Little Tyrus Wong sat at his father's knee one day 70 years ago outside his small home in Canton, China. The boy listened intently as his father manipulated paper and wood and paint, explaining each step. And although Tyrus understood what was happening, it nonetheless was quite magical when his father finally handed him the finished product. It was a kite. A kite shaped like a swallow.
About 10 years ago, as Tyrus Wong hit the age of 69--and the prospect of retirement--the swallow came home to him, so to speak. Remembering his father's careful words, his meticulous instructions, Wong rose one day and ensconced himself in the rustic studio behind his Sunland home. He sat and concentrated, remembering how his father had bent the wood, wrapped the joints firmly with string, cut the delicate paper. And again, although Wong knew what was happening, it was nonetheless quite magical when he produced the finished product.
It was a kite. A kite shaped like a swallow.
Tyrus Wong is nearly 80 years old now, and he still can be found for much of each day in the studio behind his home of 40 years, above the back-yard ravine full of whispering eucalyptus and pine trees, cooing doves and squawking blackbirds. The kites are all around him now--pinned to walls, hanging from rafters, tucked into boxes--all 200 of them.
"My God!" Wong exclaimed. "Have I really built 200?"
Yes, he really has. The swallows have grown to a flock of 25 (all flown on one line) and they have, over the years, been joined by a bevy of nine magnificent white snow cranes; a sweetly smiling angel; a snarling, multicolored 52-segment centipede more than 100 feet long; a miniature version of the same creature (it stretches to a mere 10 feet); a Day-Glo butterfly with an 8-foot wingspan; a lesser relative with a wingspan of barely 2 inches (it uses thread for kite line), and other more abstract creations that are as much flying sculptures as they are kites.
Indeed, as one admirer said: "Ty doesn't just fly kites. He decorates the sky."
Wong, a lifelong artist with impeccable credentials (he spent two years painting scenes for Disney's "Bambi"), is quick to counter such poetic compliments. "Oh, one lady said she wanted to buy one a few years ago," he said, still seeming surprised at the offer. "She said she wanted it as art--to hang on her wall! So I sold it to her. But I don't sell the kites. I fly 'em."
He certainly does. On the fourth Saturday of every month, Wong and Ruth, his wife of more than 50 years, leave their home and make an early morning trek to the beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier, where the kite man of Sunland hoists his creations--along with a coterie of fellow "kite nuts" that includes a number of Wong cousins and nephews, and sometimes one or more of his three daughters.
"Oh, I love it," he said, characteristically taciturn. "Fresh air, beautiful view, pretty girls in bikinis--it's great!"
Wong has a lively, almost elfin presence. He directs a tour of his compact studio too quickly, matter-of-factly pointing out items that tell nothing less than the story of his life: happy family shots of wife and daughters; ancient, sepia-discolored shots of his parents in China, paint splotches that date back decades.
" There's a picture of me that was on my passport photo when I came here," he said. (He came to the United States in 1920.) "And there's a picture of the steamship that we came to the United States on." He recalled his first impression of Westerners--shipboard Americans dancing and having impromptu relay races with shoes as batons. "I thought it was so funny--it looked crazy, but they seemed to be having a lot of fun."
Then he whirled around and pulled out a couple of large orange paper goldfish, explaining, "This is a climber . I attach them to the line that the kite is on, and they fly up, then slide back down. You see? It looks like they are kissing!"
A sinewy man with silver hair and nut-brown skin, Wong pointed almost carelessly to about 20 years worth of greeting cards that he designed for Hallmark and other companies, displayed classic Chinese paintings he has done for magazine covers, and then leafed through scrapbooks containing some of his paintings executed as guides for such movies as "Sands of Iwo Jima."
He slowed down, finally, as he hauled out a portfolio of his original watercolors for "Bambi." Here, for a moment, his pride showed. The paintings were used by other Disney artists and animators as blueprints for scenes in the movie.
"Oh, here's the one that was used for early morning, where it's misty and so forth--ethereal," Wong said. "Here's the beginning of the rain, setting the mood. See the kingfisher there? . . . This is where Bambi got lost. . . . This is late autumn, with the oak tree with its last two leaves, you know. Remember them talking in the movie? One drops and the other follows. . . ."