Anyone would recognise the familiar strains of Coldplay’s Yellow, but as it played over one of the most significant and emotional scenes of the Crazy Rich Asians movie, there was something decidedly different about the song: it had been translated and sung entirely in Mandarin.
The Mandarin cover of Yellow has now gone on to become only the second non-English track to top Spotify’s Global Viral Chart since PSY’s Gangnam Style, and has been heard in all of Spotify’s 65 markets – an impressive feat. “It’s very rare for a non-English song to top this global chart,” says a Spotify representative. “And it’s the first Mandarin song to do so.”
I had the chance to talk to Katherine Ho, the angel-voiced 19-year-old California native behind the cover, about being Asian-American, her experience working on the film and what its success has meant for her professionally and personally.
FEMALE: Hi Katherine, congratulations on the song’s success! Could you tell me a little about how you got involved with the movie?
Katherine: “It goes way back to high school actually. I did a summer camp called A Cappella Academy and continued staying in touch with one of its the founders and directors, Ben Bram, who you may know from Pentatonix. Last winter I caroled with him in Snowfall, his pop jazz a capella group. A couple of weeks after that, he texted me to ask if I could sing in Mandarin and if I wanted to audition for an unnamed film project. It was a rush, but I submitted my audition and a few days later they told me I got the job!
They didn’t tell me it was for Crazy Rich Asians until maybe an hour before the actual recording session. But even though I didn’t know what it was for, I was really excited because I never thought I would be able to sing in Chinese for a professional job.”
F: Why do you say that?
K: “Well, I always heard Chinese music around the house because my family’s Chinese. But being born and raised in Los Angeles, I never heard much on the radio here. I always thought Mandarin music would be something I’d only be able to perform during cultural celebrations like Lunar New Year.”
F: How did you feel about covering such a popular song? Was there any pressure at all?
K: “Getting to do this cover was actually something really special to me because Coldplay was one of my favourite bands growing up. I was 8 when I heard Yellow, and it was the very first song I heard from them and I just fell in love with it. Even though I didn’t know what the lyrics meant – with love and loss and all that – something about the music really drew me to the song. Getting to put a Mandarin twist on it 10 years later is so special, and I’m so honoured I got to be the voice to sing it.
I can’t help but feel that this cover is very representative of my identity as an Asian-American singer, because it has a very Western pop base but being in Mandarin, it’s not your typical Western pop song. It’s a really cool cultural crossover and the fact that the song works in both languages shows that music really has no boundaries and how universal it can be.”
F: What was the most difficult part of singing the cover?
K: “Honestly, I think the most difficult part was the audition. They needed the audition tape really quickly, so I had to learn and record it in under 24 hours. That was tough! Also in the beginning, I was quite intimidated by singing in a foreign language. Even though I understand and speak Mandarin, I’m not fluent enough to be used to singing in it. So my dad had to help me a lot with the pronunciation.
F: Did you get to hang out with the Crazy Rich Asians cast?
K: “Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet the cast, but the director Jon M. Chu took the time to be at the recording studio to help me with my recording session. He’s just such a great, grounded guy and he’s really making waves in the industry. He’s really revolutionising what it means to be Asian-American, not just in Hollywood but in daily life. This film has helped so much with my confidence – I’ve never been prouder to be Asian. So it was really cool to meet Jon, the guy behind the film so to speak.
I also got to meet Cheryl K, who’s on the soundtrack as well! She’s Malaysian, I’m sure you know. She was actually the one who got me in to see the screening in June before it came out. She was so kind to talk to Warner Bros and set up the screening for me. Cheryl is great and I’m so glad I got to meet her through this.”
F: How did you feel when you heard your song in the movie for the first time?
K: “It was such a surreal experience! I was speechless. First of all, I was just so relieved my song didn’t get cut from the final movie! I’ve been pursuing music professionally since I was 10, and a lot of times my work wouldn’t make it into the final product. After that, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude more than anything because it’s such an honour to sing a song that’s bridging the gap between two very different cultures.”
F: What has changed your life more: your experience on The Voice or Crazy Rich Asians?
K: “Oh, that’s hard. I didn’t make it to the voting round of The Voice, so I feel like the public never got to weigh in on my singing. But seeing how many people Yellow cover resonated with really shocked me and it was so overwhelming that people cared about the song outside of the movie. And the fact that people all over the world are listening to it regardless of whether they understand the language is so wonderful.
Not to say that The Voice wasn’t cool because it really was, but Crazy Rich Asians has been more of a special experience to me in terms of the public response.”
F: Can I ask you a bit of a tougher question? What was it like growing up Asian-American and has it affected your attempts to get into the entertainment industry in any way?
K: “Growing up Asian-American was like a mixed bag for me. Most of the time I was really proud of my culture, but at the same time it was also the source of all my insecurities. Like I couldn’t even say why I felt inferior, but I did. I felt like I wasn’t as good as the other girls because of my skin colour, and I always felt the need to apologise for who I was or justify myself.
I felt like I belonged on the sidelines of society – and it was never something anybody told me, but for some reason, my young self decided that I wasn’t as good as the dominant culture. So I definitely think that had some impact on my self-confidence growing up. It made me really self-conscious all the time.
This film really changed that for me. It made me realise I was so wrong to be ashamed of who I was, and I’ve truly never been prouder to be Asian. I really wish I had a film like this growing up, so I could have seen faces like my own portrayed in such a vibrant and normal way on TV instead of being a side character.
In terms of the entertainment industry, I don’t think I’ve ever been blatantly discriminated against. But it was always a doubt in my mind over whether I should pursue music because I do have a very mainstream sound – I like to sing pop music – but I didn’t know how the public would perceive if they heard a mainstream voice coming from a non-mainstream Asian face. I always felt like it wouldn’t line up, and that would discourage me. I never saw anyone who looked like me singing the music I liked to sing. It was discouraging, but thankfully I had lots of support in my community and family.”
F: What was your biggest insecurity?
K: “That’s also hard to answer, but my biggest insecurity is that I feel like I’m not a very charismatic person. I see all these artists that I admire, and they have such personality, and I just feel like I’m not the kind of person others can look up to that way. I’ve always felt like I’m such a boring person, and no one would care about my voice and that I’d have just no impact on society. I always felt invisible.
Which is why I am so overwhelmed by the response this song has gotten. Never in my wildest dreams did I think anything like this would happen. I just thought that singing would always be something I’d pursue on the side as a passion.”
F: Who are some of your musical influences?
K: “One of my biggest influences is Taylor Swift. A lot of people judge me for it, but I love the way she’s able to tell such personal stories with her songs but still resonate with so many people. The goal of music for me is to help people feel less alone in their struggles, and I think she’s able to do that with her accessible but lyrically intricate songs. She’s shaped my musical and song-writing style. I also Tori Kelly and Kacey Musgraves.
I’ve also been getting more into the Mandarin music scene; I really like Eason Chen and GEM. Also recently one of my friends introduced me to BTS’s music and I’m in love – they’re so talented!”
F: Will you continue to use Spotify as a platform to release your music?
K: “Oh, for sure. I think the main reason why my song has managed to go viral is because of streaming services like Spotify where people all over the world can listen to it with just a click. It’s really helping to break down barriers culturally, and that’s also why there’s a lot more foreign music on the charts. It wouldn’t be possible without streaming, accessibility is so important especially when introducing new music to a different culture.
Personally I’m a huge fan of Spotify and have been using it for years to listen to music! It’s the only streaming service I use. I love how easy it is to discover new music with it and keep up with what’s trending. I’ll share a playlist with you!”
F: Are you signed to any labels at the moment?
K: “No, not right now. I’m trying to write more of my own music, but at the moment I’m still a full-time student at the University of Southern California. I’m studying biology and minoring in songwriting. I love both science and music, and I hope to find a way to combine both somehow! But I haven’t made a decision yet with what I’m going to ultimately pursue.”
F: Would you consider doing more music in Mandarin?
K: “Yeah, it’s definitely something I’d like to explore! I have strong ties to China because a lot of my family is there, and it would be so cool to develop artistically there.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.