By Wing Kuang and Eryk Bagshaw
Singapore: Kimberley Chen’s latest track has more than 30 million hits on YouTube, yet many Australians have never heard of the 27-year-old from Melbourne’s east, even though her music has become an underground sensation, banned in Beijing.
Chen, the daughter of a wedding singer, started singing Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra classics outside the Camberwell market as a four-year-old, but she is now at the centre of a bitter divide between Chinese nationalists and millions of members of the Chinese diaspora.
Kimberley Chen in her recording studio.
Dressed to the nines in hot pink Chanel bouclé in her latest video, the former Tintern Grammar student is not the kind of subversive artist you would expect to trouble the radar of Beijing’s censors.
But she and Namewee, her Chinese-Malaysian collaborator, have mocked the policies of President Xi Jinping, accused Chinese nationalists of throwing tantrums and taunted China over its actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.
Kimberley Chen and Namewee.
It is a bold move, particularly when you are singing in Mandarin.
“It’s a love song,” says Chen in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from Taipei. “People do get really sensitive, and I feel like that’s part of what the song is talking about. It’s talking about sensitive people.”
At issue is their hit song Fragile, a catchy earworm about a panda’s life in a Hobbiton-style hamlet complete with a teddy bear party. It sounds innocent enough until you get hit with the symbolism of the lyrics.
A clip from the song Fragile, featuring a dancing panda, Kimberley Chen and Chinese-Malaysian rapper Namewee. Credit:YouTube
There are references to “little pinks” – a euphemism for young Chinese nationalists who defend the Chinese Communist Party at all costs – and their sensitive “hearts of glass”, taunting them for “going down to the Chinese chive farm every day”, a metaphor for the CCP harvesting the wealth of ordinary people, and being scared “of being sent to plant Hami melons [a fruit from Xinjiang] to be re-educated”.
They taunt nationalists for eating “apples, and now you want to cut pineapples”, a nod to the closing-down of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper and threats to Taiwan’s national fruit, while teasing them for “collecting his favourite honey”.
“Collecting honey, is of course a reference to Winnie the Pooh,” says Geremie Barmé, the Australian sinologist and editor of China Heritage.
China has banned all references to Winnie the Pooh. The great firewall blocked the cartoon teddy bear after Chinese internet users pointed out his likeness to Xi.
Barmé said the song was a “wonderful, rebellious middle finger” to Xi and the Communist Party’s propaganda department.
“It’s a celebration of joyfulness while also being politically pointed, so that people with a Chinese background who are familiar with the Chinese world… can enjoy in an adulterated joyful fashion,” he says.
The video mocks the origins of the coronavirus pandemic by having the panda serve Chen a bat on a plate. Credit:YouTube
“The Chinese internet is now full of this kind of paranoia, extremism, zealotry and silliness. And the result is that it is now open slather for anybody who wants to make fun of it.”
The Chinese diaspora has embraced the song, drawing viewers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, the United States, and Australia.
“Even in Mexico, Peru, Argentina [there are people watching the video], I have no idea why so many countries are watching my Fragile song,” says Namewee.
The 38-year-old songwriter suspects that some of the hits may be coming from users in mainland China, redirecting their internet connection. “Because if [the Chinese people] need to watch the music video, they have to go through the VPN,” he says.
Geopolitical satire is not a path Chen expected to go down when she was first scouted by TV producers at Camberwell Market for Channel 7’s The Price is Right or after she was cast as Young Nala in The Lion King, but it is one she is now embracing.
Kimberley Chen as a child singing in Melbourne.
“Her personality is that she dares to speak up,” says Namewee.
Chen said she was taught to be curious by her parents in suburban Melbourne. Like her peers, she attended English and math tutoring until she turned 17.
“My mum did say that if you go to a good uni, if you get good grades, you could be a doctor or a lawyer, but they would never push me,” says Chen, who has not been back to Australia in five years and misses baked beans and Tiny Teddies.
Although Melbourne was where Chen started her music career, it was in Taiwan that Chen started to make a name for herself. In 2009, just after she moved to the island at the age of 15, she signed her first record deal with Sony Music and started learning Chinese. The next year she opened for US pop star Kelly Clarkson in Taipei and in 2012, she released her first album, Kimberley.
Chen in a promo shoot for one of her albums. Credit:
Johnny Au, the former editor-in-chief at Australia’s pop culture outlet Hello Asia, has followed her career closely. “She’s really authentic,” Au says. “At that stage, she had attracted attention within the Taiwanese market. Within Australia, she wasn’t as well-known.”
Au said Asian-Australian artists like Chen may have more career opportunities in Asia than at home.
“[Kimberley’s] been part of endorsement deals over Taiwan, and it’s because her face is known,” he says. “Whereas in Australia if you’re not known, it’s quite difficult for that. It’s much more lucrative to be in Asia, that’s just the reality of it.”
Chen also once courted the Chinese mainland. With a booming $4 billion music market, it is the centre of the Chinese-language music world and its lucrative revenue streams.
In 2018, she entered a mainland production of mega-talent show Produce 101, which required 101 female contestants to live, train, and work together before being whittled down to a supergroup of 11.
“I have never had the experience of living with 100 other girls in the same space, it was really fun because normally, when I’m working it’s all by myself, sometimes you miss your friends, and you get a little bit lonely,” she says.
There was interest from Chinese music agencies but in the end, Chen decided to remain in Taipei where she still lives with her parents, her boyfriend, eight cats, and five dogs.
“I have three cats that are paralysed from the waist down,” she says. “I’m a very homely person, I don’t really go out that much, so they’re like my kids. I just swap nappies for them and stuff.”
While Chen was settling in Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party was becoming more assertive, threatening Taiwan’s airspace, eroding democracy in Hong Kong and fuelling nationalism inside China.
She does not want to get directly political about the future of her adopted home and is careful to let Namewee’s lyrics speak for themselves.
“I am not genius enough to write such a cool song,” she says.
She hopes one day she might be able to perform in China again “but I understand, you know, due to recent events, that might not happen, and that’s totally okay”.
Namewee, who performs in Malay, Thai, Korean, Japanese and Chinese, was also invited to join the Chinese market three years ago. He flew to China and had meetings with local agencies, but in the end, he rejected the deal.
“I think my creativity would have been limited,” says Namewee, who recalled the agents required him to stick to the official script on Chinese social media, but also platforms such as YouTube and Instagram that were censored by Beijing.
“For me, it’s freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of creativity [that are] more important than anything.”
Barmé says Fragile offers a valuable lesson for the world about China and its increasingly complex cultural reach.
“This is not just about the challenge of the People’s Republic of China, economic power or military strength, or the Taiwan question, or all of that stuff. It’s about the global community,” he says.
“China has a global presence and its basic cultural symbols, even when they’re being made fun of, people are going to have to learn them. Chinese is not just something you eat at a restaurant. The Chinese cultural world is a complex, nuanced thing that is part of broader humanity and its culture is something worth taking seriously.”
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