Australian singer Kimberley Chen has been reading a book her producer gave her: Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. “I think it’s a great book for everybody,” she said.
It’s also a fitting title for this stage of the 27-year-old’s career, as she shrugs off China’s censors and rides a surge in popularity worldwide following her new collaboration with Malaysian artist Namewee on the satirical love song “Fragile.” The runaway hit pokes fun at easily-provoked Chinese sensibilities.
Since its release in mid-October, the song’s music video has been viewed over 27 million times on YouTube and has topped music charts in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Chen is based.
“The attention has been a lot. It’s been a bit overwhelming… but it’s a good overwhelming,” the singer told HKFP.
“Fragile” is loaded with references interpreted as digs at China’s legions of easily-angered netizens, as well as jibes at leader Xi Jinping.
Its music video, shot on a cotton-candy pink set mimicking the “Little Pinks” — a reference to China’s nationalist keyboard warriors– features a dancing panda harvesting chives, and waving flags displaying the acronym “NMSL,” commonly used by Chinese internet trolls to insult another user’s mother.
The song’s music video is subtitled in simplified Mandarin, the character system used in mainland China.
One line reads: “Swallowed the apple, then you had to cut the pineapple too.” This is seen as commentary on the forced closure of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily after a national security crackdown this summer and China’s earlier ban on Taiwanese pineapple imports.
Many experience the song’s double entendres as cathartic comedic relief against the backdrop of an increasingly belligerent Beijing, which has engineered a national security crackdown in Hong Kong, raised tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and responded to international criticism of its human rights record and questions over the origins of the Covid-19 virus with coercive diplomacy.
“As a mainlander living in the United States, this song really sings the thought and feelings of overseas Chinese, who feel that the mainland has become more and more terrifying in the past two years,” one YouTube comment reads.
Within three days of its release, Chen’s profile on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, was suspended and her back catalogue was wiped from China’s internet.
In response to the ban, Chen posted a video of herself on Instagram singing altered lyrics to the chorus of “Fragile.”
“Sorry I hurt you, Weibo suspended? No worries… I still have IG, I still have FB,” she sang, referring to Instagram and Facebook. Both platforms are banned in mainland China.
Chen told HKFP the video was a way to reclaim the narrative with humour and levity.
“At the time, I thought: ‘What better way than to relay my message through music?'” she said. “So I took charge of how I wanted people to see my message. And what I was trying to say was, ‘Although this happened, I’m OK.'”
Namewee, who has also been blocked in China, has said on his Facebook page that the hit’s runaway success was not because of the song itself, but because “a lot of people have had an awakening.”
‘Respect my decisions’
Chen, who had no part in writing the song, is coy about its intended meaning, saying she did not expect its lyrics and references to be analysed as much as they have been.
“I guess this song goes out to all the sensitive people out there,” she said with a grin.
“When people are making a big deal, or being negative, they say ‘Oh you’re being fragile heart… It’s just a way to say ‘check yourself’… That’s the power of music. It gets through to everyone in different ways and people can think of it in different ways.”
For the singer, it’s less about standing up to China than standing up for her own values.
“Standing up for what you believe in, no matter what that might be, as long as you do that without attacking people or hurting them physically and mentally, that’s everyone’s right,” she said.
“Everyone has their own voice and their own opinion. When you’re oppressed or censored, it’s never a great feeling because you are the way you’re born. However you’re born, it’s just the way you’re made and you can’t change that, so that’s something that should never be shamed.”
As a Mandarin-language singer, Chen now faces the reality of never again being able to perform for fans in China. It’s a consequence she’s at peace with.
“I will always want to sing wherever I’m welcomed… And if my presence makes people uncomfortable, then I don’t want to force people either. And I never want to force myself onto any situation. So if that’s the decision that people have made, then I respect that too, just like I hope they respect my decisions.”
When asked whether she would consider future concerts in Hong Kong after the release of “Fragile,” she said she would be open to the opportunity, but it may have to be online.
“I would be very happy to see my Hong Kong fans… whether it be online or in person. If the opportunity comes… we’ll definitely do what’s within the law, what is safe.”
‘Don’t be afraid to be yourself’
Chen, who moved from Melbourne to Taipei in 2009 to pursue a career in music, attributed this strong sense of belief to her upbringing in Australia, where she was encouraged to speak up and voice her own opinions.
“As a kid, I was raised in an environment that encouraged us to stand up for what we believe in. And simply raising your hand and asking questions and not being afraid of expressing your opinions. Even if you’re wrong, even if you make mistakes, that’s the whole point of growing up and learning from your mistakes, that’s so important.”
“Now that I’m older, I have acquired the ability to know when I’ve done the wrong thing, when to apologise, and know my boundaries too. I guess that’s why [this song] comes very close to heart.”
Her decision to collaborate with Namewee also stemmed from an itch to grow as an artist and explore new ways of creating music, saying she felt “stunted” being confined to singing her older, safer songs while in mainland China. Her first hit in 2009 was a love ballad, “Aini” or “Love you.”
“As an artist, when you grow, you want to try different genres, you want to try different styles, you don’t want to limit yourself to singing those safe, ballad love songs,” she said. “So I guess my new material, even before “Fragile” – was already banned. My new material had things like ‘be yourself’… and that was already too much for their system.”
‘Right side of history’
As the song’s popularity keeps growing and views and listens rise into the tens of millions, Chen also hopes that posterity will also judge her well.
“I’m so proud to be on the right side of history, thank you everyone for giving me strength. I will keep going and not give up!” she wrote in an Instagram post.
“In school, I was a history major. History is a really big thing for me because history is about storytelling,” Chen told HKFP. “And every story, maybe not in the moment, many years after the incident has happened, there’s always been the right side of things. And I really hope that I’m able to stand on the right side of things, I hope that I’m doing the right thing.”
Chen hopes her future work will also bring similar attention to other issues, like climate change.
“It’s just one of the premises of living – to do the right thing, and to hope for the best.”
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