Katherine Ho, the "Crazy Rich Asians" singer who redefined Coldplay's "Yellow", in Mandarin
The first Hollywood movie in 25 years to feature a majority Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians tackles a story of what happens when love comes into conflict with the duties to family. Set against the backdrop of the fantastical uber-rich of Singapore, this film is the culmination of a rising group of Asian directors, writers, musicians, and actors in Hollywood.
Breaking box office recordings, Crazy Rich Asians is the highest grossing romantic comedy in the past 10 years, and has earned $164.7 million worldwide. The public’s response shows the changing demand for films that authentically tell diverse stories with diverse casts. We love the film not only for the story but also for its role furthering Asian representation in media and entertainment.
At the end of Crazy Rich Asians, the soothing strumming of a guitar fades in, as Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) stands up from the mahjong table, leaving behind the speechless matriarch, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh). We, the audience, take a collective sigh of relief as a Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” begins, carried by the crisp and radiant voice of Katherine Ho. The song touched us, both in its sheer beauty and it’s undeniably close ties to the color of our skin (Read the letter written by director John M. Chu, to Coldplay that secured the rights to the song).
We sat down with Katherine Ho to learn more about the singer behind the the Crazy Rich Asians anthem. We talked about her journey, identity, family and the importance of the film.
(Courtesy of Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Katherine had just started her second semester at USC when she was asked by her former acapella group director to put together a demo for a “un-announced TV/Film project”. Even though she was stressed out with the start of classes, reconnecting with friends, and the overall chaos of the beginning of the semester, Katherine didn’t want to pass up the opportunity and shut herself into a school practice room to rehearse and record:
I only had less than 24 hours for me to submit this demo because they were on a very tight schedule...I was on my phone with my dad in a practice room on campus really late and he was going through the dialect with me, perfecting the pronunciation, and [helping] me with nuanced meaning because a lot of the lyrics used pretty sophisticated Chinese.
I definitely wouldn't have been able to do it without him. I actually was so tired that when I was practicing, I fell asleep on the piano and didn't wake up until the next morning.
That morning before classes, Katherine finished and submitted the demo. Not expecting much to come of the submission, Katherine resumed her regular school activities, but just a few days later, she got a text from her director saying the production wanted to bring her in to record. An hour before the recording session, the producers called Katherine and told her that the song would be for Crazy Rich Asians. Katherine told us about her initial reaction:
I totally freaked out, when I found out what it was for...I am one of Constance Wu's biggest fans, and I had been following her progress on her instagram, seeing the film and the behind the scenes. I was so excited, she's such a strong smart and amazing woman, to even be minorly attached to a project that she was in was a dream come true for me.
Through the excitement and stress, Katherine’s family has played a huge role in supporting her. Her dad “not only helped with the lyrics and the meaning but also was there for moral support.” From the 5 hour recording session to the movie premiere, her parents were very proud that she was able to represent her Chinese roots through splendid music:
My dad has a long commute to work, and he has been listening to this song pretty much every day, so he's probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.
They were super proud that I was able to represent my cultural roots on such a large platform. They were really excited for me. This is rightfully so, because I feel like this is as much their accomplishment as mine.
Her parents were not her only supporters. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, California, Katherine had a very “tight-knit” Chinese community organized around the Chinese school she attended growing up:
We don't have a large community but I feel like it is a very tight knit one. We have a Chinese school, [you go to] every Saturday morning, from the age of 5 till you are a sophomore in highschool. There, not only did I learn the language there but I was also able to participate in a lot of musical and artistic activities.
I feel like I owe my Mandarin singing abilities to all the year that I spent doing Chinese New Year shows. Chinese school is definitely something that you appreciate later down the road.
This community that has seen Katherine grow up came out to cheer her on in full force:
Even right now all of the WeChat (a messenger app primarily used by Chinese communities) groups from my hometown are freaking out, and supporting. They literally organized events where all of the Asian moms and dads would just go out and watch the movie in big groups. They definitely have my back throughout this whole journey.
Katherine attributes her success to the combination of an upbringing that celebrated her Chinese heritage and her personal journey with music. Katherine started playing piano at the age of 5 and started taking voice lessons at the age of 9. Katherine’s early musical education has fostered a lifelong passion for singing and music. Covering “Yellow” has been extremely personal to her because the song was one of her first vivid musical memories. Katherine explained that the song captivated her at a very young age:
It's the first song I remember absolutely falling in love with. I think I was 8 years old when my brother showed me the band Coldplay, and Yellow was the first song I heard by them. At the time, at eight, I didn't really know what love was about, yet I just remember for some reason being so drawn to that song.
From Chris Martin to Li Wenqi, the original singer of this cover, this specific version of “Yellow” has gone through many evolutions and influences. Katherine was glad to be able to put her own mark and personality on the song:
If I could just pick one song to represent who I want the world to see me as, and who I feel like I am, then this is definitely the song. I am super proud that I got to do a Mandarin twist on a Western pop classic.
I guess I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I was just the voice that got to get the credit for it, but artistically so many different parties were involved, so I'm just very grateful to be a part of it.
Katherine is at a crossroads between music and her academic interests. Katherine is currently majoring in Biology with a minor in Songwriting at USC with a keen interest in healthcare. This experience has made her feel torn between the two paths, but she’s just grateful to be able to explore both right now in school.
In high school, you know how most Asian parents encourage their kids to pick a practical career. Entertainment isn't sustainable. I feel like for me it was the opposite. My parents really wanted me to do music and they were super supportive...They would be happier if I did music.
This [experience] is definitely making me feel very torn, do I want to keep going with the pre-health track or do I want to spend more time on music? Both are very dear passions of mine, so I feel lucky that I can study both right now.
This project has meant a lot to Katherine. Katherine has reflected a lot about what it means to be Asian-American in general and personally:
Asian-American has been a very mixed term for me. At times it has brought me immense pride, and at times it has made me insecure. I didn't realize until this movie how important that part of my identity is...I feel like my insecurities also stemmed from being the "other" and not being the dominant culture.
I definitely felt that [as an Asian American], I was always in a mode to prove myself and earn my spot because it is not given to me. I think that took a toll on my confidence...but seeing the film really changed my perspective on that.
Seeing faces like my own portrayed in such a badass, vibrant way on a big screen it really dispelled any remaining insecurities that I had about being Asian American. I was brimming with pride.
But the movie has been more than a personal journey of discovery, Katherine also thinks that Crazy Rich Asians serves a greater purpose for the Asian American community:
[The movie] made me realize for the first time how important representation is in shaping a young person's confidence...I think this film is obviously important for everyone, but specifically for young people who are still trying to find their identities in their formative years. This movie has been critical in that...I didn't realize what representation was until I saw it with my own eyes.
This experience and all the excitement around Crazy Rich Asians has inspired Katherine. She has set a goal to create more original content and songs. Through songwriting classes she hopes to create a structured environment to grow her and expand her musical horizons. And with the current, ever-evolving landscape of music, Katherine is excited for the future and you can follow her journey on her Instagram. Thank you Katherine for sharing your story with Mando, and we wish you the best of luck!