As the two-hour film “Crazy Rich Asians” draws to a close, gentle guitar chords begin to play over its emotional final scenes. Within seconds, a soothing female voice joins in. She’s singing in Mandarin, but the melody is familiar. A few more seconds pass, and the realization dawns: It’s Coldplay’s hit song “Yellow.”
The movie is the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast and feature Asian Americans in lead roles, so it’s understandably generated worldwide excitement, earning accolades including “historic” and “a watershed moment for Asian representation.”
But since its U.S. release last week, the buzz surrounding the film isn’t just about its whopping $25.2 million opening weekend. Many reactions have focused on its soundtrack, a unique blend of multilingual songs, including classic Chinese hits and Asian covers of mainstream U.S. pop numbers. Though Coldplay’s Grammy-nominated love song isn’t the only English song to be adapted for the film — a Cantonese version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” is also featured — “Yellow” has swiftly become one of the movie’s most-talked-about moments.
For the song’s performer, 19-year-old Katherine Ho, a former contestant on the popular NBC show “The Voice,” the attention has been overwhelming.
“I didn’t think it was going to get this much response,” Ho, now a sophomore at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Post. “So many people reached out saying it made them cry. I didn’t know I could have this kind of impact on people.”
In fact, Ho almost didn’t even submit a demo when she was first asked earlier this year. She was too stressed out from school. It was just a couple of weeks into her first semester at USC, and Ho was attempting to adjust to the life of a new college student: Going to classes and making friends — all on little sleep.
“It was a particularly busy time,” recalled Ho, a biology major with a minor in songwriting.
Then, one day in January — “just kind of out of the blue,” she said — the director of an a capella summer camp she once attended sent her a text. He had a couple of questions. Could she sing in Mandarin? And would she want to submit a demo for an unnamed film and TV project?
As a child of two Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States for graduate school, Ho said that even though she had no idea what the project was, the opportunity “meant a lot on a personal level.”
“I’ve been singing in Mandarin for pretty much my whole life,” she said. “I’m not amazing at it, but it’s always been part of who I am because I am Chinese-American.”
Within 24 hours, Ho found herself in one of the university’s practice rooms working on her rendition of “Yellow,” based on a Mandarin cover popularized by a contestant on China’s “The Voice.” The entire experience, she said, was a family affair. While experimenting with the song, Ho called her parents, who acted as dialect coaches, helping to perfect her pronunciation and dissecting the lyrics’ nuanced meanings.
“I’m so thankful to have had my parents on the phone with me,” she said, adding that her father stayed on the line well into the night to help. Ho was so exhausted she fell asleep in the practice room, waking up at around 7 the next morning — just in time to record the demo before class.
A few days passed with no word, and Ho shrugged it off. “I auditioned for so many things in my life, and I just assumed it was like any other audition, so I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to move on from this,’ ” she said.
Late one night, she was working on homework when she got a call — the call. She had landed the job, but she still had no clue what she was joining.
About an hour before arriving at a Los Angeles studio to record the song, she learned it would be for “Crazy Rich Asians,” a romantic comedy based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan.
“I was in the car with my dad and they called me and told me it was for ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ and my heart exploded,” she said, her voice breathless and giddy at the memory. In the moment, her focus immediately went to one person: Constance Wu, who stars as the film’s protagonist, Rachel Chu.
“She’s just my idol in so many ways,” Ho said. “I freaked out that I was going to be attached, even in a very minor way, to the film that she was a part of.”
The version of “Yellow” in the movie is called “Liu Xing,” which means “shooting star.”
“It’s kind of like chasing this elusive idea of someone or something and then not knowing if it’s real or if it’s just going to cause downfall for you,” Ho said. “But in the end, it’s something that you go for. You risk it all, and then it pays off.”
She added, “Before I knew the whole story behind ‘Yellow,’ it was just a story about being brave and then having the bravery pay off.”
The “whole story” behind the song’s inclusion is best explained by a letter the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, wrote to Coldplay in December 2017 — hoping to persuade the band to allow the song to be used in the film.
While Chu knew the song was the perfect addition to the movie’s finale, both Warner Bros., the studio backing the film, and Coldplay weren’t always on board, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Warner Bros. was concerned that the song’s title, “Yellow,” long used as a derogatory term for Asians, wouldn’t be appropriate. Coldplay, which has previously been accused of cultural appropriation for songs such as “Princess of China,” initially declined to have the song be associated with the film.
However, it was because of the song’s title and the word’s connotation among Asian and Asian American communities that Chu wanted to feature it in the film.
“We’re going to own that term,” he told THR. “If we’re going to be called yellow, we’re going to make it beautiful.”
Chu added, “We tried so many other songs, but everything was about the love story and not about the bigger context of who we are.”
Not giving up, Chu penned a lengthy letter addressed to the band’s members, including frontman Chris Martin.
“I know it’s a bit strange, but my whole life I’ve had a complicated relationship with the color yellow,” he wrote in the letter shared with THR. “From being called the word in a derogatory way throughout grade school, to watching movies where they called cowardly people yellow, it’s always had a negative connotation in my life. That is, until I heard your song.”
The song, Chu wrote, “described the color in the most beautiful, magical ways I had ever heard: the color of the stars, her skin, the love. It was an incredible image of attraction and aspiration that it made me rethink my own self image.”
“Yellow” would be used in the movie’s final scenes, Chu explained in the letter. The film, he wrote, is “special.”
“It will give a whole generation of Asian-Americans, and others, the same sense of pride I got when I heard your song,” he wrote. “I want all of them to have an anthem that makes them feel as beautiful as your words and melody made me feel when I needed it the most.”
Less than a day after sending the letter, Coldplay approved the request, according to THR. By the next month, Ho got the text from her summer camp director.
On social media, the song has been met with widespread praise.
Others have even been inspired to post their own covers.
Even though she still doesn’t quite know what to do with her newfound fame, Ho said she feels “changed.”
“Seeing this film and the impact it’s had on me and so many other Asian Americans made me realize that representation directly correlates to a young person’s confidence,” she said. “If this film had come out when I was in middle school and struggling with being awkward and stuff like that, it would have been so empowering just to see faces like me in media.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve never been prouder of my Asian American identity.”