Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Broken Blossoms...

     Or The Yellow Man And The Girl
     And yes, that's the real title. 
     Directed by D. W. Griffith (also director of the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation, which features some pretty scary blackface), this 1918 silent film is about a Chinese man (Literally called "The Yellow Man," and played by Richard Barthelmess) who wishes to convert the "barbarous Anglo-Saxons" to Buddhism. He moves to London and establishes a curio shop of sorts, and then turns to opium and a "den of sin" out of what presumably is boredom. Meanwhile, a boxer named Battling Barrows (Donald Crisp) is verbally and physically abusing his daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish). "The Yellow Man" sees Lucy around and follows her home. After one particularly awful beating from her daddy, Lucy stumbles through London and ends up in "The Yellow Man's" curio shop. "The Yellow Man" tends to her wounds and then falls in love with her beauty, while she is struck by how kind and caring he is. Eventually Battling Barrows finds out about Lucy and "The Yellow Man" and drags her home, where he beats her until she dies. That's when "The Yellow Man" arrives on the scene and shoots Battling Burrows dead. "The Yellow Man" carries Lucy's lifeless body back to his home, where he makes an altar to the Buddha and stabs himself and dies. And credits roll.

     The yellowface. Oh dear Lordy the yellowface. Possibly the most painful part of the whole 90 minutes of this shebangbang. Two credited characters, "The Yellow Man" and another Chinese man called "Evil Eye," are white actors in yellowface. In case you don't know, yellowface is a great way to portray awful stereotypes about Asians! For example: "The Yellow Man" is the mysterious, subservient, modest and unassuming "Chinaman," who keeps to himself and smokes opium. "Evil Eye" is the mysterious, lecherous, and indulgent "Chinaman," who enjoys being the "bringer of bad news" and smoking opium. Interesting to note is that the amount of makeup used to either slant the actor's eyes or make them look "Oriental" is very minimal, compared to, say, Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi. There are no buck teeth, no wigs, no Fu Manchu beards, no yellowy skin (hooray for black 'n white film!)... Granted, Breakfast at Tiffany's was made in another era in film... But the audience's seemed much more willing to believe that Barthelmess' Caucasian face was actually that of a "Chinaman," while later examples of yellowface had to rely heavily on prosthetics and the right kind of makeup to "really" nail the part.

     Here's one good thing I can say about this film: there was no opportunity to imitate a Chinese man speaking pidgin English because of the silent film format. No "I ruv you Rucy" in this here film, no sir. Therefore, the only stereotypes that were perpetuated were that Chinese men frequented opium dens, ran small shops, gambled, and found white girls attractive. 

     I need not mention the "Oriental-esque" musical scores whenever "The Yellow Man" appeared onscreen. A musical score featuring lots of gongs, zithers and pentatonic scales is a given in almost any film featuring an Asian character or Asian something

    The opium den that "The Yellow Man" frequents is described as the place where "Orientals squat on the portals to the West." After "the Yellow Man" nurses Lucy back to health, she asks him, "What makes you so good to me, Chinky?" Battling Burrows yells at Lucy once he finds her at "The Yellow Man's" apartment, screaming, "You! You with a dirty Chink!" I really cannot describe the disgust I felt after reading those lines on the screen. Of course, I come from a place where the use of any one of those words is right up there on the Do-Not-Go-There list, along with any racial slur. But to see those words written on the screen, to imagine seeing them up on the movie screen and being used as conversational tools - that was something else entirely. The fact that Broken Blossoms is a film preserved by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" is something that I cannot fathom. What's so awful about seeing those words onscreen, when I myself have never been called by one of those names? I guess it's because I know these words still have the potential for being used. It was one thing to see a Caucasian actor play a Chinese man without any use of dialogue, but to see those words printed on the screen in front of me was entirely different. 
     One scene begins with the words (in reference to "The Yellow Man"), "Returning from tea and noodles..." What's racist about that, you ask? Not much, really, but... really? Tea and noodles? If it were an African-American in question, they probably would have put "Returning from watermelon and fried chicken" or something like that. Would you ask if that was racist? Hmm? Would you? 

     I had to constantly remind myself that this was a movie released during the time period of Yellow Peril, when Chinese immigrants and the rapidly expanding Japanese military were feared most. Broken Blossoms was also released just two years after the ratification of the "Asiatic Barred Zone" Act (Immigration Act of 1917), which had a section barring any and all people from East and South Asia along with the Pacific Islands. Obviously, anti-Asian sentiment was running high all over America, and this made me wonder about the reception of the film when it was released. If Asian immigration was an issue back then, a relationship between a white and an Asian was blasphemy. This movie that shows an interracial love story of a "Yellow Man" and a 16-year-old white girl probably ruffled a fair few feathers; however, audiences probably cheered when "The Yellow Man" killed himself and when the abusive Battling Burrows "rescued" his daughter from him. This film probably served as a backdrop to the 1920s hysteria that white girls were being "hypnotized" by yellow men.

     While the novel that the movie was based on (Thomas Burke's "The Chink and The Child") made the relationship between "The Yellow Man" and Lucy more sexualized and less chaste, Broken Blossoms kept the love between the two main characters is strictly "a pure and holy thing." We see that "The Yellow Man" loves Lucy very much and he thinks she is very beautiful, but they never kiss or hold hands (let alone fornicate), just exchange loving glances every once in a while. He plays the flute for her, gives her a dressed-up doll and some silk robes - never even hits first base. I think this might be the emergence of the stereotype of a desexualized, or unsexy, Asian male in movies. "The Yellow Man's" love for Lucy is so innocent and sweet - we never see him express anything other than admiration and caring for her. However, he makes very childlike attempts to kiss her, and every time he does, Lucy shrinks away in fear. This sends the clear message that Chinese - and therefore, Asian - men are not kissable by white girls, and that any love between the two kinds of people (we'll come back to Asian women and white men in the movies later) is something that must remain chaste and pure. Even if "The Yellow Man" fell in love with the white girl and she perhaps loved him back, it's quite clear that sort of, uh, physical love is forbidden and punishable by death. 

And so begins my long journey to watch the history of yellowface unfold. 

1 comment:

  1. Jasmine, let's talk more about the connections you are making between Yellow Peril and the cautionary lessons of this film. I'm also interested to hear more from you about the use of the word "chink", and the meaning we bring to it as modern viewers.

    It's great to see you diving in to a longer piece of writing where you give yourself time to develop some of these important points. Let's continue in this way.