker, and former Director of Diversity at Film Independent, Tom understands the challenges minorities face in Hollywood. "By telling Tyrus Wong's story," she explains, "I'm telling the story of many people's experience in the [film] industry."

Tyrus Wong was born in southern China in 1910. When he was just 9 years old, he and his father left his sister and mother behind in China and traveled to the U.S. After a grueling detention on Angel Island and a brief stay in northern California, Wong and his father settled in Los Angeles. (They never saw the rest of their family again.) As a child, Wong displayed a great talent for art, and his father encouraged it, something unusual for an immigrant father. He taught him to paint Chinese characters with a brush dipped in water on newspaper, forcing him to practice them daily -- an activity that provided him with a strong foundation in Chinese brushwork. One of Wong's school teachers was impressed by the boy's lettering skills and encouraged him to apply for a scholarship to attend Otis College of Art and Design. At age 15, Wong became the youngest student there, and his father worked extra hard to cover expenses beyond the scholarship. Soon after graduation, Wong applied to Disney Studios to work on "Bambi." Walt Disney himself saw great originality and potential in the young man's sketches, and his work gave the film the unique visual style Disney was seeking.

Despite his success with "Bambi," Wong soon moved to Warner Brothers, where he worked as a motion picture illustrator for over 30 years, lending his considerable talents to films including "Rebel Without a Cause," "Harper," and "How the West Was Won." In the 1930s, he also exhibited with Pablo Picasso and worked as a muralist for FDR's New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Throughout his life, he continued to paint in a style inspired by Chinese painting but with his own unique approach to color, tone and composition. Wong also designed greetings cards, made lithographs and decorated ceramics, and after retiring in his late 50s, he became fascinated with building and flying kites. Over the decades, he has built creations that are more painted aerial sculptures than toys. On the fourth Saturday afternoon of every month, Wong can be found flying his works of art next to Santa Monica Pier. "I've had a good life," admits Wong, now 102, with humility and charm in KCET Departures' video documentary.

Pamela Tom only met Wong about 14 years ago, when he was already 88 years old. A fifth-generation Chinese American, her family also originally came from southern China. Her parents owned the New Moon Restaurant in downtown L.A., an establishment perhaps best known for inventing the quintessential Chinese American dish "Chinese Chicken Salad." She grew up in Monterey Park, a Los Angeles suburb that is now predominantly Asian, and studied Development Studies at Brown University. After graduating, she realized that she wanted to work in film. "My dad was not thrilled. He was like most Chinese American parents, who don't want their children to pursue a career in the arts. My father really wanted me to go to medical school." However, they did not stand in her way, and Tom attended Film School at UCLA. After she graduated, Tom, like Wong, received an early boost from Disney, in the form of a Walt Disney Writing Fellowship. She went on to write, direct and produce documentaries for ABC, PBS, and KCET.

Growing up, Pamela Tom had not heard of Tyrus Wong. It was only when she became a parent and was watching "Bambi" with her first daughter that she discovered him. At the end of the film, she noticed a Chinese name on the credits and began wondering about the Chinese artist who had designed the film's backgrounds in the 1930s. How had he managed to work for Disney back then? Was he able to make a living as an artist? Was he still alive? She discovered he was and arranged to meet him. He was now in his late eighties and had lived a fascinating life, using his immense artistic talents rooted in Chinese traditions to enrich the culture of Southern California.

Pamela Tom knew immediately that she want to make a film about him. That was 14 years ago. Over the years, thanks in part to a grant from the Disney Studio Foundation, she has been collecting footage and interviews and is now in the post-production phase of the film, "Tyrus Wong: Brushstrokes in Hollywood." A successful Kickstarter campaign that ended in December has positioned her well to meet her goal of releasing the film in 2013, though she is still seeking funding. Many of the donors to her Kickstarter and earlier fundraising campaigns were members of the animation community who are keen to see Wong's achievements documented and honored in a film during his lifetime. Not surprisingly, much support is also coming from Chinese Americans eager to see one of their own made the subject of a documentary.

From 1998 to 2008, Tom had worked as Director of Diversity at Film Independent, overseeing Project: Involve, an initiative that provides mentorships to minority filmmakers. As a female Chinese American filmmaker, she has experienced challenges over the years. "Although film school teaches you how to make films," she says, "it doesn't train you pitch stories and ideas to studios. Women find it hard to sell themselves and their work. I was also trying to pitch Asian American stories, often about women, to the studios. This is hard to do in a mostly 'white male' world. It was too soon." However, for this project, Tom believes her ethnicity has been helpful. "My being a Chinese American adds credence to the film since Tyrus and I share a cultural community. For example, when we first met, Tyrus realized that his eldest daughter had her wedding reception at our restaurant. My own experiences as a minority in Hollywood also help me tell Tyrus' story."

For the Chinese American community here in Southern California, a movie made by one of their own filmmakers about one of their own artists is surely a double blessing.

More information about "Tyrus Wong: Brushstrokes in Hollywood," due for release in 2013, and how to support it, can be found on the film's website and facebook page.

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