Brilliant Chang and the Sinophobia that birthed a moral panic in early twentieth-century London.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
Four years after The Birth of a Nation, his love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, D. W. Griffith created what’s probably American cinema’s first-ever depiction of an interracial love affair. His 1919 movie Broken Blossoms centers on the relationship between a white woman and a Chinese man, a virtuous, loving couple driven apart by injustice, intolerance, and enervating poverty. The film was set in Limehouse, the notorious slum on the docks of the River Thames that was home to London’s Chinatown, and a synonym across the English-speaking world for the so-called Yellow Peril.
Griffith’s portrayal of Chinese London was more positive than most. From the late nineteenth century, Limehouse attracted Britain’s most famous authors, usually on the subject of opium dens and criminal intrigue. Dickens was one of the first with Edwin Drood; twenty years later Oscar Wilde used it as a backdrop to Dorian Gray’s debauchery, and Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes there to infiltrate the capital’s underworld. But the writers most responsible for cementing Limehouse’s infamy were Thomas Burke, a British author inspired by Jack London’s take on the incipient danger of Chinese immigrants, and the pulp novelist Sax Rohmer. The latter created Fu Manchu, the evil Chinese genius bent on destroying white civilization, who became one of the most enduring literary characters of the twentieth century, inspiring a thousand and one inscrutable, amoral, and fiendishly brilliant Chinese baddies, including Dr. No and Ming the Merciless. Ridiculous caricature though he was, Fu Manchu tapped into genuine fears that white people on both sides of the Atlantic had about globalization and the Chinese diaspora.
In 1922, less than a decade after the publication of the first Fu Manchu novel, Londoners were horrified to discover that a real-life Chinese supervillain lived among them in the form of Brilliant Chang, a dealer of opium and cocaine, who briefly acquired a reputation as the biggest threat to the empire since Kaiser Bill. At the time, one of the reasons Chang terrified the British public was that—in keeping with the racist stereotypes—he seemed so mysterious; nobody quite knew who he was or where he came from, though in a sense London had spent the past two hundred years inventing him. Read More