David Ho pays tribute to our former cover star, a pop pioneer and a #legend in her own right – CoCo Lee
With 30 years of music behind her, CoCo Lee who passed away yesterday at the age of 48, has earned her place in the pantheon as one of Asia’s brightest stars. Yet, Lee wanted to be a doctor when she was a little girl growing up in San Francisco.
While on a break in Hong Kong after graduating high school, her rendition of Whitney Houston’s Run to You at TVB’s singing competition New Talent Singing Awards in 1992 nabbed her a first runner-up place and the attention of record executives. The following year, she made her debut recordings on compilation albums before going on to release record-breaking albums in Mandarin, Cantonese and English over the following decades.
Her ease with languages saw her music cross borders throughout her career, creating hits and soundtracks for the lives of many through the 90s and beyond. Lee’s silky soprano was an agile instrument, equally adept at tender ballads (Baby I’m Sorry), hip hop cuts (Hip Hop Tonight), dance numbers (Di Da Di) and even Latin-inspired tracks (True Lover). This, along with her formidable dance moves, helped her to experiment and explore different genres effectively throughout her storied career.
In 1998, she provided both the Mandarin singing and speaking voice for Disney’s Mulan. Along with Christina Aguilera, she would be asked to return for another go at the movie’s theme song Reflection (自己/myself in Mandarin) for the live action remake in 2020.
Long before the likes of BTS and BlackPink had a chance at ruling the charts globally, Lee paved the way for Asian stars to shine, being the first to ‘cross over’ from East to West with her 1999 English album Just No Other Way.
The first single Do You Want My Love, a buoyant slice of R&B funk, made waves on the dance charts in the US. Another single Wherever You Go was a hit in Australia and Asia, while the album track Before I Fall in Love was included on the soundtrack for Runaway Bride. A duet with gospel legend Kelly Price on Can’t Get Over showed that Lee had the vocal chops to hold her own against heavyweight soul singers.
But another big moment was in store for Lee. In 2000, she sang the theme song (in both Mandarin and English) for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The next year, Lee would then perform it live at the 73rd Academy Awards.
“That was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life. As a kid, I would watch the Oscars and never imagined that one day I would be on the other side performing with billions of people watching me. I was really nervous being the first Asian artist performing on there. I remember my heart beating so fast that I could not hear the music,” recalled Lee.
“There was a screen blocking me before the performance. The moment the screen went up, I saw Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks… The biggest stars of Hollywood watching me! It hit me that I had to own and command the stage.”
And that she did. It was a momentous event for many, decades before ‘representation’ became a buzzword. For this author, who watched it on TV in Malaysia, it was the first time seeing an Asian entertainer perform on a global stage outside of a classical music capacity.
After turning in a flawless vocal performance, clad in a stunning qipao with martial artists performing behind her, Lee’s jubilant smile of relief and wonderment at the end spoke volumes of the importance of the moment for her.
This was not the only time that Lee would break barriers. Her next English album Exposed in 2005 saw her adopting a more edgy and sultry persona, at a time when most Asian female stars were concerned with maintaining an ‘innocent’ facade. Some of the album’s more risqué tracks (like Touch and So Good) also got Chinese censors hot and bothered, resulting in a ban of the record on the mainland.
But the album’s legacy was not just about Lee’s willingness to push boundaries in terms of topics. Her work with Indian rapper Blaaze on No Doubt and Korean rapper Joon Park on a couple of tracks on the album showed that she was ahead of the game with cross-border collaborations. Lee also shared the stage with stars like Ricky Martin, Jessie J, Shaggy and Will.I.Am over the course of her career.
Lee would captivate the hearts of Chinese music lovers again on the reality singing series I Am a Singer, even overcoming bronchitis-induced voice loss to win the competition. “I do love singing covers. Funny thing is, I have always preferred singing other people’s songs and making them my own. That’s why this show is perfect for me,” she told #legend.
Be it as a recording artiste, live performer or a pop icon, Lee has won the hearts of many. For that, we say thank you for the music.