KYRAN FITZGERALD: We can all learn from a Chinese migrant’s tale

AT THE end of December, a Chinese-American artist passed away at the ripe old age of 106.

Tyrus Wong: Played a critical role in transforming fortunes at Disney.

The long life of Tyrus Wong is, to say the least, instructive. He arrived in the US as a nine-year-old illegal immigrant in 1910, alongside his father. The two were soon separated. 

The young boy found himself on his own for several months living on Angel Island, a cross between an island town and a detention centre, where Chinese migrants were sifted out. 

Over 30% of its residents were deported.

The Wongs concocted a story about their origins as part of their effort to convince the authorities to allow them to remain. 

The boy was questioned closely by an immigration panel. He stuck faithfully to the script. Someone may have taken pity on him. 

Tyrus secured his foothold in America. He was reunited with his father, but he never saw his mother again.

In 1942, he would play a critical role in the success of Bambi, a Walt Disney-backed cartoon film about a baby deer, helping to transform the fortunes of the Disney organisation in the process.

Before the young Chinese illustrator came on the scene, Walt Disney was struggling with the film. The animal characters were being overshadowed by the background scenery of the forest that was central to the plot. 

Wong was employed as an ordinary animator, producing drawings that linked the key frames.

As a calligrapher in the Chinese tradition, he was able to produce the light brush strokes required.

Walt Disney was quick to spot his potential and Wong ended up as the film’s top designer. His name ended up far down the list of credits and he was dismissed following an animators’ strike soon after. 

His key role in the production was only unearthed in recent years. He was literally written out of the script.

Racial discrimination in the US was a pretty universal phenomenon at the time and Chinese migrants received particular attention from a majority that had little time for non-whites, particularly those who were willing to work for well below the minimum wage.

In 1882, the legislators passed what became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, targeting thousands of unskilled ‘coolies’ who sought access to America’s west coast labour market. 

The Act is remembered as one of the most significant clampdowns on immigration in US history. It was the product of agitation led by, among others, the labour union leader, Denis Kearney and Californian governor, John Bigler.

Kearney helped establish an organisation called the Supreme Order of Caucasians. His real concern was that wage levels were being depressed due to the arrival of unskilled workers from Asia.

It all has a familiar ring.

Today, similar concerns have been raised over the flow of migrants into Europe from Turkey and north Africa, not to mention the flows across the Mexican border. Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

Most of the Chinese migrants were young males like Wong and his father. They came in search of a successful life. To them, America was the fabled Golden Mountain.

Important elements in the American establishment came to their aid. Between 1882 and 1905, 10,000 Chinese appealed against decisions of the immigration authorities. 

In most cases, the courts ruled in favour of the petitioners. An extension of the 1882 Act triggered a boycott of US goods in China in the early part of the 20th century.

However, further restrictions were imposed in the 1924 US Immigration Act, while neighbouring Canada introduced a “head tax” aimed at all Chinese apart from business people, clergy, educators, students and certain other categories.

This has modern echoes in the focus of UK Brexiteers on the attraction of skilled migrants to the UK through a points system.

Such cherrypicking of overseas talent is now favoured by many recipient countries such as Australia and Canada. Everyone is looking for skilled people while few if any welcome the trudging young men with high hopes and little education, now emerging out of deserts and mountain passes from Afghanistan to El Paso.

Up until 1940, Angel Island continued to accommodate unwanted migrants near San Francisco. The attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 led to the singling out of Japanese-Americans, most of whom were consigned to camps in remote locations for the duration of the war.

In a strange reverse twist on what was then occurring in Nazi-occupied Europe, Wong and other Chinese-Americans wore a badge proclaiming their ancestry so as to ensure that they were not beaten up in the street.

At the time, a Japanese-American boy, Jimmy Murakami was locked up in a camp near Sacramento. He would later become a major force in the Irish film industry through his animation company, Murakami Wolf.

Eventually, in 1943, the Exclusion Act was scrapped on political grounds as the US and China were now war allies.

However, a miserable quota for Chinese arrivals was put in its place.

Wong himself worked on for many years at Warner Brothers working on story boards and set design, raising two daughters. He spent 15 years caring for his wife who suffered from dementia. 

He remained active in his 90s, speaking at an exhibition of his paintings and etchings. He ended his days flying kites designed by himself at the beach, something of a tourist attraction.

Wong ascended the Golden Mountain with the help of Chinese business associates of his father who helped him fund his way through art college in Los Angeles. He also secured work as a busboy. It was a mix of family support, community solidarity and personal endeavour.

One thing is sure. We will no more be able to halt the march of the migrants than King Canute was successful in halting the tides.

We should instead devote more time to assisting the arrivals to successfully adapt to new surroundings while constantly challenging ourselves to recall the experiences of our own ancestors both recent and far off.

For every troublemaker among the crowd, there are surely a considerable number of new citizens who would wish to follow a similar trail to that trodden by the intrepid Tyrus Wong.



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