After chemistry class on a recent weekday, Katherine Ho sat at an outdoor table in USC Village – a student dormitory in Los Angeles, in the US state of California – and shared the events that made the pre-med student’s version of Coldplay’s Yellow appear during a scene in Crazy Rich Asians.
Her story involves a singing camp, a tip from a former teacher, a series of rehearsals, and a big reveal – all for a song about a hue with meaning that goes far beyond the colour wheel.
Sung in Mandarin, Ho’s Yellow moment in the movie wasn’t a forgone conclusion. Its placement sparked conversations in the music department on language and lyrical intent. Licensing the song even required a plea from director Jon Chu to Coldplay. For her part, Ho was one of dozens vying to cover Yellow.
A first-generation Chinese-American, the 19-year-old is a lifelong singer who has performed on the singing competition TV show The Voice. She is also minoring in songwriting at the University of Southern California.
“It’s cool that this word – yellow – and the song have a deeper meaning past the plot of the film,” Ho said. She and her friends, she said, “were never proud to call ourselves ‘yellow’. It had a lot of negativity associated with it.”
The chance to shift its meaning came in February. Ho received a text from a former teacher asking whether she’d “be down to submit a demo for an unnamed film and TV project”. “He was looking for a young girl who could sing Mandarin.” Ho grew up in a Mandarin-speaking household, and Yellow was one of her favourite songs. She got to work.
Despite the fact that she was starting her second semester as a first-year uni student, she got her dad on the phone one night to perfect the Mandarin lyrics.
“I actually fell asleep at the piano and woke up the next morning and recorded it before class,” Ho said. When she found out she got the job, she still didn’t know how it would be used. She was told to show up at a recording studio, but it wasn’t until about an hour before the session she was told which film it would be for.
Her reaction? “I freaked out in the car with my dad, who was there to help me with the dialect stuff,” Ho said. “After I found out it was going to be played at the very end of the film, it freaked me out even more.”
That ending song was one of a number that Chu and music supervisor Gabe Hilfer had thought about when planning the ending. Hilfer said that after Chu suggested the Mandarin version of Yellow, the scene locked into place.
Released in 2000, Coldplay’s lyrics offer ample opportunity for interpretation, Ho said. “For me, the song’s about taking a risk. Not really knowing for sure whether this love is going to pay off and being very hesitant. But in the end, you go for it, and you are brave.”
For Crazy Rich Asians director Chu, Yellow resonated as a kind of anthem, he wrote in a letter to Coldplay after the group declined its use in the film. Penned to the members of the band, Chu’s note describes the song as “an anthem for me and friends [that] gave us a new sense of pride we never felt before."
The words, he said, offered such “an incredible image of attraction and aspiration that it made me rethink my own self-image”. Ho said that after she read Chu’s note, she felt the song even more deeply. “I could almost quote the letter now because I’ve read it so many times,” she said.
Ho’s voice resonated with the production team. “The second we heard it, Jon loved it,” Hilfer said. The team had debated hiring an established artist to handle the rendition, but that didn’t seem necessary. Hilfer recalled them concluding that “the song is already famous, so why don’t we just get somebody who’s incredibly talented?”
A few days later, Ho was in the studio, and a few months after that, she and a friend went to an early screening. During the closing scene, she heard herself “put a Mandarin twist on one of my all-time favourite songs”.
Throughout the movie, she also saw images of the China she knows and loves through her and her family’s annual trip to Beijing to visit her grandparents and extended family. The way Crazy Rich Asians navigated those familial ties was especially moving, Ho said.
“Traditionally, Asian people put family first – and in America, it’s about finding your own passion.” Referring to the stereotype of strict, success-focused Asian mothers, she added that: “I feel like ‘tiger mums’ are portrayed very negatively in the media. This movie shows that the love of an Asian parent does seem very strict at first, but it comes from a place of deep love.”
Her own parents aren’t so strict. “It’s actually kind of ironic,” she said. “A lot of people think it’s my parents forcing me to be pre-med. But my parents are actually more happy if I did music, because they think that’s who I am. They’re definitely 100 per cent supporting me in music. But I’m just very passionate about biology and health care, so that’s why I’m pursuing the biology track right now.”
Now, she said, she’s onto a new challenge: “the whole what-to-do-with-my-life thing”.