Disney and Asian-Pacific Heritage

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

On Wednesday afternoon, May 21, in the Grand Sequoia Ballroom at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa at the Disneyland Resort, I gave an hour-long presentation on Asian-Pacific heritage and its connections to Walt Disney and Disneyland.

The Disneyland Resort COMPASS diversity group had invited me out to speak on the topic as part of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month in May.

The term "Asian-Pacific" encompasses many different cultures and ethnic groups and histories and is used just as a shorthand term for quick identification. Asian-Pacific generally refers to the islands in the Pacific Ocean like Hawaii and Tahiti, as well as Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a resolution declaring the first week in May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. In 1992, by law, that week was expanded to the entire month.

May was chosen for the observance to commemorate the arrival of the first huge influx of Asian immigrants to the United States in May 1843.

The purpose of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month is to honor the achievements of the vast number of people encompassed by that wide term who contributed so significantly to the United States. In addition, it was a way to help defuse the common stereotypes through education.

Walt Disney had an interest and respect for all cultures. After his death, some terrible and false accusations were made against Walt and they were wrong. They are not just wrong because I say so but because there is physical evidence to debunk these libels.

When it comes to defending Walt's acceptance of different cultures, it is significant that he was one of the first members of the "People to People" program started by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and continued as a non-government entity after he left office.

The premise of the program was to get "real" people connected with each other around the globe.

One of the things the program did was pairing up New York public schools with their counterparts in Tokyo, Japan. The students exchanged letters, scrapbooks, audio tapes, school projects and more to try to understand each other's culture. Bob Hope and Joyce Hall of Hallmark Cards were also prominent early members of this organization along with Walt.

Walt said, on an introduction to one of his Wonderful World of Color television episodes in 1963, "If just plain people would get together and listen to one another, they might be our best ambassadors of international good will. It's true. When people get to know and understand each other, they very often find that they're not much different after all."

Walt produced a series of 17 short documentaries called People and Places made between the years 1953-1960 about different cultures. It was similar to the True-Life Adventures series but concentrated on people and their cultures. Two of them were devoted to Japan, one to Thailand, and another to Samoa.

Walt always wanted an international presence in Disneyland, as well. Originally, there were going to be miniature landmarks of icons like the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx and the Leaning Tower of Pisa along the outer banks of Tom Sawyer Island, and later along the banks of the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction.

++Finally, Walt determined to build an International Street in 1957 that would run parallel to Main Street, starting where the Mad Hatter shop on Main Street USA is today. With limited space, Walt was going to angle the buildings in such a way that a guest going down the street might see facades of buildings representing France, the United Kingdom, Italy, etc. but once they got to the end of the street and looked back up, the other side of the angled buildings would look German, Canadian, Mexican, etc.

On Center Street would be a Chinatown restaurant, sponsored by Chun King foods. Inside would have been the first "human" Audio-Animatronics figure, Confucius.

Why that famous Chinese philosopher? Because Audio-Animatronics were at such an early, unstable stage that if the figure started to shake or stall, it could be explained that it was an ancient man, wearing heaving long robes and sleeves that were impairing smooth movement.

Plans for that street were put on hiatus as Walt funneled that money to the three "E-Ticket" attractions for 1959 Tomorrowland. In 1959, Disneyland had its first huge parade, an International Parade featuring various local ethnic groups, including Chinese and Japanese, participating.

However, Walt learned an important lesson from these local organizations. Since they were volunteers, sometimes they would show up for the parade and sometimes they wouldn't, depending upon availability.

I covered all those aspects and more in my presentation, including using some video excerpts.

Here are some other highlights:


Animation is about exaggeration and communicating information quickly and visually in a seven-minute theatrical short cartoon. In order to do so, sometimes stereotypes were used and not just ethnic stereotypes.

Stereotypes, like women being bad drivers, or mothers-in-law being annoying and wanting to break up a marriage, or that all men love every sport, were incorporated in order to tell the story and get to the gags.

It is important to remember that the Disney Studios used fewer stereotypes in their cartoons than any other contemporary animation studio and when stereotypes were used they were generally less extreme and used just briefly.

The Disney Studios made a few cartoons centering on the tropical paradise of the Pacific. Hello, Aloha (1952) showed Goofy quitting his job to enjoy the simple life on a South Seas island. The music was supplied by Harry Owens and his Orchestra who popularized Hawaiian music in the 1950s. Owens wrote the song "Sweet Leilani."

When Goofy receives a note firing him, in the bottom left corner is the name "Harry Tytle" who, at the time, was in charge of the production of the short theatrical cartoons and who eventually fired Jack Kinney, who directed this cartoon.

Most Disney fans are very familiar with Hawaiian Holiday (1937) where Mickey plays a ukulele, Donald does a hula dance, Pluto discovers a crab, and Goofy attempts to surf. This cartoon was made 22 years before Hawaii became a state in 1959, and is one of only three cartoons made while Walt was alive that showcase all of the Fab Five.

It is an unusual cartoon because there is no conflict, no villain, no project to accomplish. Mickey and the Gang simply enjoy the island magic.

This cartoon was inspired by Walt and Lillian's first trip to Hawaii (the island of Oahu) in September 1934. Walt insisted to the local newspaper that he wasn't interested in attending a lot of activities: "I don't want to do anything except to lie on the beach in the sun and wiggle my toes in the sand."

However, at the Liberty Theater for a regular meeting of one of the "Mickey Mouse Clubs" that were popular Saturday gatherings for youngsters at many U.S. movie theaters, Walt asked the audience, "Would you like Mickey to come to Honolulu on a surf board?"

The audience yelled and applauded for minutes.

Walt continued, "I am pleased and happy to be here. I am glad to see this enthusiasm for Mickey. When I go back, I will make a Mickey on a surf board as I have been on and off one since coming here, and I know just how he feels."

The Disney family has home movies of Walt unsuccessfully trying to ride a surf board and when Hawaiian Holiday was released nearly three years later, Goofy struggled on his surf board, sometimes mimicking Walt's challenges.

Walt's Pacific Island Trips

Walt also visited Oahu again in 1939 and the whole Disney family went along, including Lillian; Walt's brother Roy O. Disney; Roy's wife, Edna; and all the Disney kids: Diane, Sharon and Roy Edward. There is a photo of the adult Disneys leisurely sitting in chairs and sipping Hawaiian drinks with the silhouette of Diamond Head in the background.

Walt and his family visited Honolulu yet again in the summer of 1948. They stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as they had on the previous trip almost a decade earlier.

A Tahiti trip was taken in October of 1962, where Walt and Lily visited Bora Bora, Papeete, Tahiti, Pago Pago, Nandi, and Fiji, as well as Honolulu, Kahului and Hana in Hawaii.

The Disney family went to Kauai in 1965 for the filming of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Walt had a fascination and love for the South Pacific that he later tapped for attractions at Disneyland, like the Tahitian Terrace and The Enchanted Tiki Room.

He did not travel to China or Japan because of World War II tensions and, later, because he just was unable to spare the time. In those days, people did not fly to Asia, they took a "slow boat to China" and Walt had so much on his schedule, including the building of Disneyland that he couldn't afford to take the time away from the business after the war to do so.

Chinese-American Artists at the Disney Studio

Walt hired artists for their talent, not their gender or skin color or religious affiliation. Two Chinese-American artists that stood out were Cy Young and Tyrus Wong.

Cy Young, who was born in Hawaii, was a special-effects artist at the Studios from the early 1930s through 1941. He was a department of two along with the Italian Ugo D'orsi. Today, there is an entire department of artists devoted to special effects animation. However, in the early days it was just Young and D'Orsi and they shared the same assistant animator.

Like other experts in their field who worked at Disney, Young would give occasional lectures on his area of expertise to Disney artists. At the end of one such lecture about cartoon effects, he admonished his audience of male artists, "Always study effects, even when you go to the bathroom [to do your business at the urinal], STUDY EFFECTS!"

Tyrus "Ty" Wong, who was born in Canton, China, is an artist who worked at The Walt Disney Studios only three years, between 1938 and 1941, and his impact on the animated classic Bambi endures.

His background paintings for Bambi are still inspirational today using the Chinese style of an impressionistic landscape, rather than a detailed literal interpretation like in Snow White.

In October he turned 103 years old.

There was a recent exhibit of his art at the Disney Family Museum and a hardcover exhibition catalog was released: Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong

Wong later worked for 26 years as a concept artist on hundreds of live-action films at Warner Brothers like Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Bunch, Auntie Mame, and so many others.

However, he was still beloved at the Disney Studios and a decade after he left, the Disney animators included a tribute to him in the short Donald's Diary (1954), where Daisy Duck rushes pass a Chinese restaurant: Ty Wong Chop Suey.

As legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston point out in their book about the making of Bambi: "He [Wong] set the color schemes along with the appearance of the forest in painting after painting... Paintings that captured the poetic feeling that had eluded us [artists] for so long... Ty Wong not only inspired the other visual artists, but he created a standard that was met by musicians and special effects, too."

Other Animation

Of course, I also discussed Lilo and Stitch (2002), made 50 years after Hello, Aloha (1952), where Disney really captured the true Hawaiian culture.

Jason Scott Lee as Nani's boyfriend David and Tia Carrere as Nani are both natives of Hawaii and helped the writers with dialog and accents.

Lilo means "Generous One" and her last name, Pelekai, means "Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of fire) and kai—the sea. "So the full name means "generous one of the fire and the sea. Nani means "pretty, beautiful" so Nani Pelekai means "Beautiful Goddess of the fire and the sea."

A Chinese restaurant that the characters pass is called Mulan Wok, a reference to Disney's Mulan (1998). There is also a poster of Mulan on the wall of Nani's bedroom.

Almost all of the water color landscape scenes in the movie are recognizable locations in Hawaii. This is especially true earlier in the movie when Lilo and Stitch are riding the bike around the island, and also in the closing sequence.

The name of one of the shops is an obvious reference to Kiki, the main character of Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service.

Originally the film was going to be set in an isolated town in Kansas rather than on Kauai. The thinking was that they needed an isolated, non-urban location because with all the media available, Stitch would not remain hidden for long.

Co-director Deblois said, "Without Hawaii, there would not have been the Lilo & Stitch we created. Hawaii is the soul of this movie."

And I talked about Mulan (1998)—boy, do I miss Disney Feature Animation Florida and the work they did. When Mulan sings "Reflection" in her father's shrine, her reflection appears in the polished surface of the temple stones. The writing on the temple stones is the names of the Disney animators who worked on the film, written in ancient Chinese.

The scene where Mulan disarms Shan-Yu with a fan shows an actual martial art technique.

Mulan speaking voice is actress Ming-Na Wen who now portrays Melinda "The Calvary" May in the ABC action series Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


When American soldiers returned home from World War II, they brought with them stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific, as well as China and Japan. There was a huge impact of "Tiki Culture" with Tiki-themed motels, bowling alleys, apartment complexes, massage parlors, liquor stores and, of course, bars like Don the Beachcomer and Trader Vic's.

Adventureland was an example of this interest with an attraction for the "Armchair Adventurer." You know you're in a faraway place the second you glimpse the first buildings.

Walt said, "To create a land that would make this dream reality, we pictured ourselves far from civilization, in the remote jungles of Asia and Africa."

In fact, Adventureland was the only land without a "weenie" to attract guests. It's entrance was enough of a mystery. For years, Adventureland only had one attraction, the popular Jungle Cruise, which ventured through the "Rivers of the World" in South America, Africa, and Asia.

In 1962, Walt opened Disneyland's Tahitian Terrace to represent Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii.

Under a 35-foot tree, guests saw a spectacular show featuring hula girls wearing grass skirts, fire-walkers, fire-knife dancers, and an "authentic" island band.

The menu featured recipes inspired by the South Pacific and included Barbecued Pineapple Ribs, The Surfrider, Skewered Chicken, Broiled Teriyaki Steak, Catamaran Salad and Shrimp Tempura with Cantonese Vegetables.

In 1993, the restaurant was converted into an Aladdin-themed dinner theater restaurant that lasted for two years.

And, of course, in 1963 the Enchanted Tiki Room opened. It is the only Adventureland attraction that is entered from outside the gates of Adventureland.

Some Fun Facts: The first air conditioned building at Disneyland was The Enchanted Tiki Room to cool the massive floor to ceiling computers underneath the attraction.

Who did both the speaking and singing voice for the Beast in the animated feature film Beauty and the Beast when it was released in China with dubbed voices? Jackie Chan.

When Disney's Polynesian Village Resort opened in 1971, in featured an open-air night time show based on the one at the Tahitian Terrace with King Leonidas from Bedknobs and Broomsticks presiding over the entertainment. In 1973, the fully sheltered Luau Cove with 500 guest seating capacity opened and King Leonidas disappeared.

Eastern Winds, the Polynesian's very own floating cocktail lounge that came in the form of a 65-foot long Chinese junk.

Animation Legend Osama Tezuka (Astro Boy) was inspired by Bambi to create Kimba the White Lion.

A stone lantern given to Roy O. Disney from the people of Japan at opening of Magic Kingdom was at the Polynesian for many years, and then moved to Japan pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase when it opened in 1982. No sign is with it, because it is part of the Disney story not the Japan story.

Japan, China and South Pacific are now represented in "it's a small world." China was not in the original version, because the United States did not recognize the country until the 1970s.

I had much more information I shared, plus answering questions. I didn't have time to cover the Japan and China pavilions at Epcot, nor the Asia section at Disney Animal Kingdom. Since I was on the West Coast, I thought the group would be more interested in hearing about Walt and Disneyland, just as I thought you MousePlanet readers would like to read some of the highlights.