Tyrus Wong and Ming Cho Lee were immigrants from China, and both used the artistic traditions of their homeland to change American entertainment.
Ming Cho Lee “radically and almost single-handedly transformed the American approach to stage design,” per his New York Times obituary. Drawing upon his training in Chinese watercolor painting, Lee created sets for hundreds of plays, dance works, and operas. His mastery, alas, did not always guarantee success:
“The most distinguished aspect of ‘Here’s Where I Belong,’ the new musical that opened at the Billy Rose Theater last night, is the scenery by Ming Cho Lee,” Clive Barnes wrote in reviewing that one-day wonder for The Times in 1968. “But no one ever walked out of a theater humming the scenery.”
Tyrus Wong was a low-level illustrator at Walt Disney’s studio when his colleagues ran into trouble.
Disney’s animators were struggling to bring “Bambi” to the screen. The wide-eyed fawn and his feathered and furry friends were literally lost in the forest, overwhelmed by leaves, twigs, branches and other realistic touches in the ornately drawn backgrounds.
“Too much detail,” Wong thought when he saw the sketches.
On his own time, he made a series of tiny drawings and watercolors and showed them to his superiors. Dreamy and impressionistic, like a Chinese landscape, Wong’s approach was to “create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” It turned out to be just what “Bambi” needed.
Wong had studied the landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty, and his knowledge was the catalyst for the creation of a classic.
His Los Angeles Times obituary recounts his arduous and improbable journey to becoming an artist, as well as the racial discrimination he encountered. It also notes that in retirement, he became known for the beautiful homemade kites he flew on the beach.