Released last month, ‘Fragile’ by Malaysian rapper Namewee, featuring Australian singer Kimberley Chen, has become a viral sensation across Asia and beyond despite being scrubbed by censors in mainland China.
The track masquerades as a saccharine love song but is littered with digs towards “little pinks” - a term for China’s online army of nationalist commenters - as well as Beijing’s authoritarian government.
“I never limit myself or impose self-censorship,” Namewee told reporters in Taipei as he and Chen sipped champagne to toast their track’s 30 million views milestone.
“To me, good creations should come from the heart, they should be sincere,” he added.
Mandarin-speaking singers, film stars and celebrities rarely court controversy when it comes to China given Beijing’s long track record of blacklisting those deemed critical of its rule.
A misspoken word can quickly lead to an artist being frozen out of the world’s largest Mandarin-speaking market and a career in ruins.
But the willingness of Namewee and Chen to take on taboo subjects has struck a chord as China grows increasingly assertive on the world stage under President Xi Jinping.
Over the last four weeks, Fragile has been a top trending YouTube video in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia as well as making smaller waves among Chinese diaspora fans in places like Australia, Canada and the United States.
Within days of the track’s release, Namewee and Chen’s Chinese social media accounts were taken down and their music censored while state media accused the pair of insulting the country.
China regularly removes songs deemed to be politically incorrect from domestic music streaming services.
In August, the Chinese culture ministry said it would establish a blacklist of banned songs with “illegal content”, such as endangering national security.
Namwee and Chen are both currently based in democratic Taiwan.
“I think (musicians) should be free to create and that’s every creator’s wish,” Namewee told reporters.
“I am Malaysian and there are many hindrances there for movies, music and other works including my albums,” he added.
The 38-year-old rapper has repeatedly been at the centre of controversy in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
In 2016, he was detained for several days for allegedly insulting Islam over a video partly filmed inside a mosque.
He was arrested again two years later for allegedly insulting Islam with a Lunar New Year video that featured dancers wearing dog masks and performing suggestive moves.
Chen, 27, grew up in Australia but moved to Taiwan in 2009 to pursue a pop career.
After her Chinese social media accounts were pulled, she responded by singing altered lyrics from Fragile’s chorus celebrating that she still had access to Facebook and Instagram, which - like
Here are five ways the song mocks China.
To the uninitiated, “Fragile” sounds like any other saccharine ballad. But even before the music starts the politics are made clear with a warning: “Please be cautious if you are fragile pink.”
The phrase is a reference to “little pinks” - a term for China’s online army of nationalist commenters, who go in to bat against any perceived slight.
The music video’s set is awash with pink, including the clothes Namewee and Chen wear as well as a giant panda - a clear reference to China - dancing in pink camouflage overalls.
The catchy chorus meanwhile centres around apologising to someone who is fragile and cannot take criticism.
At one point in the song, Namewee wrestles with the giant panda in an empty pink swimming pool while singing the line “You say NMSL to me when you get angry”.
For anyone observing online tussles between China’s nationalists and their latest target, the phrase NMSL is ubiquitous.
It stands for “ni ma si le” - or in simple English “your mum is dead” - and is often left in online comments.
Last year a flame war erupted between Chinese and Thai netizens over a Thai celebrity’s comments about the coronavirus.
Thai internet users started to subvert the phrase, creating a host of viral memes that portrayed China’s nationalists as automatons who instantly type “NMSL” whenever they spot something online they disagree with.
Winnie the Pooh
While the main target of the song is China’s nationalist netizens, President Xi Jinping is not spared.
He has long been satirised as looking like the children’s book character Winnie the Pooh - China’s censors often remove online references to the character.
Namewee sings how Winnie the Pooh might disappear people who breach China’s internet restrictions, namechecks Xi’s “common prosperity” drive and references forced labour camps for Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province.
Apples and pineapples
At one point Namewee raps how the subject of his song “swallows the apple, cuts off the pineapple.”
The first is seen as a reference to Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, a pro-democracy tabloid that collapsed after its assets were frozen and multiple executives detained under a national security law.
The second fruit refers to China’s recent decision to ban imports of pineapples from Taiwan, the self-ruled island which Beijing claims and has vowed to one day seize.
Taipei said the surprise decision, just as the harvest loomed, was a pressure tactic by China - although the ban backfired as Taiwanese and Japanese consumers snapped up the surplus fruits.
Namewee and Chen are both currently based in Taiwan.
While the song mostly lampoons Beijing and its digital defenders, Namewee and Chen’s lyrics also reference Chinese people’s supposed “desiring for dogs, cats, bats and civets”.
As that lyric is sung, the giant panda offers Namewee a steaming pot of soup with a cuddly bat stuffed toy inside, in clear reference to the idea - widely debunked - that bat soup started the coronavirus.
The origin of the coronavirus remains unclear and the World Health Organization says it has been harder to pin down because of China’s official opacity.
But the “bat soup” trope has also often been weaponised against both mainland Chinese and many Asian communities living overseas during this pandemic amid a surge of racist attacks and insults.
That element was one of many seized on by China’s state media as it announced the blacklisting of Namewee and Chen.
“The malicious song was released to the displeasure of Chinese netizens and soon led to the delisting of the two artists,” China’s state-run tabloid the Global Times wrote three days after the song’s release.