The Story of Legendary Asian American Artist, Tyrus Wong

Bambi in Pastel by Tyrus Wong

Bambi in Pastel by Tyrus Wong

Bambi, the Disney Movie

Bambi, the Disney Movie

Many of us have either seen or heard of Disney’s classic animated film, Bambi. The story of the brave, orphaned deer and his faithful rabbit sidekick, has captured the heart of countless Americans since its 1947 release. However, few know the inspiring story of the person who was a major influence on Bambi’s visual aesthetic, Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-born American artist. In a time period when the Chinese were heavily discriminated against and not seen as American, Wong broke societal standards with each stroke of his brush. Weaving Chinese art and Chinese presence into American culture, Tyrus Wong is a symbol of perseverance and resistance for the Asian community. 

“Wong broke societal standards with each stroke of his brush.”
Tyrus as a young man; courtesy of the Wong family

Tyrus as a young man; courtesy of the Wong family

Tyrus Wong was born in the Guangdong province of China and immigrated to America with his father in the late 1910s. As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Wong was separated from his father at nine years old and lived alone for a month at an immigration station on Angel Island, a center designed to trick and prevent immigrants from entering the US. Tyrus was a self-proclaimed trouble maker at school, playing hooky and doodling instead of paying attention in class. At the time, Asian immigrants often worked at laundromats and restaurants; however, Wong received financial support from his single father to pursue an education at an art school. Living under extreme poverty, Wong practiced painting using newspaper and water. 

 Even at a young age, Tyrus Wong’s work stood out from the rest. He became an extremely versatile artist over the span of his career, mastering watercolor, pastel drawing, calligraphy, and even kite-making. One of Wong’s greatest talents was applying minimalism to convey a story. As Tyrus narrates in the opening of Tyrus, a documentary about his life, “If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.”  

In one of his early pieces, Wong reimagines the softness of a snow monkey’s fur with a smudging technique, juxtaposing the soft texture with rough strokes that form a tree branch. Where soft meets hard, the snow monkey hangs precariously from the branch with one arm. Wong may have related to this monkey who is painted with a gentle smile despite dangling so high up in the air. From getting incarcerated at Angel island to not being properly credited for his artistic contributions at Disney and Warner Bros until he was in his 90s, each experience with racism and prejudice did not stop Wong from creating beautiful art that captivates and inspires.  

Tyrus Wong’s 1933 Snow Monkey; Still from from “Tyrus” film

Tyrus Wong’s 1933 Snow Monkey; Still from from “Tyrus” film

“Wong may have related to this monkey who is painted with a gentle smile despite dangling so high up in the air.”

Tyrus Wong passed away in 2016 at 106 years old, though his strong legacy remains. ACDC is proud to be screening the documentary, Tyrus, at this year’s opening night of Films at The Gate. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Pamela Tom, Tyrus honors the life of an Asian American trail-blazer in the 20th century. The movie presents Wong’s life holistically, addressing AAPI life during immigration exclusion, housing discrimination, and the Japanese internment camp.   

Join us on August 23rd at our annual Films at the Gate event to witness the manifestation of startlingly beautiful and deeply intricate artwork and the life of the humble Chinese immigrant who created them. The screening is scheduled for 8pm and is free to the community.

Meet Pamela Tom at a special pre-screening reception that includes a light dinner and cash bar! All proceeds benefit ACDC’s youth leadership program, A-VOYCE.

Colorized black and white photo of Tyrus painting; courtesy of PBS

Colorized black and white photo of Tyrus painting; courtesy of PBS

A Reflection on Working with Immigrant Communities

Dinner and discussion with members of the refugee community in Bautzen

This year, I was part of the Boston team participating in the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE), an exchange program for practitioners from the United States and Germany who work with immigrants and refugees in their local communities. The program annually brings together over 40 individuals from nine communities to share best practices and innovative approaches at the local level, and this was the third and final year of the program.  In May, German representatives from five cities and towns visited Washington D.C., Charlotte, Boston, and Anchorage.  In Boston, our team - which included the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement (MOIA), Hyams Foundation, and the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) - brought our visitors to East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester. I was particularly excited to give our guests a tour of Chinatown, delving into the rich immigration history, the emergence of community organizations and leaders, and the current challenges Chinatown faces.    

At “Ursprung” in Frankfurt, an initiative that engages teenage newcomers through woodworking and crafts.

Three weeks ago, the Boston team flew across the Atlantic and embarked on a twelve-day journey in Germany to learn from our counterparts in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bautzen, and Teltow-Flaeming, with a closing conference in Berlin.  We met local government officials and nonprofit leaders who have worked hard since 2015 to provide housing, services, language courses, and job assistance to the unprecedented large number of newcomers who have landed in Germany in the last three years.  We visited some of the new housing that had been built with incredible speed (to this Bostonian), and met with volunteers and newcomers and learned about their grassroots initiatives.  Along the way, we also made friends with participants from the other U.S. cities and learned about their local work with immigrants and refugees.   

At “Thespis” in Bautzen, a theater workshop that engages with local German and refugee youth

One thing that struck me in Germany was that I did not hear the term “immigrant”.  People mostly used the terms “refugees” and “migrants” to refer to the foreigners who had landed in Germany in the last three years, and sometimes “newcomers” was used as well.  Germany does not have the long and rich history of immigration as the U.S., and people who we would call second- and third- generation immigrants in the U.S. are classified as having “migrant backgrounds” in Germany.  Words do matter, and “refugees” and “migrants” evoke a sense of placelessness and impermanence.  At the same time, it was heartening to see debates emerging in Germany about German identity and who is/can be a German, just as American society has expanded this concept to people being able to self-identify as African-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, and so forth.  I was especially inspired by a Cameroonian-German woman and a Rwandan-German man I met, both of whom became elected officials in their respective towns and face racism and discrimination in their daily work. I think back to our city of Boston, where 6 of 13 city councilors are women of color, with Ayanna Pressley having just become a Congresswoman-elect.

The 2018 WCTE U.S. delegation in Hamburg City Hall

Another concept that I struggled with during this exchange is “integration”.  There are many passionate practitioners in Germany and the U.S. working hard to ensure that newcomers have access to the resources they need to settle in and thrive in their new communities.  At the same time, the concept of German “integration” was telling in what Germany society believes necessary for it to continue to be a successful, cohesive whole.  “Integration” above all means learning the German language – as we heard endlessly on this trip – and it was striking in contrast with the U.S. emphasis on providing multilingual access to people with Limited English Proficiency.  On the positive side, integration also means accepting German and western values, including gender equality and LGBT rights. 

At ACDC, because we work mostly with immigrants who have been in the U.S. longer, we emphasize “empowerment” and “resident leadership” and don’t think of our work through the “integration” lens.  While it is important to make sure that municipal governments make their states, cities and towns as welcoming as possible to diverse populations, we believe the people impacted – immigrant and low-income residents – should have seats at the table where policy and funding decisions are being made, because they know best what their needs are and where gaps exist.  We also believe that as benign as any institution is, no one in power willingly shares that or gives that up, and it is up to underrepresented groups to advocate for themselves.  However, ACDC’s work in many ways IS about integrating immigrants – we connect our residents and constituents with the tools and resources so that they have access to mainstream systems of power and resources to thrive.  We register immigrants to become voters and hold voter education workshops so that more of them have access to elected officials; we encourage residents and youth to turn out for community meetings and planning processes so that their voices are included; we work with immigrants on their credit scores and financial literacy to increase their financial well-being and achieve homeownership.      

A final reflection – the most enduring and inspiring parts of this trip that have stayed with me are not the technical parts of the program, but the deep personal connections I made along the way.  In our work, we sometimes become preoccupied with numbers, deadlines, and budgets – the everyday grind – and it can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of the people we work with.  On this trip, we had opportunities to engage more deeply with some newcomers, which for me was an invaluable mental shift from discussing statistics and policies to humanizing the “migrant/refugee” issue, and seeing people not as helpless victims, but humans with the dignity and capacity to be change agents themselves.   

How a new credit scoring system could help immigrant families purchase their first home

The company that created the popular FICO credit score, Fair Isaac Co, announced earlier this week that they will release another version of the FICO score next year called UltraFICO. The UltraFICO could grant access to credit millions of people who wouldn’t qualify for certain loans using the current FICO score, in particular those who have limited credit history.

UltraFICO will take into consideration a person’s assets, including savings and checking account. People will be able to raise their UltraFICO score through maintaining positive account balances in their bank or by using their bank’s billpay features and demonstrating responsible money management. A Fair Isaac rep said that there are 53 million people who do not have a FICO score and UltraFICO will catch upwards of 15 million of them.

ACDC serves hundreds of families each year through housing and financial education workshops. One topic that regularly trips up our clients is credit. We provide credit building seminars to teach people the basics of credit. Because many of our clients have only been in America for a few years, they often don’t have long credit histories and as a result, they have a hard time getting mortgage ready. Sometimes only when they decide to apply for a mortgage do they realize that their credit score is low or even non-existent.

We hope that new credit tools such as UltraFICO will open up more opportunities for our clients on their journey to home ownership.

If you’re interested in speaking with one of our housing and financial counselors for a free 1on1 consultation, please contact us.

Welcome 51 families to Chinatown!

Last month, we welcomed 51 new families into our homeownership condo units at 88 Hudson St located in the heart of Chinatown. 88 Hudson represents the culmination of a decade long process of community organizing and advocacy by the Chinatown community. This completes the second and final phase of our One Greenway affordable housing development. The first phase which was completed in 2015 provided 95 rental units at 66 Hudson St. This second phase provided 51 condos for 102 people. Over 75% of the families were Boston residents.

All of our homeowners have recently completed the often-long and arduous homebuying process of applying for a mortgage, getting their finances in order, and moving from their former homes. Many of them took advantage of ACDC's first-time homebuyer workshop and 1-on-1 counseling where our housing counseling staff walked them through the process.

We spoke with one of the new homeowners:


Phil, 88 Hudson Homeowner

I grew up in Allston and then moved with my family to Watertown. My parents are still in Watertown.

I found out about the affordable condo application for 88 Hudson through a family friend last May and applied because I like the neighborhood.  My grandma lives in Chinatown, and I’ve always admired how the community is really tight-knit. I wanted to be a part of that. 

Though the neighborhood has become more and more gentrified and is losing that close-knit feeling, I hope to strengthen the sense of community with my new neighbors.

Now that the families have all moved into their new homes, ACDC will continue to assist the new homeowners in managing their homes and to become engaged with their community. 

Congratulations to our 51 new home owners!