Tyrus Wong created some of the most memorable images in the history of animation and American cinema when he worked at Disney and later Warner Brothers. Among the highlights of his long and accomplished film career was his role as the lead animator for the film Bambi. Before that, however, he was an immigrant to the United States during the period of Chinese Exclusion. After arriving in the U.S., Wong was detained at Angel Island where he studied false papers to prepare him for integration. The Angel Island Conservancy explains:

One class of Chinese the U.S. could not keep out were those who were already citizens of the United States by virtue of having a father who was a citizen. Until the mid-1920s, women did not have separate citizenship from their husbands and parents. A native-born woman lost her citizenship by marrying a foreign national. Then, as now, any person born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen, regardless of the status of their parents. Also, the children of citizens are also citizens, regardless of where they are born. Hence, any Chinese who could prove citizenship through paternal lineage could not be denied entry.

Those without true fathers in the U.S. became “paper sons” or “paper daughters”. They bought papers identifying them as children of American citizens and coaching books with detailed information on their “paper” families, which they studied in order to pass grueling  interrogations. Because official records were often non-existent, an interrogation process was created to determine if the immigrants were related as they claimed. Questions could include details of the immigrant’s home and village as well as specific knowledge of his or her ancestors. Interrogations could take a long time to complete, especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States. The average detention was two to three weeks, but many stayed for several months.

Below is a short profile in which Wong shares his memories of Angel Island and its impact on his life.

Reflection Questions

  1. You might begin discussion by allowing time for an open reflection on Wong’s story. Share the words and images that stick with youafter hearing his reflection and ask them to share why they made the selections that they did.
  2. To go deeper into his story, consider using the see-feel-think-wonder thinking routine. This allows for listeners to move from the text to the connections that they are making and the questions/wonderings they may have.
  3. You might also  think about how his story connects to viewers as individuals and other stories they know. One simple protocol to structure that reflection is called “text to text, text to self, text to world,” follow the link for an explanation of the structure.

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