As I mentally prepare for the big 4-0, I’ve spent a lot of time this month going on walks and reflecting my current life; in one of these walks I had the idea to create a playlist, featuring forty songs of the most meaningful and representative of my life (so far, I ain’t dead yet!).
You can also check out the rundown below on what each song means to me. If you’ve known me at a specific point in time, it’s fair to say you can easily recognize that part of this playlist.
- 順流、逆流 (Downstream, Upstream), by Paula Tsui
This is honestly the oldest song I can remember hearing as a kid. My dad’s not a big music fan, but he loves Paula and especially this song — mostly because of the lyrics. I remember watching her old performances and Dad would say how this was a “good song” because it taught people to work hard and to strive for their dream.
- 真的愛妳 (Honestly Love You), by Beyond
Another song I remember hearing when I was maybe 6, 7 years old? Mom loves Beyond and especially this song, probably totally not because how this song is all about how loving and giving mothers are. Nice try, mom.
- 血染的風采 (The Glory of Bloodstain), by Anita Mui
This song is very difficult to listen to these days, but it’s important to include as it’s perhaps one of the most political Cantonese song about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I specifically remember this fundraiser event where famous celebrities would perform this song to help raise money for the students in Beijing. Most of those celebrities now sing endless praise for all things China.
- 一起走過的日子 (The Days We Walked Together), by Andy Lau
Andy Lau was famous before, but this song legit elevated him to a whole new level. It was also one of the first “non-kids” song I remember liking. Ask any Cantonese-speaking person to sing this song and they will be able to do so, because it’s that iconic.
- Save the Best for Last, by Vanessa Williams
She performed this song in Hong Kong about one month before we emigrated to the US. I didn’t know anything about her before this song, but to this day I still remember thinking how elegant and pretty she was.
- 情斷維也納 (Heartbroken in Vienna), by Sammi Cheng
This is one of her deepest cut, and years before Sammi Cheng became the famous Cantopop singer of the 90’s and 2000’s. Yearning to be a grown up, I would borrow this cassette tape from my brother and loop this track non-stop.
- Again, by Janet Jackson
The year was 1992 and my mind was blown when I found out about this song, and how it was even better than Toni Braxton’s similarly titled Breathe Again — a song I was already obsessed with. This song captured a lot of that time, when I was fresh-eyed and bewildered about everything San Francisco and America.
- 追 (Chase), by Leslie Cheung
In the now-iconic Hong Kong movie “Who’s the Man? Who’s the Woman?”, the protagonist played by Leslie Cheung was questioning his sexuality and I was subconsciously wondering the same, even though it would be years before coming out and self-acceptance. Both this movie and Leslie reminds me of my brother at that time.
- Foolish Games (Radio Edit), by Jewel
Middle school and I was simply obsessed with this song. I honestly remember thinking, “there will never be a better song than this.”
- Gangsta’s Paradise, by Coolio
Maybe it was my age, or maybe it really was Michelle Pfiffer, but this was the first song that opened my eyes and helped me understand that unlike what my parents say, rap is not bad.
- Lovin’ You, by 彭羚
Cass Phang was perhaps one of the first artist I truly felt connected to and was in love with. She had a hell of a singing range, and was the definition of class.
- Butterfly, by Mariah Carey
This song and album will always remind me of my brother. Not because this was his or my favorite, but the fact that I would do my nightly high school homework while listening to this album on repeat. Like every. single. night, for months on end. He makes fun of me about this even to this day.
- 曖昧 (Uncertainty), by Faye Wong
“Are you gay? It’s okay if you are.” My brother and I aren’t really close, but around high school was when we were the closest. He asked me this question one day out of nowhere, and out of unpreparedness I blurted out “Of course not!”. But deep down I knew I was, and so did he.
- Invisible Man, by 98°
My friend Michael introduced me to this song and it’s honestly still one of my all-time favorites. It wasn’t until their second album (and specifically the pictures in the album, ahem) did I start paying real attention to this band called 98˚.
- Have You Ever, by Brandy
Whether from radio or TV, Brandy was simply unavoidable in the late nineties. I still remember going to the Virgin Megastore on Saturday mornings and just loiter there for hours, and much of the time was spent listening to this album — specifically this song.
- It’s Not Right But It’s Okay, by Whitney Houston
I always knew of Whitney Houston, but it wasn’t until her album “My Love is Your Love” that got me interested in her. Between When You Believe and Heartbreak Hotel was this song, and it’s 👏 just 👏 so 👏 sassy!
- Nothing Really Matters, by Madonna
1998 was a breakthrough year of music, and Madonna’s Ray of Light was one my favorite albums released that year. Similar to Whitney, I didn’t really care for Madonna until seeing the music video for Nothing Really Matters. The message, the beat, the lewk… My seventeen-year old mind was absolutely blown by everything that was this song, and got me following her ever since.
- Gunning Down Romance, by Savage Garden
Besides Elton John and maaybe George Michael, there simply weren’t any gay idols in that era. None that I could relate to, anyways. Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes was close, even if it was years before his coming out. This song captured a lot of my mood during that time of my life — especially the drama and theatrics of it all.
- 開始懂了 (Begin to Understand), by Stefanie Sun
Whenever I return home from college every winter break, I’d meet my high school friends over Karaoke. That’s when my friend Becky first introduced me to Stefanie Sun, and this song was one of her best. There’s this great line in it — 快樂是選擇 (Happiness is a choice) — that really struck me. I thought it was so inspirational, though I didn’t truly believe it at the time.
- One Man Guy, by Rufus Wainwright
I want this song to be played in my funeral! Second year in college was when my friend Wendy introduced me to Rufus Wainwright. I spent my summer nights swooning over his voice and overly-romantic lyrics, though ironically enough this song — one I find so well-encapsulated to my identity at the time — is actually a cover of his dad’s (Loudon Wainwright III).
- Delicate, by Damien Rice
I was an RA in my third year of college and was blessed with a floor full of lovely residents. That’s when I met Amelia, who introduced Damien Rice to me. We’d spend so much time in my room studying, playing Animal Crossing, and otherwise being a group of dorks on a Friday night.
- Unison, by Björk
Ted was the another person who really opened my eyes, musically-speaking. In my fourth year of college, my mother was at the worst of her mental health, and it was Ted who unknowingly kept my days bright through his witty sarcasm.
- Remind Me, by Röyksopp
It all started with a Geico ad where the music was a bit too good to go unnoticed, and before I knew it I’ve been following Röyksopp for over two decades. This song was at the pinnacle of Röyksopp, and was a great follow-up from the Kings of Convenience — my other band obsession at the time.
- Colors, by Hikaru Utada
“If you can’t see the blue sky, you can open your blue umbrella” This life-changing line changed my mindset for good and got me carrying blue umbrellas to this very day. Oh and this song is such a bop, too.
- 5:55, by Charlotte Gainsbourg
Ted was again the one who introduced Charlotte Gainsbourg to me, this time through Air. I just thought her voice was so cool and French, which always, always reminds me of my friends Florent and Christophe.
- 浮誇, by Eason Chan
I spent two years in Hong Kong after college, and this was one of hugely popular songs that my friends and I would belt to in our Karaoke sessions. Eason was in a league of his own, and dare I say this was one of the best songs in his career.
- Breathe Me, by Sia
Having recently returned to the states, I was jobless and alone so what better way to spend my days than to binge watch all of Six Feet Under? The ending of the show was so touching, and a huge part of that was because of this amazing, breath-taking song.
- On The Verge Of Something Wonderful, by Darren Hayes
This song is the definition of joy for me. I still follow and connect with Darren Hayes years after Savage Garden, and amidst all his darker (and sadder) songs there’s this standout that’s all about that moment right before the absolute burst of happiness. I’d play this song whenever something big happens to me, whether it’s getting a job offer or otherwise celebrating a huge milestone.
- Only Girl (In The World), by Rihanna
I took a break after Research Now and went to Australia to attend my cousin’s graduation. This song of the summer was cooling down in the US but it was just heating up in Australia, so this song remained in my iPod shuffle for the majority of that year. It’s also one of my absolute favorite of Rihanna’s.
- Mexico, by Jump, Little Children
There was this guy who would come to SF during the summer and we’d have a complete blast, only for him to return home and practically disappear from my life for the rest of the year. He introduced me to this amazing band, and needless to say this song carried me through the many times I’d have to get over him afterwards.
- Utopia, by Goldfrapp
I was dating Chris for a while and he introduced me to Goldfrapp. We went to their concert one time and my jaw was on the floor when Alison performed this live. She had a flu at the time and was still able to hit that high note flawlessly!
- 垂涎 (Coveted), by Joey Yung
I lived in LA for two years and had a personal project where I would write (exactly) 100 words for (exactly) 100 days. During that time, I spent most of the weekends writing at Starbucks, usually listening to various Cantopop albums. Sidenote: I have this thing where I can’t read or write in the same language as the music I listen to (or else I would get very distracted), so I often listen to Cantopop while writing English or vice versa.
- 鋼鐵是怎樣煉成的 (How Steel is Made), by HOCC
Along with Darren Hayes, Denise Ho is the other artist I really connected with in terms of their outlook in life. Years before her coming out and active role in political activism, she was already considered by many to live a challenging life — often times choosing to speak out on social issues instead of living in the safety net of money and fame as a celebrity. This song written by her friend about her iron-will personality became one of her most iconic hits, and one I can relate to the most.
- 誰 (Who), by Ellen Loo
I can write a thousand words about my love for Ellen Loo and it still won’t nearly be enough. Her tragic death in 2018 left a huge hole in my heart and in ways I’m still recovering from. As a guitarist, she was often told that she’s “good enough for a girl” and over the years became one of the best guitarists in Hong Kong. She will always be my north star on what it means to put in the work to be the best.
- Burn The Witch, by Radiohead
While I like Radiohead just fine, this song and album will always encapsulate that serendipitious encounter at Amoeba Records during that one E3. And can we talk about this song’s build up at the end??
- Here Comes a Thought (feat. AJ Michalka & Estelle)
Ian and Steven Universe will always be inter-related, and for all of the good reasons. Thank you for entering my life and changed it for the better. This song is the essence of not just the cartoon show, nor of us, but of all the special moments we share between us.
- everything i wanted, by Billie Eilish
This song knocks me off my feet and makes me feel all the things with every single listen. Emotional, melancholy, and so damn honest — this song captures every reason why I think Billie Eilish is so, so special. And in the age of Canadian and British imports, is it bad that I’m weirdly proud that she’s from LA, of all places
- People, I’ve been sad, by Christine and the Queens
When this song came out in the very beginning of the Covid lockdown, the world was so scary yet there was a real sense of unity between humanity — at least that’s what I saw with my rose-tinted glasses. It really taught me the importance to practice kindness in life but especially during that difficult time. This song will always remind me of that time and place for me.
- The Path, by Lorde
This song is incredible and almost life-changing for me. In between working remotely and doomscrolling, I was trapped in a dark place until this song opened the skies for me — reminding me to take pause and let nature show me the way.
- Build It Better, by Natalie Imbruglia
As I’ve mentioned, 1998 was a really big music year for me, and a crucial part of that was Natalie Imbruglia’s debut album — Left of the Middle. I’ve followed her ever since then, as to me she’s such a symbol of resilience to keep moving. Her new album is unapologetically optimistic, something that my younger self could never relate to but feels right at home today.