BY ANDREW HSIEH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
This story was originally published in the September 14, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more stories like this one? Subscribe today.
Here are a few things Katherine Ho didn’t think would happen to her: acting in Special Agent Oso as a kid with big dreams, placing in the top 32 on The Voice during high school, continuing her music career in college (beyond a minor in songwriting), and sitting in a movie theater as her Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” played over the ending of Crazy Rich Asians. It’s not that these are surprising because of tiger parenting or some “Asian” focus on STEM. It’s just because Ho’s always thought of herself as a regular kid.
“After The Voice happened, I felt like it was just time to think about college with my friends,” Ho tells me over the phone. “The moment I started applying for college, I didn’t apply to any music programs. I was always like, something in psychology or biology? Something like that. I don’t know if I just wanted to be a normal kid or whatever. I just didn’t want [music] as a career.”
What about now, when her song’s played in tens of thousands of theaters across the country? “It kinda made the issue worse,” Ho deadpans. “‘cause I’d decided I wanted to go for healthcare, and now I have two things to choose [from]. I never stopped loving music. I just never really believed in myself and didn’t think I had anything to offer to the world.” She pauses. “But I’m reconsidering.”
It makes sense. You might have heard the story by now: Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu wanted “Yellow” in his movie—or “Liu Xing,” “shooting star,” as it’s called in the film. So Ho, 19, got a call to sing it. And after a frenzied night of recording and double-checking her Mandarin accent with her parents, Ho emerged with a demo that would send her to the soaring climax of Crazy Rich Asians. Although she didn’t know it for a while.
“I didn’t actually find out I was a part of this movie until Cheryl K arranged a private screening of the movie,” Ho says. “I’ve auditioned for stuff that gets cut. So I was so nervous my song wouldn’t make it. It was seeing it with my friends on opening night that was the coolest [though], because they can’t change it after they distribute it to cinemas.”
In fact, if you stay up late thinking about Your Uncertain Future, you might relate to Katherine Ho. Ho grew up with parents who supported her musical ambitions. After her brother took to piano with middling enthusiasm, Ho begged her parents for lessons at age 5, and started voice lessons soon after. At age 9, she booked a singing role in the film Valentine’s Day, and Ho was officially a young member of SAG-AFTRA. “I was in love with the experience,” she says. “Especially craft services. That’s what I love: free food. I remember being really sad that the recording was just a few hours long.”
It’s that excitement over the margins of entertainment, even after ten years of experience in Hollywood, that makes Ho someone you’d subscribe to on YouTube without hesitation. Add to that her remarkable ability to keep herself grounded and you have the next relatable musician in the making: a persona she’d share with her favorite artist, Taylor Swift.
“I just love how she tells a story with her songs. And it’s catchy and accessible, but she puts deeper meaning into her lyrics,” Ho says. “I’ve looked up to her my whole life, since I was 8. She’s been one of my long-standing favorite artists.”
I ask what her favorite song is. “That’s, uh, that’s hard,” she laughs. “I think I like—either ‘All Too Well,’ which is like a ballad song, a hidden gem on her RED album. Or ‘You Belong With Me,’ because that’s the OG bop, you know?”
With Crazy Rich Asians and Ho’s cover making the rounds, people are taking notice of her, too. Like people might do for Taylor Swift, aspiring YouTube stars are covering Ho’s version of “Yellow” in both Mandarin and English—or on violin. People have covered songs like these since the early days of YouTube—a Kina Grannis song here, or an AJ Rafael song there. Only this time, they’re covers of a Katherine Ho cover, written in English and sung in Mandarin, playing at the end of the most successful rom-com in 9 years. History repeats itself, but the stage has become that much grander.
And for better or worse, Ho sees it all. “This is kind of embarrassing, but I’ve been addicted to my phone since Crazy Rich Asians came out,” Ho laughs. “I read every single comment. I didn’t think people would notice the song outside of the movie. I was like, ‘oh, it’ll complement the final scene artistically.’ But I didn’t think people would listen to it after the movie. Just that people would care about this individual song—it’s really mind-blowing, and I’m really grateful.”
There’s just one thing that might get to Ho: something she needs to repeat in every article she’s interviewed for. “There’s the stereotype of the Asian tiger mom, portrayed really negatively in the media,” Ho says. “I try to tell in my interviews how supportive my parents are and how grateful I am to have such awesome parents. It’s very easy to assume that, ‘oh, she’s a biology major, she has Asian parents, so obviously they’re tiger parents.’ So I just want to make that clear.”
Same with being pigeonholed as an Asian American artist featured in an Asian American movie. “I feel if I were an artist, my music wouldn’t be super edgy. So I don’t know how people would see that, like, ‘It’s pop music, but it’s an Asian face singing it. I don’t know if it’s as believable,’” Ho says. “So I’m pretty worried about that—my style is pretty mainstream, but my face isn’t. So it’s something that’s crossed my mind.”
In a future world, Katherine Ho might make the press circuit after another appearance on a movie or an album, and she might not have to talk about being Asian American, or how she didn’t have a tiger mom, thank you very much. And maybe I wouldn’t need to ask her how she feels about being asked these questions.
But that’s the future, and Ho’s still not even sure if she’ll continue pursuing music. Either way, the success of her cover is already assured. Because if Crazy Rich Asians is “You Belong With Me,” Katherine Ho’s “Liu Xing” is “All Too Well”—only not quite so hidden.