The first time the "Yellow Man" appeared in Broken Blossoms, I laughed aloud. The absurdity of trying to pass off this white actor as Asian, was just too much, especially because this introduction comes immediately after a series of shots of real Asian extras. Today (or at least to those of us inclined to take an "Asian-Americans in Pop Culture" class), Richard Bethelmess and the various actors who played Charlie Chan are completely unconvincing, looking painfully like white men squinting their eyes. Could Griffith's audiences possibly have been "convinced"? I suppose one make the excuse that many viewers may not have seen an Asian person before-- why, then, did the practice of yellowface continue long after blackface had become taboo? One of this country's most cherished Hollywood movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's, features Mickey Rooney in full Yellow Man garb, complete with slanted eyes, buck teeth, thick glasses, and a horrible, horrible accent. (The film was made in 1961, about twenty years after Executive Order 9066, more than forty years after Broken Blossoms.) Not to mention Jonathan Pryce's 1990 yellowface performance in Miss Saigon. Search for "yellowface" on YouTube and you'll find several examples from the last few years.
Why have racist impersonations of Asians in mainstream American media been so acceptable for so long? Perhaps it's because, as we discussed briefly in class, Asians are viewed as less threatening, less likely to lash back. If so, this stereotype both feeds and is fed by unbecoming portrayals of Asians in the media. Or maybe it has to do with the Asian-American's position as the perpetual foreigner; maybe if he weren't so strange he wouldn't be the center of such ridicule. If only the "dear little man," as Audrey Hepburn calls Mr. Yunioshi, would learn to be like the rest of us!