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'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' singer CoCo Lee dies at 48

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Internationally renowned singer and songwriter CoCo Lee — the Mandarin voice of the title character in Disney's animated movie Mulan and a hitmaker in three languages — died at a Hong Kong hospital on Wednesday at the age of 48. Her sisters Nancy and Carol Lee announced on social media that she died following an attempted suicide at her home on Sunday.

Lee had been suffering from depression for a few years and that her condition deteriorated drastically in recent months, her sisters noted.

The Hong Kong-born singer, who sang in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, was a huge star in Asia. She recorded 18 studio albums and became the first person of Chinese descent to perform at the Academy Awards with her rendition of "A Love Before Time" in 2001. The song, from the Ang Lee movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, received an Oscar nomination for best original song.

"Music business-wise, there have not been successful Asian artists and hopefully I'm able to change that," Lee said during a red carpet interview.

"It's always tough for the first one. But I believe through time we can do it."

"A Love Before Time" wasn't her only movie-related success. Lee sang the theme song "Reflection" for the Mandarin-language version of Mulan. She also performed "Before I Fall In Love" from the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere romantic comedy Runaway Bride.

Lee became internationally known for her English-language albums and singles, with her dance track "Do You Want My Love" charting in both the U.S. and Australia. In 2001, Lee became a Chanel brand ambassador.

"She had a very distinctive voice," says concert promoter Terry Pan, who organized a concert for Lee at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2009 and says Lee was particularly strong as an interpreter of R&B songs. "Right away, you know it's CoCo Lee."

Born Ferren Lee, she moved to the U.S. as a child with her sisters and mother. She went to school in San Francisco and was crowned Miss Teen Chinatown in 1991.

"She came from our community. She was our Chinatown girl," says Rose Chung, a former beauty pageant winner from San Francisco who knew Lee when she was young. "We were all fans."

CoCo Lee poses on the red carpet at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, Taiwan, on Nov. 26, 2016.
Billy Dai / AP
CoCo Lee poses on the red carpet at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, Taiwan, on Nov. 26, 2016.

After placing high in a singing competition in Hong Kong, Lee released her first album in 1994, when she was 19.

In her final Instagram post, in December 2022, Lee opened up about her struggles. "Life seemed unbearable at times but I adapted the attitude of a 'female warrior' to face them head on fearlessly but always had the biggest smile and big fat laughters!"

About her sister's health, Nancy Lee wrote: "Although CoCo sought professional help and did her best to fight depression, sadly that demon inside of her took the better of her."

Her sister wrote that the singer was in a coma when she was taken to the hospital, and the team there could not revive her.

"CoCo is also known to have worked tirelessly to open up a new world for Chinese singers in the international music scene, and she went all out to shine for the Chinese," wrote Nancy Lee. "We are proud of her!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.