With Fragile, Namewee and Kimberley Chen sing their tongue-in-cheek ballad of lost love and separation. Image: Namewee on YouTube
On the surface, it’s a bittersweet duet between two lovers. The video is cutesy, populated by plush toys, saturated in pink. But you don’t need the dancing panda to detect that Fragile, the Mandarin-language pop song from Malaysian artist Namewee and Australian-born Kimberley Chen, is layered in irony.
“You claim that I belong to you,”sings Chen of the pair’s “inseparable” relationship. Namewee and Chen are both based in Taiwan, and the song is a powerful critique of China’s attitudes towards the country.
“Pardon me my honesty, the truth does always hurt you badly. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so blunt, I’m so sorry,” Chen sings.
Fragile was released last October and quickly banned in China, with state-owned media calling it “malicious” and “insulting”. In response, Namewee said that he didn’t feel it was himself who had been subjected to a ban, rather the Chinese people denied the chance to listen to the song.
As is often the case, trying to silence the song only amplified its message. It now has over 63 million views on YouTube, and gained fresh potency this month when tensions in Taiwan escalated after a visit from US Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Defying warnings from Beijing, which claims that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory, Pelosi became the most senior US politician to visit the island in 25 years. She met President Tsai Ing-wen and promised that the US would not “abandon” Taiwan. In response, China increased military activity in the area, firing live ballistic missiles in an invasion rehearsal.
But instead of being cowed, the Taiwanese people are defiant. And it’s the mood of the song Fragile that best exemplifies the feeling of the population towards China. That’s according to Vivien, from Taipei, who doesn’t want to be identified beyond a pseudonym.
“By watching [the video] you’ll get the vibe of how Taiwanese people see China’s provocative actions in general,” she says. “In Taiwan, we really appreciated Nancy Pelosi’s visit and the media all over the world showing their concern by covering the story.
“It means a lot to us and our voice needs to be heard. But you would probably be surprised how Taiwanese people reacted to the visit.”
As the island became the target of superpower sabre rattling, the population was not shaken.
“There is not much fear or anxiety here. People talk about China’s reaction and think it’s a bit funny, just like the Russian saying ‘China’s final warning’.”
In the 1950s and ’60s China would issue a final warning every time American military jets would patrol the Taiwan Strait – by 1964 there had been more than 900 of those final warnings, leading it to become a Soviet proverb meaning an empty threat.
Vivien explains that under the Taiwan Relations Act and Taiwan Travel Act, Pelosi is able to unequivocally visit Taiwan any time she wants. It doesn’t mean that she either denies the notion of One China or supports the independence of Taiwan.
“She came just to show she cares for Taiwan, democracy, and her respect of the status quo,” Vivien adds. “It was the Chinese government who brought the drama and made it seem like a huge deal. They arranged military drills near Taiwan.
“They made a lot of celebrities share a post on social media saying ‘There’s only one China’ during the visit. A famous Taiwanese singer, Hebe Tien, was sent loads of bullying messages from Chinese netizens just for posting a photo of herself eating pasta. Taiwanese people started posting pictures of pasta on Facebook and Instagram to make fun of it.”
While leaders decide how diplomatic they want to be with each other, opinion is often formed by trending topics on social media. That is why Fragile was so powerful. A primary target was the ‘little pinks’, a name for the online army of Chinese nationalists who attack those considered to be attacking China.
The Great Firewall gets a mention, the Chinese government’s stringent censorship of websites including Facebook, Twitter, Google and, of course, YouTube.
“Swallow the apple, cut off pineapple,” sings Namewee, a reference to the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong being forced to shut down, and the fact that in March last year, China banned pineapple imports from Taiwan.
There are also mentions of Winnie the Pooh, a character taboo in China since President Xi Jinping took power and comparisons were drawn between him and the honey-loving silly old bear.
The song is a mix of horribly serious issues – including the human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority – and a panda playing in a ball pit.
Speaking to the BBC, Namewee said: “We get very angry about certain news but when our anger or hopelessness passes a certain point, we can only laugh at the absurdity of it. I wanted to use a sweet, sarcastic way to respond.”
Vivien agrees that China’s attempts to intimidate are ultimately self-defeating.
“For the past several decades, China’s moves only demonstrate again and again how different Taiwan and China actually are. Especially among the younger generation, the pro-democracy attitude gets stronger and stronger.
“The threat is always there, but it’s impossible to walk on eggshells every day. The only things we can do is to live our best lives and vote for what we believe in every election.”