It’s only been in the last few years that I truly appreciated how hard I sought out Asian-American singers and actors in my youth. I knew of the big names in Hong Kong thanks to my parents and one particular uncle who imparted their love of their homeland’s movies, television, and music onto me, my brother, and cousins. But I was in search of people who were like me: Asian, but also, American/Canadian. (The whole “Asian diaspora,” and even “Asian-American,” labels weren’t readily thrown around in the ‘90s.)
A few names would come up in my preliminary searches on Encarta ‘97 and dial-up internet: Ming-Na Wen played my favourite Street Fighter character, Chun-Li, and was in some movie called Joy Luck Club; Lucy Liu was on that lawyer show with Calista Flockhart; and Kelly Hu was a supporting actress on a few different shows and movies. But there was only one singer who fit the bill: CoCo Lee.
Lee was born in Hong Kong and raised in San Francisco, having immigrated to the States at nine years old. She would drop out of University of California, Irvine, to pursue a singing career after being offered a record contract in Hong Kong. The ‘90s were an exciting time for Lee, she found success in Asia recording music in Cantonese and Mandarin, although her first English-language album failed to make a mark in the West. Unlike many other of her peers, Lee seemingly never really pursued a film career alongside her music. Her acting credits were limited to a few cameos and small supporting roles, save for voicing Fa Mulan in the Mandarin-version of Mulan, as well as singing the theme song “Reflection” (自己).
In North America, Lee is best known for recording the Oscar-nominated song “A Love Before Time” for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which she also performed at the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony. A fitting opportunity considering at the time she was pretty much the only singer of note with Asian heritage and roots in America.
I hadn’t kept up with Lee’s career over the last 20 years or so, and was saddened to hear of her passing and subsequently, her struggles with depression. Similar to Wen, Liu, and Hu, CoCo Lee is one of a handful of Asian-American celebrities who were around in the contemporary era before Crazy Rich Asians and the explosion of K-pop around the world. And rather unfairly, many of their contributions, however large or small, have gone without much recognition, including Lee’s.
She may not have been a household name over here, but to a pre-teen in the suburbs of Toronto, discovering her name meant the world. May she rest peacefully.
If the sky opened up for me
And the mountains disappeared
If the seas ran dry, turned to dust
And the sun refused to rise
I would still find my way
— “A Love Before Time”