Before I began viewing D. W. Griffith’s film Broken Blossoms, I held a lot of preconceived notions about what I expected the film to be and what type of message I thought it would try to send to the audience. Because I knew that Griffith had also produced The Birth of a Nation, which depicted Klu Klux Klan members as a group of heroes, I assumed that this film would be depicting anti-Asian sentiments. Although the film still firmly showed Asians in a stereotypical fashion, the film was not as anti-Asian as I thought it would be. In Peter X Feng’s Introduction in Screening Asian Americans, he writes that Dorothy Jones believes that in Broken Blossoms, “philosophy and the way of life of the Far East were given an extremely favorable portrayal” (Feng 4). I was pretty surprised by the end of the movie because I thought that Burrows and his white male friends were going to kill Cheng Huan, but instead Burrows surprisingly beats his daughter Lucy to death. In my own opinion, Broken Blossoms seems to instead display white men and not Asians in a negative light since Cheng is the kind man who cares for Lucy and Battling Burrows is the white alcoholic father who kills his frightened daughter. I find this intriguing that the way in which Griffith directed the film causes the audience to sympathize with the Asian character and not with the white American male since the film was released in 1919 during a time in which there was great “Yellow Peril alarmism” (Wong 54).
Although Griffith didn’t portray Cheng as the Fu Manchu evil villain, I still discovered significant Asian stereotypes while I watched the film. Eugene Franklin Wong describes how Sax Rohmer found Chinatown to be “a living mystery filled with the enchantments, dangers, and wonders of the ancient East” (Wong 57). I believe that Griffith held a similar attitude because often when Griffith shows scenes of the Limehouse, where many Asians lived and frequented, it is dark and mysterious with a fog flowing throughout the shot. There is an air of mystery when Griffith presents these scenes. Asian stereotypes are also present with Griffith shows the opium dens where Asians are smoking opium. One Asian is shown playing an instrument with long, witchlike fingernails, giving him the appearance of being almost not human. However, the grossest exaggeration of Asians I saw is the depiction of Cheng. He is referred to as the “sensitive yellow man” during the film and is perceived as being extremely shy and timid. His body language (he is hunched over and crouching most of the time) suggests that he is subservient and is only around to take care of Lucy who is a white woman.