Portraits by Sian
The first time I realised that I was Not White was when a kid at school pushed me over in the playground and called me by a racial slur. I didn’t know the word was offensive. I didn’t even know what the word meant. But I quietly compartmentalised that morning and I think it’s probably had a long-lasting effect on me ever since.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was in my fourth, maybe fifth, year of Chinese school. (Yes, I went to Chinese school. It was on Sundays and it was all-round a bit shit.) Anyway, we had just received our weekly test results and miraculously we had all passed for once. Unsurprisingly, none of us really had time outside of regular secondary school to study for Chinese comprehension and writing tests. One of the people in my class was reclining in his chair: “Hey, we’re not doing bad for a bunch of bananas!” he proclaimed.
“Bananas?” I thought.
Peik Lin famously says in Crazy Rich Asians: “She just think you’re some like unrefined banana. Yellow on the outside, and white on the inside.”
I remember laughing out loud when I went to see the film for the first time, thinking it was wild to hear these British-born Chinese-specific phrases spoken aloud on a cinema screen. But almost a split second after, I began wondering to myself how [British-born Chinese] had all come to accept using ‘yellow’ as a way to describe ourselves. Personally, being called a banana is pretty awful. I live my life firmly in-between two cultures, proudly so. I’m British, not white, and I’m Chinese. My thoughts are a blend of both, and I think in both English and Cantonese. My actions are, well, they’re mine.
I’ve always felt a degree of offence and apprehension when referred to as yellow. Why was I reduced to my external appearance in the most basic, unappealing and uncreative way? We often talk about women being reduced to their appearance by society; this is on a whole other level. Yellow fever is a phrase I’ve touched upon before in my hugely popular two-part interracial relationships and dating long-read. It covers the male gaze of a select portion of the majority that fetishises East Asian women, and it’s something that has plagued much of my teenage and adult life. In fact, the word yellow has historically been used as a racial slur against East Asians globally.
Then, there’s the widespread annoyance that iOS emoji were ‘only’ available with yellow faces. Of course this was simply, albeit unfortunately, down to their initial design, an arbitrary choice made by Apple and Google way back when. But (white) people wanted fairer — literally! — representation. In came six new skin tones that could be modified by sliding your thumb along. Perhaps more problematic was the fact that when more characters were added to the emoji library, a new racially diverse emoji meant to represent an East Asian appeared ‘more yellow’. I digress.
I’d quite like to reclaim the word yellow.
In my previous long-read ‘On Being A Silent Majority’, I talked about, well, being a silent minority. Whenever stories appear in the media about the industries finally becoming more diverse, we see white, we see black, we see brown. Sadly rarely do we see fair representation across the board of East Asians. Yellow.
When director Jon M. Chu decided to include a breathtaking riff of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ in Crazy Rich Asians, it sent tingles up my spine. The oh so subtle soundtrack inclusion struck me so deeply that almost two years on, I feel compelled to reclaim yellow for myself.
“The color … always had a negative connotation in my life,” director Jon M. Chu wrote, “until I heard your song.”
He positioned it as a way of turning the slur on its head, owning it and turning it into something beautiful. And it was. As Rachel Chu gazed over at her sweetheart in a room full of Asian faces during a spectacular wedding, the remastered ‘Yellow’ cover provided the perfect thematic closure for the first film in years to feature an all-Asian cast. On a more personal level, it’s helping me with my own forays into finding my feet in-between cultures and a particularly fiendish exchange with an anonymous racist who kept painting me simultaneously as ‘white’ (I’m… not?) and as a racist (I’m certainly not).
If you’re of East Asian descent, what are your feelings towards the word yellow? How does the word make you feel?