2016 claimed the lives of many celebrities, from rock legend David Bowie to author Harper Lee. The tail end of December was especially brutal: we said goodbye to George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. On December 30, we lost another celebrity: Tyrus Wong, the artist who worked on Disney’s 1942 animated film Bambi. It’s truly a tragedy that Wong had to leave us so soon. He was 106. Joking aside though, it appears that even 106 years weren’t enough for the public to fully embrace the Bambi artist, a Chinese immigrant who led a life plagued by racial prejudices.
Bambi Artist Tyrus Wong Never Gave Up
Born into the poor farming village of Toisan in 1910, Wong left China with his father in 1920 for America. He left behind his sister and mother, whom he would never see again.
For Chinese immigrants in the 1920s, getting into America was nearly impossible. At Angel Island Immigration Station, after almost a month of detainment and a rigorous interrogation process, ten-year-old Wong was finally allowed to enter the country.
Over the following years, Wong worked hard at low paying jobs and endured separation from his father, among other hardships. When a teacher noticed his talent as an artist, Wong received a scholarship to an art and design college. This scholarship didn’t mean that Wong’s troubles were over. But it did allow him to pursue his love of art and eventually launch his career.
Over the next few decades, Wong would become a landscape painter, Disney illustrator, Hollywood staff artist, Hallmark greeting card designer, and dinner ware painter, among other things. His role as a concept artist for Disney and Warner Brothers was instrumental. But in the credits for Bambi, his most celebrated project, Wong is listed merely as a “background artist” and his name appears a long ways down.
Ever creative, optimistic, and hard-working, the Bambi artist didn’t let his many setbacks overwhelm him. Towards the end of his life, Wong created kites that became wildly popular in his Southern California community. The racial bias and economic hardship that Wong experienced throughout his life are upsetting. But maybe we can learn something from this bravely original artist who took it all in stride and never gave up his dream of flying.