This is the first silent film I have watched in its entirety, and I am struck by how this seems to be an almost completely different medium than the modern day film. I think that despite the simplicity of its narrative and characters and its lack of filmic accoutrements which are commonplace today (sound, color, special effects, etc.), the ideological meanings and effects conveyed just as clearly as in any modern day film, or perhaps the less distracted viewer is better able to evaluate them.
Because Griffith casts a white man as a Chinese man and a twentysomething-year-old woman as a young girl, it is easy to cry racism or point out the abundant fallacies of their portrayals. Both are racism and inaccurate representations are important to consider, but it also points toward the last section in Haenni's article, "Filming Chinatown," which explores the cinema's insistence on fakeness. If Chinatown is a locus of foreignness and an "urban vision of identity," a portrayal of a Chinese man must epitomize these characterstics by being both alienated and admirable. So the white actor portraying Cheng Huan becomes a surrogate by which the spectators can safely and freely experience their own emotions towards the "Chinaman." The actor experiences for himself a direct enactment of the bodily transformations and polymorphousness so sought after by bourgeoise tourists visiting Chinatown.
The relationship between Lucy and Cheng is, in my opinion, the most fascinating part of this film. It opens up a new realm of imagined and fantasized social relations and subjectivities that might not have been able to be realized by the film's contemporary audience. Their relationship is transgressive not only on racial terms however. I think that any modern retelling would certainly make Lucy at least ten years older and I was intrigued by why the female character was chosen to be so young as to evoke pedophilic overtones. I wonder if this reflects a particular societal anxiety of the time (i.e. the Chinese man is a menace towards our children)or if was an artistic decision meant to forefront the necessary purity of Cheng's love and obviate any romantic connotations. In any case, casting an older female to play Lucy's role facilitates the female audience's vicarious pleasure and empathy involved in imagining themselves as Lucy.
In terms of what this this relationship means or was intended to mean for the white male audience I find harder to decipher. It seems that by making Lucy younger, the white man's fear that the Chinese man will seduce white women is assuaged or diverted. However, I am unable to determine whether a white man is supposed to or is able to identify with Cheng, since he is certainly not going to identify with Battleby. Nonetheless, I think that though the white man's subjectivity is destabilized, in the end the tragic ending of their relationship, including Cheng's suicide, contributes to the irreality or "fakeness" of the film's, thus in reality defamiliarizing the Chinese man and reconfirming the white man's superior position in relation to the foreigner.