The hidden history of racism behind Disney’s classic film “Bambi”

Old boys club.
Old boys club.
Image: AP Photo
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Tyrus Wong’s artistic vision formed the foundation of Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi. But for decades, anti-Asian bias in the US meant his pioneering work in art and film went unrecognized.

Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo in 1910, in China’s Guangdong Province. He died in Sunland, California on Dec. 30, at 106. One of his lasting commercial achievements was creating the visual look of Bambi. The film, about a young deer making friends and learning about the forest world, is unusual for the hazy, impressionistic natural world depicted behind its animal characters.

“I think Walt realized fairly early that he would not be able to do it with a lot of dialogue, and he had to rely on beautiful art work and music to create a mood,” says a commentator in Bambi: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece. ”He was able [to], through several artists, mainly Ty Wong, a Chinese artist who did beautiful art of the forest.”

Wong came to the US in 1920, when most Chinese immigrants were barred from the country due to an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As a nine-year-old, Wong was detained at California’s Angel Island for a month by himself, reports The New York Times. “I hated that place, just like a jail,” said Wong in a 2010 interview. For months, Wong studied his fake personal history to pass the interrogation he needed to be allowed to stay in the US.

In his twenties, Wong got a job at Disney doing menial work to create transitional animations at a time when Hollywood’s animation studios were a true old boy’s club. In a trailer for a movie about his life, Wong recalls on his first day on the job, his department head called him a “chink.”

But when he heard about production on Bambi, Wong jumped at the chance to contribute and created tiny sketches for the film. “He was truly involved with every phase of production,” animator John Canemaker tells the New York Times, adding, “He created an art direction that had really never been seen before in animation.”

But Wong was ultimately credited in the film only as a “background” artist. He was fired from Disney after three years at the company, following an employee strike. Only in 2001, then 91, did Wong receive formal recognition for his work on the film, and was named a Disney Legend by the studio.