RIP Tyrus Wong, unsung Chinese-American Disney legend who had to lie to come to America and save his life

Nagurski writes, "Tyrus Wong was a brilliant Chinese-American artist who designed the look of the landmark 'Bambi' cartoon for Disney. Due to racial attitudes and at the time, he received limited recognition for his contributions, but was belatedly named a Disney Legend in 2001. He also was an accomplished painter and made fantastic kites, which he flew on the Santa Monica beach, continuing to do so past the age of 100."

Note that Wong -- like my own father and grandparents -- was technically an "illegal immigrant" whose only path out of a potentially lethal situation in his birth-country was to emigrate under false pretenses, because official immigration policy offered no navigable path to safety.

When they say that they want to "send back" the "illegal immigrants" who "broke the rules," think of this guy: a child who fled a terrible situation, leaving behind his family, to settle in America and contribute his prodigious talents to this country, enriching the lives of literally millions of people and making the bits of America around him truly great.

Wong Gen Yeo (the name is sometimes Romanized Wong Gaing Yoo) was born on Oct. 25, 1910, in a farming village in Guangdong Province. As a young child, he already exhibited a love of drawing and was encouraged by his father.

In 1920, seeking better economic prospects, Gen Yeo and his father embarked for the United States, leaving his mother and sister behind. Gen Yeo would never see his mother again.

They were obliged to travel under false identities — a state of affairs known among Chinese immigrants as being a “paper son” — in the hope of circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, the act, which drastically curtailed the number of Chinese people allowed to enter the country, was among the earliest United States laws to impose severe restrictions on immigration.

But in 1906, an unforeseen loophole opened in the form of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Because a huge number of municipal documents, including birth and immigration records, were destroyed, many newly arrived Chinese capitalized on the loss, maintaining that they had been born in San Francisco before the fire.

Tyrus Wong, ‘Bambi’ Artist Thwarted by Racial Bias, Dies at 106 [Margalit Fox, NYT]

(Thanks, Nagurski!)

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  1. QMFT, and it can't be emphasized enough that the "get in line" crowd is being disingenuous because there simply isn't a legal path for anyone without connections. This chart is from a while back, but I'm guessing things are only getting worse:

  2. Very interesting. Never heard of him before last night, and I feel that I am more than casually aware of artists working for Dysney at that time. Did they try to cover up his involvement?

    I found this interesting article on him with some examples of his Bambi artwork:

  3. I know tons of people (including family) who are/were here on h1s of various sorts, artists visas j series visas and people who've come in through the whole apply for visa come over blind sort of way.

    And frankly for the work related visas you already have to have the job. You might be hired specifically for a visa job but job comes first. So too student and research visas. Already accepted and enrolled, coming over for a specific fixed research project. Leave school, leave job, lose visa. There's your "connections" right there. Artist visas require you to already be successful and notable as well as have a plausible reason for working in the US. If you're not you have to come in on a sub visa connected to someone who is. And you have to show that you're an essential part of their work.

    In all cases you need a sponsor or something similar, especially once it comes to applying for the greencard. There are regular trips home before getting a green card in most cases to renew the visa. Once you apply for the green card you cant leave the US for any reason or you have to start over fresh. Everyone I know keeps an immigration lawyer on retainer, even if its provided by an employer or school. The one, one person I know who's successfully come over through the visa lottery system and navigated it to citizenship only got his visa in the first place because he served with a US marine platoon as part of an Italian military unit. Just qualifying to apply for a green card can take a decade. Getting through that process is multiple years, with no guarantee of success. Getting citizenship after that is also many years.

    Frankly it's not something you can or will be able to do without money and people in the US. It's next to impossible to do it right otherwise. And in any situation you spend a decade or more in a legal limbo where one mis-filed piece of paperwork, one trip home for a funeral, one financial set back sees you deported or starting over from scratch. It's insane. And it's relatively new. When my grandfather came here in the 50s it wasn't nearly as complex or time consuming.

  4. We are celebrating the contributions of the immigrants themselves, and lamenting the system that forced those immigrants to come here unlawfully.

  5. The 1883 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act were specifically written to keep Chinese and later other non-white people from immigrating to the United States, and set quotas limiting annual immigrants from many ethnic groups or countries to a small percent of the number of them already in the US, so as to avoid diluting the mainly Anglo-Saxon-German-Scots-Irish ethnicity.

    This wasn't about legal complexity and sheer number of applicants, this was about unabashedly racist immigration laws designed to deny a legal path for immigration. After I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I've met a number of Chinese-Americans who say "My family's been here for five generations, I don't speak Chinese, and if I did it would be the wrong dialect" (because almost all current Chinese immigrants speak at least some Mandarin, while most of the Gold Rush / railroad labor immigrants spoke Cantonese or other southern dialects.) It took me a while to realize that this was because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (if you hadn't been here five generations, you or your parents were post-Mao and learned Mandarin in school, and there's almost nobody in between.)

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