Tyrus Wong: Disney's Hidden Migrant Imagination

Tyrus Wong ultimately created one of the most sophisticated and enduring works of animation in cinema, though he never got due credit for his work at Disney. (Photo: KCET Departures / Flickr)If you were ever dazzled by the Magic of Disney as a kid, you were probably secretly enchanted by the quiet genius of Tyrus Wong. At a time when Disney studios were peddling crass ethnic caricatures, the virtually anonymous young artist infused Disney with misty woodland skylines and sweeping hilltops in brilliant color. He gave Disney a third dimension, beyond the cinematic vanguard of the time, drawing from his hybrid heritage as a migrant, skilled painter, and descendant of the Chinese diaspora. Wong died at the far end of childhood, at 106. But he effectively lived for a century through a child’s eyes.

Before he climbed the ranks at Disney, Wong started off as a boy searching for light in the shadows of Gold Mountain — what the Chinese called San Francisco back in the day. He cultivated an escapist imagination growing up at the intersection of illusory American Dreams and the cobblestones of traditional craftsmanship.

HIs father managed to finagle a first class ticket to the Golden Gate in 1920 — a rarity at a time when Chinese were mostly banned from entering the country. In later interviews, Wong recalled getting seasick on the voyage from Guangdong to Angel Island, the Pacific port where hundreds of thousands Chinese migrants discovered their destinies in America.

Wong’s destiny was far from predetermined, though. When he and his father came ashore, they were defying longstanding Exclusion Laws that banned the “Heathen Chinee”. though the migration of laborers and merchants ebbed and flowed throughout this time in spite of the racist border regime.

His enterprising father, Look Get, had entered under an exception in the ban for merchants. The father and son were separated by the authorities upon arrival, and Wong was placed in detention for weeks for interrogation. Like many…

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