In each installment, a guest writer chooses one Pantone color they find particularly meaningful, intriguing, or just aesthetically beautiful—and tells us why.


By Việt Lê, Assistant Professor, Visual Studies at California College of the Arts

My memories of living as an adult in Hà Nội are a yellow haze. Summers slowly burning like the fried bananas wrapped in leaves by the sweat soaked sidewalk vendors. Fogged winter mornings—my breath clouded, blurring with Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (“Lake of the Returned Sword”), energetic walkers and lazy traffic circling its perimeter.  

Throughout these days, a buttery yellow on my palate and palette: the creamy baguettes (pickled vegetables, butter, meats, paté), the mustard-hued walls and French colonial buildings—ornate filigreed cakes—throughout the garden city.

In What Color is the Sacred? anthropologist Michael Taussig argues that societies are divided into chromophobic and chromophilic orientations; this is the dividing line between empire (chromophobic) and its colonies (chromophilic). Indeed Greco-Roman ruins and Neo-Classical edifices are envisaged as muted, pale whispers of understated grandeur whereas “ethnic” prints scream color and pattern within the Euro-American imagination. In Orientalism, Edward Said observes that these Western constructs of the East (including the Middle East) has long shadows in art and literature and continues today within mass media.

Back to butter. These French-colonial buildings in Hà Nội stand at the crossroads of empires. In 1873, the French invaded Hà Nội; the city later became the capitol of French Indochine in 1887. Cambodia, Laos and Việt Nam all bear the mark of France’s “civilizing” rule and aesthetic imprint: Écoles des Beaux-Arts (academic art schools based on classical antiquities), wide French boulevards and stately buildings.  

Yet these grande dames were painted yellow, “imperial yellow,” which is said to have been traditionally associated with royalty in China, Korea and Việt Nam (Korea and Việt Nam were vassal countries of China; Việt Nam had about 1,000 years of Chinese imperial rule, before the French). Today, yellow is still regarded as the color of royalty. This ineffable shade, perhaps close to Pantone’s “Empire Yellow,” has become such a signifier of Việt Nam that the vibrant hue—a weathered yellow wall—dominates the cover of  2016 Pulitzer-prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s academic book Nothing Ever Dies, which grapples with topics ranging from Agent Orange to Yellow Peril. From royalty to Southeast Asia’s emerging middle class, this color—in its many shades and names—springs eternal. Color, people of color, rose-colored lenses: hues have emotional import and long-ranging socio-political importance. As Donovan sang in the 1960’s, “they call me mellow yellow.”

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