Katherine Ho on Reclaiming Asian Narratives Through Music

Meet the Homegirl: Singer of "Yellow" in Crazy Rich Asians

by Malavika Kannan & Shermarie Hyppolite

Edit by Laura Wu

For nineteen-year-old singer Katherine Ho, music is the place she feels most at home. Growing up performing in Lunar New Year celebrations in her native California, Katherine has always used music to navigate her identity as a first-generation Chinese-American woman, celebrating her roots while defining her own future. Her passion for music has taken her from singing camps and pre-med classes to Season 10 of The Voice--and, most recently, the soundtrack of iconic rom-com blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.

Starring Hollywood's first all-Asian cast in over 25 years, Crazy Rich Asians has taken theaters across the world by storm. The film has been praised almost universally for its touching, hilarious messages of family and love, stealing countless hearts (and jerking many tears) in the process. The triumph of Crazy Rich Asians marks a tremendous milestone for representation in mainstream cinema, because for the first time, Asian stories are being told in their own right.

This emphasis on authentic narratives extended into the film score, where director John Chu strove to tap into Asian-American culture and talent. That's why the final act--complete with an intense mahjong game and romantic airport kiss--is set to a Mandarin cover of Coldplay's "Yellow." Despite their initial refusal, Chu penned a passionate letter to Coldplay, asking for permission to adapt the song--complete with all of its racial connotations--for the soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians. "For the first time in my life," he wrote, "it described the color in the most beautiful, magical ways I had ever heard." Less than twenty-four hours later, the song was approved for use.

To Katherine, "Yellow" is the perfect ending to the emotional rollercoaster of Crazy Rich Asians, affirming the power of love and the beauty of Asian culture. Not only does the title reclaim society's most offensive name for Asian-Americans, but it also exemplifies the grace of the Mandarin language, layered with triumphant melodies and vocals.

Katherine's journey with "Yellow" is another story full of love, passion, and twist endings. When she was first contacted by a former teacher about recording a demo, Katherine--then a freshman at the University of Southern California--wasn't sure what to expect. She had only one night to produce a demo, so Katherine ended up on the phone with her father until late in the night, perfecting her pronunciations, dissecting the nuanced meanings of the Mandarin lyrics, and mastering the dialect. In fact, Katherine was so exhausted that she fell asleep on a piano in her freshman dorm room. (This was very uncomfortable--she does not recommend it to anyone).

The next morning, Katherine recorded her demo and headed off for class.

A few days passed, and Katherine assumed that she hadn't gotten the job. But a few days later, as she worked on her chemistry homework, Katherine got the email that would change her life. She ran to the bathroom, picked up the phone, and called her parents once more.

Katherine's performance of "Yellow" has made waves across the Internet, but in spite of her massive success, the pre-med student remains humbled by the lives she's touched. One of the most memorable messages she has received was from a 26-year-old Chinese-American who told her that the song was the first time in his life he thought that "Mandarin, the language of [his] family and [his] culture, was beautiful." This comment really hit home for Katherine because it reminded her of everything that had attracted her to "Yellow" in the first place.

To Katherine, performing "Yellow" for Crazy Rich Asians was one of the most empowering experiences of her life. As a child, she always felt like she was an outsider, but she'd long since learned to accept her "sidekick" status in mainstream entertainment. But Crazy Rich Asians transformed her perception of what it meant to be Asian-American. It was the little moments in the film that most touched her--for example, Rachel's mother picking out a red dress, as well as the mahjong scene—because they validated the uniqueness of her Asian-American identity. Katherine Ho has never felt more proud to be Asian. You can hear it in her voice.