Sunday, September 10, 2006

Yellow's still the in-colour

Thai Takes

Yellow is the new black in Thailand. The fashion statement of the year for Thais are yellow t-shirts bearing the royal emblem of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In June, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s ascension to the throne, Bangkok was a sea of yellow t-shirts. Rama IX, who was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Massachusetts, the United States, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

To the uninitiated, it must be yellow because it is associated with royalty. Wrong. If the king was born on a Sunday, it would have been red. If Tuesday, pink. It is yellow because he was born on Monday, which is traditionally marked by the colour.

Two months after the diamond jubilee celebration, Thais are still feverish over the yellow t-shirt, especially on Mondays. Even fashionable Thai women wear it. Tight.

This week, Natalie Glebova, the Canadian who was crowned Miss Universe 2005 in Bangkok, was photographed wearing a yellow t-shirt and a yellow Rao Rak Nai Luang (We Love the King) wristband in a newspaper article on her role as a brand ambassador for Singha products.

Why is it still in vogue? Supanee Chantasasawat, a 38-year-old sales and marketing director, wears yellow to show her appreciation of her king.

“A man of his status can choose not to be a king of a poor country but to live a private life as a prince in Switzerland where he grew up. But he chose to be a king with a burden on his shoulders,” she explains.

Everyone in her office wears yellow on Monday and Friday. The trend started, she recalls, when the government urged the people to wear it before the diamond jubilee celebration on June 8.

Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, who co-authored authoritative books on Thailand, among them Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, agree that Thais are wearing yellow as a way of showing their regard to the King.

But there is also a political undercurrent in the yellow fever sweeping the country. “Those demonstrating against (Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra) have urged the people to wear yellow shirts,” Baker says.

This is in reference to Thaksin’s “yellow peril” early this year when anti-Thaksin factions encouraged protesters to wear or carry something yellow when they gathered outside the royal palace to demand the prime minister’s resignation.

In a year dubbed “The Year of Non-government” as Thailand has not had a sitting Parliament since February when Thaksin called for elections, some Thais are seeking royal intervention.

“Some people believe the King can act as a stabilising force when politics becomes too conflictual. They believe the king acted in this way in 1973 when students opposed the military, and in 1992 when broad-based street demonstrations challenged the military,” explains Baker.

The yellow t-shirts represent the people’s support, adulation and loyalty to King Bhumibol, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.

However, he notes that the yellow t-shirts have political ramifications as they show the king has the people’s support.

“The yellow t-shirts come at a time when the country has a prolonged political crisis, so they are seen as an informal reserved power for the king,” he says.

The t-shirts, he adds, are reminders to Thaksin that his authoritarian rule and abuse of power can be checked.

But Thaksin, too, wears yellow under his jacket?

“He has been accused of being disloyal to the king so he has to been seen as supportive of the yellow fever,” Thitinan says.

Not all Thais identify a political message behind the yellow t-shirt.

“They wear yellow because they love the king and they also like Thaksin,” he explains. “That is the essence of the crisis. Many people have divided loyalties.”

Soimart Rungmanee, 26, sports yellow without any political undertone. On Mondays, Soimart wears yellow and it’s sometimes blue on Friday.

The colour for August was blue. As Thais celebrated Queen Sirikit’s birthday on Aug 12, which is also Mother’s Day, blue t-shirts bearing her royal emblem became a fad. It represents Friday, the day she was born.

Perhaps, the next yellow in Thailand is blue.

(Published in The Star on Sept 10, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)