The Power of Story—Yellow

Yellow might still be a painful word to many Chinese, but it’s also the colour of gold, of Chinese royalty—just as I made sure to portray it in Caster. To begin remembering is to reclaim that power for good. And that is the power of story.

by Elsie Chapman

If you’ve paid any bit of attention to mainstream music within the last twenty years, you’ll likely have heard of the song “Yellow” by Coldplay. And chances are, the first time you heard the title, if you were Chinese and grew up diaspora, you probably cringed.

For us, the word yellow can be a messy one. It’s come to mean a slur, an insult. It means chicken and coward, weakness and disease. Look up yellow peril and you’ll see how its basis lies in the West’s fear of invasion by the East. When Swedish botanist Linnaeus first classified the skin tone of East Asians as “luridas” (yellow) nearly 300 years ago, he likely had no clue about the seed of the slur he’d just planted.

Then I read how Jon Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, had asked Coldplay for permission to use their song “Yellow” for the movie. White people had given the word yellow a terrible kind of power, and by making a Chinese version of that song and including it in a very Chinese story, Chu was taking back that slur and using it in a way to express beauty instead of hate, strength instead of weakness.

This, to me, is the power of story. The ability to reclaim a voice. It can be the reader’s, who is empowered. Or the narrator’s, who grows. Or the creator’s, who heals.

Learning what Chu had done for his movie and for its characters sent a thrill through me. Not only because I got why he asked, but because I’d just completed my first draft of Caster, and I could see how, in my own small way, I’d reached for the same goal Chu had—to be able to say through story where once I’d felt silenced.

As a kid growing up in a very small and very white town in northern BC, Canada, moving south to the much-more-multicultural city of Vancouver in my late teens turned out to be a kind of refuge. Suddenly I could walk around the streets and see other faces like mine. I heard Chinese spoken by so many others that the language—one of my very own mother tongues—no longer felt like something I needed to hide, or to hide from.

Caster ’s setting is Lotusland, a city made up of sectors where each is known for its most dominant trade, from tea to paper to meat. And while Aza’s city is entirely fictional, its inspiration is the very-real one of Vancouver (Lotusland is actually one of its nicknames), a port city on the west coast of Canada promising enough so that when Chinese immigrants began to reach its shores back in the 19th century, many of them stayed. To make a community and a home, a place where they still had a voice.

This very human need to belong is why I chose Vancouver as the model for Lotusland. In particular, I chose to base Aza’s home sector of Tea on Richmond, the Vancouver suburb where more than half of its population is Chinese. I wanted Aza to feel powerful not just because she was a caster of magic, but also because she had no doubt about her sense of self. And I knew that in a lot of ways, that would come from a sense of belonging. So in Caster, when police cross into the Tea Sector to try to trap Aza, it’s her confidence—in the world of her own streets, of her own people, that she belongs—that lets her take the risks she does in order to elude and escape. No one knows the real workings of the Tea Sector like Tea residents do. Aza might be questioning the magic in her blood, but never the blood itself. Never who she is.

Yellow might still be a painful word to many Chinese, but it’s also the colour of gold, of Chinese royalty—just as I made sure to portray it in Caster. To begin remembering is to reclaim that power for good. And that is the power of story.

So play on, “Yellow.” Play on.

Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, Canada. She is the author of the YA novels Dualed, Divided, and Along the Indigo. Her latest, Caster, is available now. Elsie currently lives in Tokyo, Japan.


This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and download the catalog at Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Sharon Robinson, Alan Gratz, and more.


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