Born in Hong Kong and raised in the United States, CoCo Lee became one of the first singers to build a career in Asia before making a breakthrough in North America. The surprise runner-up in a talent contest that she entered on a lark, Lee’s career had an unlikely start. Even more astounding was her immediate signing to a Taiwanese label in 1993. Quickly becoming a sensation, her contract was bought by Sony Records in 1996. At Sony, Lee’s popularity in the Chineselanguage market translated into multimillion album sales. In 2000 she turned her attention to America, where she hoped to become a crossover success with her first Englishlanguage album, Just No Other Way.
Born on January 17, 1974, in Hong Kong, Jin Lee spent her early childhood in the tiny British colony. She took on the nickname “CoCo” at her sister’s suggestion, as she remembered in an interview with Time Asia: “Her favorite perfume was Coco Chanel, and we both thought it was a really cute name. Everyone remembers a name like that.” Lee was the youngest of three daughters in the family, which relocated to San Francisco in the 1980s. Her mother, who was a medical doctor, set high standards for her children. “I could not talk to boys until I was eighteen,” Lee recalled. “I had to study and work hard.”
Although she did not take formal singing lessons, music was a part of the everyday life of the Lee family. CoCo was a fan of George Michael, Whitney Houston, and Debbie Gibson, and her sisters also had an interest in music. “Both of my sisters sing really well and always entered contests and won,” Lee recalled in an interview with Charlie Craine of Hip Online. “I’m just a little copycat. I didn’t know I could be a professional. I can’t read music and I’ve never taken vocal lessons, not even to this day.” Still, Lee was encouraged to pursue a safer career path; indeed, after high school she followed her mother’s direction and entered the University of California at Irvine to study biochemistry. She gained some valuable stage experience, however, when she entered the Miss Chinese-American pageant in 1991, which she won.
Two events were pivotal in Lee’s musical career: First, she recorded a karaoke tape at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco; when a friend played it in her family’s restaurant, some of the patrons asked where they could buy a copy. This demand sparked a more serious interest in pursuing music as a career. Second, Lee entered a national singing contest in Hong Kong the summer after she completed high school while visiting her sisters on vacation. Although she was the only contestant to sing in English, her rendition of the Whitney Houston song “Run to You” earned her a secondplace award. Although Lee later joked that she entered the contest simply to win enough money to repair damage to her mother’s car after she had a traffic accident, the event was the real beginning of Lee’s career as an entertainer. Almost immediately, she was
For the Record…
Born Jin Lee on January 17, 1974, in Hong Kong.
Grew up in the United States; entered talent contest in Hong Kong, secured recording contract, 1993; first album released in Hong Kong, 1994; released English-language debut, Just No Other Way, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Sony Records, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-3211, website: http://www.sonymusic.com. Website —CoCo Lee Official Website: http://www.cocolee.org.
signed to the Hong Kong division of a Taiwanese record label, which rushed out her first album in June of 1994.
In the fast-paced Asian pop music market Lee recorded and released four albums in the first 14 months of her career. She later reflected in a Hip Online interview that this quick succession of albums was not the best way to start a career: “In Asia, we do everything so fast that the quality of the music isn’t as good. That is why the music there shouldn’t be compared to the music in the States.” Lee’s hard work made her a sensation in the Chineselanguage markets of East Asia, however. Popular in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, she also learned Mandarin to add to her native fluency in Cantonese and English. In 1996 Sony Records bought out her recording contract. Although her output was still impressive, Lee limited her releases to two albums per year after she signed with Sony.
In addition to her striking good looks, Lee’s success came from her willingness to take risks in the typically conservative Chineselanguage pop music industry. “If you listen to Chinese music, it’s so commercial,” she told Time Asia. “They always follow the format and I hate that. It’s more important to break new ground.” Lee also had a distinctive voice that was influenced by some of the pop and R&B singers she listened to while growing up in America. When it came to making her own music, she explained to Hip Online, “I incorporated the R&B, ad-libs, and pop styles into the traditional Chinese music, and that was strange for people.” Lee added in an interview on her website, “People liked my voice so much, it was so different…. Everyone there used to sing really conservatively—they sing to the melody and that’s it. The music just sounded so dead. I wanted to bring the R&B flavor and other Westernized sounds to my music, because that’s the type of music I grew up listening to.”
By the year 2000 Lee had released nine albums in the Asian markets. With sales of her Chineselanguage releases estimated between five and seven million units, Sony believed that Lee had the potential to become the first Asian crossover star in the mainstream American pop market. The label began to build her profile by adding one of her songs to the soundtrack of the Julia Roberts movie Runaway Bride. “It was the first time that I saw my name in a truly international context,” Lee told Time Asia. “I was so excited about the release date of the soundtrack. I was at the record store, just like a little girl, and when people picked it up I wanted to say, ‘Hey, that’s me.’”
Entering the studio in 1999 to record her first English-language album, Just No Other Way, Lee enjoyed the relatively leisurely pace in contrast to her usual schedule. “In these nine months, I was really excited,” she told Malaysia’s New Straits Times-Management Times upon the album’s release there in November of 1999. “I just couldn’t wait until the release because I have the best producers to work with, and I really learned a lot about myself…. As a result, the music has so many levels to it, so the picture is really full.” Lee’s American record label, which had previously helped Celine Dion cross over into the English-language market, also helped the singer to conduct an extensive promotional tour on the album’s behalf.
Just No Other Way was a big seller in Asia, with sales estimated at more than 700,000 copies; however, it failed to make a big impact on the American charts when it was released in 2000. An Entertainment Weekly reviewer dismissed its first single, “Do You Want My Love,” by noting that “Although blessed with the vocal chops to compete with Christina Aguilera…. Lee is handicapped by a singsong tune.” Her contribution to the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 was better received. The song “A Love Before Time,” which Lee sang in both English and Mandarin, was nominated for an Academy Award, giving her more exposure when she appeared on the Oscar telecast to perform it.
After living in Taiwan for several years, Lee relocated to Los Angeles to continue her focus on the North American market. Despite her status as a superstar in Asia, however, she insisted that she was still relatively unburdened by her success. “I’m not a business person,” Lee explained to Time Asia. “I have no sense of money. My mom does everything for me. She makes all my decisions for me, and even buys my clothes. She’s very protective.”
Di-Da-Di, Sony, 1999.
CoCo, Sony, 1999.
CoCo’s Party, Sony, 1999.
Sunny Day, Sony, 1999.
Just No Other Way, Sony, 2000.
You and Me, Sony, 2000.
(Contributor) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (soundtrack), Sony, 2000.
(Contributor) Runaway Bride (soundtrack), Sony, 2000.
Billboard, November 20, 1999, p. 90; January 22, 2000, p. 18; May 26, 2001, p. APQ-4.
Entertainment Weekly, February 4, 2000, p. 72.
Hollywood Reporter—International Edition, August 15, 2000, p. S-6.
New Straits Times-Management Times (Malaysia), November 13, 1999; December 5, 2000.
CoCo Lee Official Website, http://www.cocolee.org (December 13, 2001).
“Dreaming with CoCo Lee,” Hip Online, http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/l/lee_coco/interview/100106.html (December 13, 2001).
“Everyone Remembers a Name Like CoCo,”Time Asia, http://www.time.com/time/asia/features/interviews/2000/11/20/int.coco_lee.html (December 13, 2001).
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