Filmmaker Pamela Tom, whose 2015 documentary Tyrus airs this Friday on PBS’s “American Masters,” said she first heard Wong’s name mentioned in the 1990s. Chinese herself, Tom was immediately intrigued. She soon discovered that the artist, born in a farming village in Guangdong Province, had immigrated to California with his father at age nine. Schoolwork never came easily to the young Wong, who ignored arithmetic in favor of inventive sketches and collages of family snapshots. Unsurprisingly, he left junior high to enroll at Los Angeles’s Otis Art Institute where he studied for at least five years.
Wong graduated in the 1930s, at the height of the Depression. He struggled to get steady work, painting murals for the Works Progress Administration and waiting tables at a Los Angeles Chinatown restaurant. His fine art did receive a measure of renown alongside several other Asian-American artists, a group that critics labeled the “California Orientalists.” Their works combined influences from their home countries with elements of Western modernism they’d gleaned from their American art school educations—a hybrid style that would be reflected in Wong’s aesthetic throughout the years.
But the advent of World War II tore the likeminded group apart, as members with Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps. And Wong himself married in 1937. “He loved making fine art, but it was so hard to make a living,” says Tom. “He said he was always hungry, always wondering where the next meal would come from.”