Thank you for all your emails the last couple of days with your reactions to seeing Crazy Rich Asians. I can’t wait for more of you to see it on the weekend…because I really, really want to talk about the mahjong!
Let’s talk now, though, about the soundtrack. Every song in the movie is in Chinese, save one. Some of the songs are classics, like the one performed by the band at the beginning of the wedding reception. That’s what my parents listened to when they were Rachel and Nick’s age, and those were the memories they were tapping into when they saw the film a few weeks ago. What was so smart though is that at key moments in the movie, even though the songs that are playing are in Chinese, the melody would be instantly recognisable to non-Chinese speakers. But that’s just one function of the soundtrack.
Chinese artists have been singing Chinese language versions of English songs since I was a kid, or longer. My beloved Leslie Cheung, one of the most famous Cantopop stars of all time, covered Janet Jackson’s "Miss You Much". Faye Wong (who I am OBSESSED with) covered The Cranberries’ classic song “Dreams” in Cantonese and it was featured in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. Faye’s most famous cover might be “Cold War”, her Mandarin version of Tori Amos’s "Silent All These Years", which is actually how I heard the song for the first time. Faye provided the soundtrack to our late-night marathon mahjong sessions through university.
In 1985, Sally Yeh’s “200 Degrees” was a cover Madonna’s “Material Girl” and this is the song that plays in Crazy Rich Asians, when Rachel is trying to find something to wear to the wedding. That was a crazy flashback for me the first time I saw the movie because I remember when it came out, I remember being in Hong Kong that summer and hearing it all over the place and being so happy that my Canadian world and my Chinese worlds were connecting through music. That music could be a reflection of ME: both Canadian and Chinese, both of one culture and another.
Later on in the movie, another familiar track comes on that’s immediately familiar to English speakers. At this point in the movie, Jacek leaned over to me like… “is this Coldplay?” It is. It’s “Yellow”. Only in Mandarin, performed by Katherine Ho. Which was recorded specifically for the movie – even though Coldplay initially declined the request because the band has been accused of appropriation and cultural insensitivity in the past and Warner Bros wasn’t keen on the idea either. But that’s exactly what director Jon M Chu was going for. As he explained to the studio, “Well, a white director couldn’t do it”.
“Yellow” has been used as an insult to Asians forever. In Grade 7 I was called a “yellow bellied chink” by a boy at school in front of other classmates. What Jon is aiming for with “Yellow” is to reclaim it, to take back yellow for us. Yellow, after all, is the colour of Chinese royalty. Emperors wore yellow. Yellow is imperial, it is power, it is wealth. Like gold. We are yellow. We are precious. So he wrote a letter to Coldplay, explaining during an interview with Quartzy why he wanted to use the song:
The rejection prompted Chu to write the band a direct letter, explaining his love for the song, and “complicated relationship” with its title. “For the first time in my life, it described the color in the most beautiful, magical ways,” Chu wrote. “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.” Allowing him to use the song in the movie, Chu wrote, would give a “a whole generation of Asian-Americans, and others, the same sense of pride I got when I heard your song.”
Within an hour, the band emailed him back, granting him permission. As promised, Chu triumphantly features it, unmistakably Sinified, as the film’s final song, during its protagonist’s climactic moment of self-realization. Sung in Mandarin by the Chinese-American YouTuber and The Voice contestant Katherine Ho, it swells anthemically beneath visuals of protagonist Rachel Chu coming to recognize that she’s strong enough to move forward.
Rachel Chu, of course, is played by Constance Wu. Constance Wu covers the new international issue of TIME. As you can see…she’s wearing yellow.
Yellow pride. Asian pride.
Wishing you a very, very yellow weekend.
Yours in gossip,