Broken Blossoms: Yellow Face


bb7      What I saw at the class yesterday after the Cheat was Broken Blossoms. Broken Blossoms is an American film released in 1919.

     The movie has a significant feature. It’s that a white actor plays a Chinese man with thick “Yellow Face” makeup.

     “Yellow Face” means that the white actors play roles of Asian people with makeup in movies. It was an institutional racism in Hollywood and had continued until the 1960s. bb4

     In 1910s white people were afraid of the growing number of immigrants especially from Asia because of the fear of losing jobs and wealth by them. The fear had increased since Japan defeated Russia in Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05.

     “Yellow Face” can be said that it has its roots in the fear for Asian people. And it’s a kind of discrimination called “Yellow peril”. bb1

     Broken Blossoms is a tragic love story between a Chinese man and a white girl. The Chinese man was played by a white actor named Richard Barthelmess.

     He was a quite good-looking and didn’t look like a Chinese man with the makeup at all. But it must have been a taboo that Asian people and white people loved especially Asian men and white women those days. That’ why, someone white had to play the Chinese man for the film. richardsmoke

     Besides, there were no Asian actors except Sessue Hayakawa in Hollywood at that time. And no one must have wanted to see any unknown Asian actors at the theater. It was necessary for movie productions to let a famous popular star such Barthelmess play a role of Asian man for high box-office profits.

                                       Broken Blossoms

     A Chinese young man named Cheng Huan has a kind of missionary to teach Buddha’s teaching of peace to Westerners. He goes to England and tries to engage in mission work, but it’s difficult to achieve his mission for him. He gets addicted to opium and starts to live in Chinatown as a shopkeeper.

     He often sees a white girl from his shop window and has little passions to her. The girl is abused by her step father, who is a boxer, and lives in horror. One day she is hit by the step father terribly and runs away from home to Cheng Huan’s shop and faint there. bb2

     Cheng Huan looks after her gently, naming her “White Blossom”. Both of them have a wonderful time. For Cheng, he has his dream girl in his house, and for the girl, she is gently taken care and relaxing, escaping her step father’s violence.

     But such a happy time doesn’t continue long. The girl’s step father finds out where she is and takes her home forcefully. He hits the girl so hard and kills her finally. Cheng Huan comes to the girl’s house and finds her. But it’s too late. The girl is dead. He shoots her father dead. He takes the girl’s dead body to his shop and commits suicide.

     I haven’t been to China and probably learn about the country by reading and seeing images on TV and movies. Perhaps it was the same for most American people in 1910s. The scene of the film is Chinatown in London. There many poor foreign people are wriggling. Most of them are opiomaniacs. Many of them are gambling and fighting violently. Some white women are there, but all of them are prostitutes. 

     The main character of the young Chinese man is kind, but many audiences could have dark images for Chinatown. Many American people could learn many things through the movie. Chinatown is dangerous, you shouldn’t get involved with foreigners, especially Asians, Asian men and white women never get together, you should have a proper family and so on. It’s the same as the Cheat.

     Anyway the movie was interesting because I was able to learn the trends in the U.S. in 1910s, especially “Yellow Face”. I hadn’t known about the rule of Hollywood until I took the class.


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