Hong Kong-born pop star CoCo Lee has died after a years-long battle with depression. She was 48.
Lee’s sisters, Carol Lee and Nancy Lee, confirmed on social media that the “Reflection” singer died Wednesday as a result of a suicide attempt a few days earlier at her Hong Kong home. She was hospitalized Sunday, slipped into a coma and subsequently died.
“With great sadness, we are here to break the most devastating news: CoCo had been suffering from depression for a few years but her condition deteriorated drastically over the last few months. Although CoCo sought professional help and did her best to fight depression, sadly that demon inside of her took the better of her,” the Lee sisters wrote on Instagram, adding that they’d like to thank the medical staff for their care throughout the ordeal.
The Lee sisters said they were grateful and honored to have had such an “excellent and outstanding” sister, and they thanked God for giving them “such a kind angel.”
“Although CoCo stays in the world for not [a] long time,” they wrote, “her rays of light will last forever!”
Lee was born Jan. 17, 1975, in Hong Kong and moved to San Francisco with her mother, a surgeon, and two older sisters as a child. Her father died before she was born. She was crowned Miss Junior Chinatown in middle school and was class president in high school. After graduating, Lee studied at UC Irvine.
In 1993, while CoCo was visiting Carol and Nancy, who had returned to Hong Kong, her life switched course with a bang when she auditioned for what she described as the “Star Search” of Hong Kong: the 12th annual “New Talent Search.” She was one of 10,000 applicants.
“I was thinking they would never pick me, I was this chubby little girl from San Francisco who could barely speak Cantonese,” Lee told Bloomberg in 2012. “The song that I was gonna sing was an English song, so I had a lot of disadvantages, but they gave me the callback. I was very proud.”
She sang Whitney Houston’s “Run to You” and was the first runner-up in the competition. The day following her appearance on the show, she was approached by executives from Capitol Records’ Hong Kong office with an offer for a record deal.
“On that stage, I felt no fear. And it was such an incredible feeling to me. How could I not be afraid, not nervous on such a big stage where you have 20,000 people watching? And that’s when I felt this is where I belong. This is where I’m most comfortable, performing for people.”
Lee was inspired by artists she grew up listening to in the ’80s and ’90s including Houston, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. But she told The Times in 2000 that transposing R&B into Cantonese was challenging “because Cantonese is a tonal language — meaning that the same word can have up to seven meanings, depending on the pitch at which it is pronounced.”
“Because of this, the licks and riffs employed by R&B singers in English are impossible in Cantonese,” she said, “because changing the pitch of a word also changes its meaning.”
So to pursue a vocal career in a style that she grew up listening to in San Francisco, Lee taught herself Mandarin, which she told The Times has more tonal flexibility. Her Americanized take on Asian pop was embraced throughout Asia, and Lee’s career quickly took off.
In 1998, Lee was hired to sing the theme song, “Reflection,” and to be the voice of the heroine Fa Mulan in the Mandarin version of Disney’s “Mulan.” In the summer of 1999, the star performed in Michael Jackson’s “MJ & Friends” charity concert, and in November of the same year, she released her debut full-English album, “Just No Other Way.” Lee’s love ballad “Before I Fall in Love” was featured on the “Runaway Bride” motion-picture soundtrack, and her single “Do You Want My Love” became an international hit.
In 2001, Lee’s “A Love Before Time” became the end-credit title song for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which she performed at the 2001 Academy Awards. Also in 2001, Lee became the first Chinese Chanel brand ambassador for the luxury fashion house’s Asian region.
In 2000, The Times wrote that while the American music industry had been pining for its next Ricky Martin, the Epic Records Group had found “the next great ‘crossover’ superstar” in Hong Kong.
“The next Ricky Martin sings in Cantonese and Mandarin and English, and she’s definitely not a dude. Her name is Coco Lee. … [L]ike Martin, she’s a multilingual, bicultural American who has sold millions of albums in a language other than English and is eager to make her mark in a mainstream U.S. pop world.”
Leehom Wang, an American singer-songwriter known as the “Chinese king of pop” memorialized Lee on Instagram, writing that the two were teenagers when they first met in Taiwan, both relatively new to the country and barely able to speak Chinese.
“One night a group of us went bowling with the [L.A. Boyz] and I can still remember she was the life of the party, every guy had a crush on her but assumed she was out of their league. She had a radiant smile, an infectious laugh, a larger than life personality. She already had all the qualities that were to make her a future star.
“Her star kept rising. She was the biggest star at Sony, and then, she was the biggest star in Asia. I remember her singing at the Oscars, Sony New York signed her to be the first Chinese artist to break into the United States Market. Mariah Carey’s agent signed her. Everybody wanted to work with CoCo, and for good reason. She was the best,” Wang continued.
“In the music industry, CoCo Lee broke down international barriers, before any other Chinese singer did. Let’s always remember her, as a brave pioneer, and an important musical legend.”
In 2011, Lee married Bruce Rockowitz, a Canadian businessman who is the former CEO of Hong Kong supply chain company Li & Fung and the chairman of Rock Media International and co-founder of the Pure Group.
CoCo Lee is survived by her sisters, her mother, her husband and two stepdaughters.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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