Milton Quon, a humble animator who worked on the beloved Disney classics “Dumbo” and “Fantasia” and was one of the first Chinese Americans employed at the media conglomerate, has died at the age of 105.
Quon, who died June 18 in Torrance, was one of the last living artists who worked at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1940s, considered the golden years of American animation. “Fantasia,” widely acclaimed, is considered one of the greatest animated films ever made. In 2017, the Library of Congress preserved “Dumbo” in the National Film Registry because of its aesthetic, cultural and historic importance.
Born Aug. 22, 1913, in Los Angeles to parents who had emigrated from China’s Canton province, Quon was the only boy of eight children. He showed a deep love for drawing at a young age and was encouraged by an uncle to pursue art despite his mother’s disapproval.
As the eldest child, Quon was spoiled, he once admitted, but was also expected to contribute financially in the home. That pressure mounted during the Great Depression and after his father’s death while Quon attended the Chouinard Art Institute, now Cal Arts, on scholarship in the mid-1930s. He worked nights and Saturdays as a produce clerk and, to save money, usually walked to school carrying his heavy art equipment instead of taking public transportation.
As a young artist, he made menus for such restaurants in L.A.’s Chinatown as Soochow Restaurant, Man Jen Low (now General Lee’s) and the now-defunct Grandview Gardens, for which he also designed chopstick instructions and business cards. In Chinatown’s Central Plaza, his outdoor lantern sign for Grandview Gardens is a historic landmark.
In 1939, Quon was hired by Walt Disney Studios. He was among just a handful of Chinese Americans employed there at the time. Quon worked on several of the classic “Fantasia” scenes, such as the “Waltz of the Flowers” and the “Arabian Dance” segments, and served as first assistant animator on “Dumbo.”
When World War II erupted, Quon led a team of more than a dozen artists, illustrating parts catalogs for military planes. He also designed a logo for United China Relief, which raised funds to help Chinese communities during crises.
Quon returned to Disney after the war and headed the publicity department for three years, promoting the films “Song of the South” and “Make Mine Music.”
In 1944, he was married. He and wife Peggy had met at a Christian camp in Stockton. “He was very active in his church and his community,” said Jeffrey, one of his sons. “He and my uncle would take us kids to Sunday school every week.”
Seven years later, Quon became the first Chinese American art director at BBDO, an international advertising agency, where he worked for 13 years before becoming senior design artist at the packaging firm Sealright Co.
But he loved to teach, which was apparent to his son Mike as he learned to draw as a child. “He would offer pointers and advice and would critique my work. … He’d tell me not to over paint, not to add too much detail,” said the artist and graphic designer.
“He showed me the pathway on how to live an artistic life,” said Mike. “I was the only one in the family who followed in his artistic footsteps, and I feel like part of his DNA flows more through my veins. … I channel my dad daily as part of my artistic heritage.”
Years after retiring, Quon decided to go back to school — to teach. From 1974 to 1989, he taught drawing, painting and advertising classes at L.A. Trade Tech and sometimes took classes and was a substitute teacher at Santa Monica’s Emeritus College. “He’d disappear without telling us,” said Mike, and every time they’d find him, “he was teaching courses.”
Quon was still creatively active in his later years. L.A.’s Chinese American Museum exhibited his work multiple times, including in a 2001 group show titled “Inspiring Lines: Chinese American Pioneers in the Commercial Arts” and a 2005 solo exhibition called “Impressions: Milton Quon’s Los Angeles,” in which he displayed artistic records of his daily experiences.
The drawings and paintings, mostly watercolors, detailed adventures in New York, London and China, as well as his culinary explorations.
“I was on a kick there for a while of painting every meal I had,” Quon once told The Times. “It doesn’t matter where I am. In a bank, I’ll sketch the people waiting in line with me. On buses, I’d do sketches of the driver.” But at their core, his sketches were about life in L.A. and the city’s transformation. One from 1952 shows a grocery store at Chavez Ravine, a decade before residents were forced out and Dodger Stadium was built.
As L.A. morphed before his eyes, so did his art. In Quon’s earlier work, he used pens to outline figures he then filled with bold colors. His later work leaned more toward the abstract, and his color choices were muted with pastels.
“Somehow he was able to see the world for its fleeting and seemingly insignificant moments of beauty,” wrote Sonia Mak, Quon’s friend and a founding curator of the Chinese American Museum. “He could make any little thing seem important and precious just by choosing to depict it. He had an incredible appetite for representing the world around him.”
In 2012, he was one of five Chinese American artists whose work was presented at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park. He was awarded the 2013 Golden Spike Award by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the 2017 Historymakers Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Chinese American Museum.
Beyond his artwork, Quon scored occasional stints in Hollywood, playing a Korean clerk and a Chinese mafia boss in several films, his favorite being “the token Asian on the bus” in 1994’s “Speed.”
“Quon was able to achieve the American Dream for himself and his family by making art, having come up in a time when discrimination against Chinese in this country was pervasive, championed by politicians, legislated at the federal, state, and local levels of government, widely institutionalized, and the social norm,” wrote Mak. “His work for Disney alone has touched lives around the world even if people aren’t aware of it.”
He is survived by his wife of 74 years, two sisters, four children and four grandchildren.