Fifth-generation Chinese American Pamela Tom, 49, is discovering herself through her filmmaking.
A graduate of Brown University, with a master of fine arts degree from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, she is using her art to research the journey of a Chinese-American legend: Tyrus Wong, the key artist behind “Bambi.”
She’s filming her documentary, “Tyrus Wong: Brushstrokes in Hollywood,” and following the 98-year-old artist in his journey from Angel Island to being a pioneer of the golden generation of American animation.
After hearing Wong’s inspirational story, Tom embarked on a mission to document his experience and write a new chapter of the long history of the Chinese American people.
What sparked your interest in doing a documentary about Wong?
It was probably about 12 or 13 years ago that I was watching the movie “Bambi” with my young daughter, and at the end of the film, they have those “making of” little documentaries. The key animators kept referring to this Chinese artist who was instrumental in creating the look of the film.
I thought, “Who can this man be — this Chinese artist working in the studio system in the ’30s in Hollywood and creating this lush, gorgeous artwork?” So I said that I have to find who this man is because I am Chinese, I’m fifth-generation, I’m in film, and just the idea of having a minority working in Hollywood during that time just captivated me.
Why is his story important to the Chinese community?
The more I learned about him, the more I realized that his life represented a century of change for the Chinese in America. I was fascinated initially by his work on “Bambi” and as an artist, and the fact that he represented an artist in the Chinese community when that was so rare in the 1920s and ’30s.
He was an early immigrant. He had no money. He didn’t speak any English. He came to America in 1919 at the age of 9, and the idea that this young boy, who had nothing but the desire to draw and paint, would become this renowned and incredible artist who is revered in the animation world. He is considered an icon in the Chinese-American community.
Have you always been in filmmaking?
I went to school back East and perused Third World development studies; I was looking at political change, social change and economic development in Third World countries. I was always very political. I was always really passionate about Third World countries and minority groups. I realized after I graduated I really didn’t want to work in USAID or the U.N. research. I was always attracted to film and the arts, but it was something that was not fully encouraged, even though my dad painted. So I decided to go to UCLA film school, and from that point on, there was no turning back.
At which point did you realize that this art form was the right fit as a career choice?
At Brown, I was part of the film society, but I never really thought of pursuing film as a career just because it didn’t seem graspable even though I grew up in [Los Angeles]. Then, after working in Chinatown in Boston doing documentaries there, I thought, “I really want to do this.”
I’ve done some screenwriting; I’ve produced a lot of different documentaries. Actually, for nine years, I sort of stopped doing filmmaking and I worked in a nonprofit film organization as the director of diversity. I ran a mentoring program for filmmakers of color, the goal of which was to help emerging filmmakers of color get into the film industry through internships and educational workshops and through film screenings.
Do you feel like you’re growing as a Chinese American while working on this film about Wong?
Absolutely. I think, mainly, because I’ve gained a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese experience in America.
Most people define it so narrowly, and during the course of my research and meeting Tyrus, I realized that the experience is actually quite diverse. Even though I’m Chinese and all my family — you know, there’s such a range of different Chinese — I think you still start to believe your own stereotypes growing up. This has just shattered any stereotype of the Chinese growing up and, by extension, other minorities.
I’m hoping that this is what will happen to people who see the film.