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'Beautiful and empowering': Was 2018 the year Asian Americans took 'yellow' back?

Several Asian Americans used the term “yellow” in their work this year in an attempt to reclaim it, including "Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon Chu.
Illustration of the color yellow and vintage photos.
Joan Wong / for NBC News

For Frank H. Wu, the color yellow has become a sort of personal brand. He has a custom-painted yellow motorcycle, travels with a yellow suitcase, and even owns a yellow fountain pen.

"It's a subversive, personal statement of rebellion to embrace yellow," Wu, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, said.

And when Kelly Kim — chef and founder of the California restaurant Yellow Fever — was in the process of opening in 2013, she wanted to choose a name that was not only attention grabbing but also had personal meaning.

She and her husband came up with a long list of names, Kim said, but none felt right until “Yellow Fever.” She said it was a way to get back at the people who grew up teasing her by saying things like “Oh, you’ve got yellow fever!”

“Yes, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s taking back and reclaiming what we have been referred to as before,” Kim said.

Wu and Kim are two of several Asian Americans who have used the term “yellow” in their work this year in an attempt to reclaim it. In September, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas chose to make the cover of his debut book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” yellow.

"Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen," a memoir by Jose Antonio Vargas
"Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen," a memoir by Jose Antonio VargasHarper Collins

“When we were doing the mockups of the cover, they sent it back with blue, red, and yellow colors,” Vargas told NBC News in September. “When I saw the yellow, I knew that was it. Asian people are associated — for good and bad — with that color so I was very deliberate in making the book yellow.”

And “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu recruited Katherine Ho, a sophomore at the University of Southern California and former contestant on “The Voice,” to do a Mandarin-language cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” for the film. In an August interview with Hollywood Reporter, Chu said Coldplay initially declined permission to use the song before Chu penned a letter that changed the band’s mind.

“The color … always had a negative connotation in my life until I heard your song,” Chu wrote. “For the first time in my life, it described the color in the most beautiful, magical ways I had ever heard: the color of the stars, her skin, the love. It was an incredible image of attraction and aspiration that it made me rethink my own self image."

Ho said she related to Chu’s letter and it changed her perspective on what it meant to be the voice of the cover song.

“I think all Asian Americans have the same form of the same story of being proud to be Asian growing up, but also having it as a source of insecurity,” Ho said. “The word ‘yellow’ was never something my friends and I could be proud of and didn’t have a pleasant sound to it, but now it can be seen as beautiful and empowering.”

Katherine Ho on "The Voice."
Katherine Ho on "The Voice."NBC

Dr. Michael Keevak, professor of foreign languages at National Taiwan University, examines in his book, "Becoming Yellow: A Short History on Racial Thinking," how the notion of "yellowness" didn’t originate in early travel texts or objective descriptions but in the 18th and 19th centuries when scientists, anthropologists, and taxonomers such as Carl Linnaeus assigned colors to racial groups, categorizing East Asians together.

He said that while there is no evidence on why the color was chosen, it was likely because “yellow” is was an intermediate color between white and black.

“It was a group who identifies themselves as white that defined this term ‘yellow’ to lump together an Asian region,” Keevak said. “There’s no reading from Asia or evidence to explain why this color was chosen. It’s a term that is darker than white, but not as dark as black. It’s an arbitrary choice.”

The interior of Yellow Fever, a restaurant chain based in California.
The interior of Yellow Fever, a restaurant chain based in California.Courtesy of Kelly Kim

According to NPR, Linnaeus’s categorization is why the fear of East Asian countries taking over the West was called “yellow peril.” NPR traced the term back to German Emperor Wilhelm II and a dream he had in 1895 in which he saw a Buddha on a dragon attacking Europe.

He commissioned a drawing of his dream — often referred to as "THE YELLOW PERIL" — that appeared in an 1898 issue of Harper's Weekly.

From there, the idea made its way into pop culture — with the fictional villain Mr. Fu Manchu being created in 1923 with jaundiced looking skin.

Keevak told NBC News the color yellow used to be a symbolic color in China and seen as a privilege — with many thinking “yellow” is better than “white” comparing it to “gold being better to silver.” While he has no problem with groups and people in Hollywood combating racism, he still has reservations about the term’s use.

“You risk the idea of perpetuating or reinscribing it further,” he said. “This word can be a dangerous one.”

The exterior of Yellow Fever, a restaurant chain based in California.
The exterior of Yellow Fever, a restaurant chain based in California.Courtesy of Kelly Kim

In April, Yellow Fever made national headlines and was criticized for its name when it opened a shop inside a Whole Foods Market. Kim said what was frustrating about the criticism was that most of the people offended by the name and criticizing her were not Asian.

“I’m Asian, and I’m the one who gets to reclaim it because that’s who I am,” Kim said. “Why do you get to be politically correct when it’s my color?”

Wu said he thinks everything can have a positive or negative reaction or result depending on the context.

“‘Yellow‘ isn’t in isolation in the sense that there is an effort from other groups to reclaim other negative terms, ” Wu said. “It’s to flip the script and take a word that has been used to make fun of me, mock me, degrade me and used to treat me as an unequal and I am going to make it prideful.”

He said he believes that ultimately,there isn’t a right or wrong way for a group to push back against a term that’s been used against them.

“There’s no correct answer here,” Wu said. “For me, this is personal. You can’t say there’s one way to address racial bias and prejudices, and there are different strategies for different times and places and for different people.”

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