Why does the chameleon change its colors? To hide. To accent a mood. It’s a tactic and a physiological compulsion. It also extends beyond compulsion into expression; it’s an effort to speak, to express, to connect.

Melbourne-based musician Yeo, 34, has been called a chameleon in more than one way. A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer whose heritage winds back from Australia to Malaysia to Southern China, Yeo has his own take on what it means to be a shapeshifter. His most recent transformation? A foray into Mandopop and his first time singing in a language other than English.

Last month, Yeo and Taiwanese-Australian collaborator Chendy (Wendy Chen) released a new single, Have a Nice Life (好好的過), an R&B-pop hybrid that bounces between English and Mandarin. The ballad has the two singers playing off one another with contrasting ranges, registers, and styles and juxtaposes a sugary sound with a story of post-breakup grieving.

Yeo’s 2019 Recovery Channel was a self-reflective, mellow R&B album, so the shift to Mandopop felt fresh. Yeo said tinkering with a more pop production energized him and allowed him to do what he does best: mash sounds pulled from the massive variety of music he has listened to and played to create something exciting and novel.

Yeo and Chendy connected over their shared approach to songwriting and wrote the new track in 2019 at Yeo’s home studio, originally intending it to be a gentle guitar and vocal duet. Chendy, nervous about co-writing, and Yeo, self-conscious about singing in Mandarin, both found the collaboration an affirming experience. “I really believe in her talent,” Yeo said. Earlier this month, the duo released a second, acoustic ‘ballad edit,’ a version more similar to their original demo.

Have a Nice Life tells the story of an unexpected breakup and two characters who wonder whether it was right to end the relationship. They also wonder whether it was right to begin it in the first place, and this undercurrent of alienation brings depth to the song. Tones of fear, pain, and doubt in their abilities to know another and feel known echo through the lyrics and the video’s cinematography.


Photo Credit: Yeo

Two instruments, two singers, two lovers, a parent and a child, this place and that one — between two beings there always exists a possibility for disharmony and a choice of whether to run from that dissonance or work through it. Both Chendy and Yeo straddle two cultural worlds and both know well the challenges of living and loving across oceans, languages, and cultures. This tension seems present in the song as well.

Chendy, who wrote the melodies and Mandarin lyrics, grew up speaking Mandarin and English and studied in Brisbane before starting a music career in Taipei. As for Yeo, who produced the song and wrote the bridge, he struggled for many years with cultural gaps separating him from his parents on the one hand and from mainstream White Australia on the other.

In the early 1980s, like many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, Yeo’s parents emigrated against the backdrop of tumultuous post-independence politics. The young family arrived in an Australia still dismantling its own racist immigration laws and were confronted by new challenges, including anti-Asian racism. “It’s a weird place if you’re not just a White dude,” he said of Australia.

During his early years, Yeo spoke his mother tongue, Penang Hokkien, fluently, and the family returned to Malaysia often. As he advanced through school this changed. To avoid being bullied, he distanced himself from anything marking him as an outsider: from the food his mother packed in his lunchbox, which his classmates called stinky, to his language, which his classmates mocked.

Though his mother enrolled Yeo in Mandarin lessons to keep the China connection alive, Yeo wasn’t having it and goofed off in class. “Mum would speak to me in Chinese and I would reply in English,” Yeo said. “I regret that now.”

It wasn’t until many years later that Yeo, just beginning to grasp the importance of identity and heritage, agreed to give an interview about his music on a Mandarin language radio show. “I showed that to Mom, and she was really happy,” he said. “So, I’ve kind of circled back.”

Singing in a Chinese language for the first time represents another step in Yeo’s long, curving journey back to reclaim pieces of himself he once discarded. The idea came after he noticed singers from Korea, Japan, and the U.S. without Chinese roots singing in Mandarin anyway. “I was like, if they can do it, I’m sure I can do it,” Yeo said.


Photo Credit: Yeo

“Production in the studio with my brothers from M1LDL1FE,” Yeo said.

After the session with Chendy, Yeo put off recording his Mandarin parts. Eventually, he overcame his reservations and enjoyed it. “When I was putting the finishing touches on [the song], I definitely had my mom in my mind, being like, ‘I hope she appreciates this.’ Because she probably never saw this coming.”

Yeo’s background and musical shapeshifting has made navigating Melbourne’s cliquish music scene challenging. Recording in Mandarin likely won’t make it easier. Though Yeo has a group of devoted fans, many of whom have their own diasporic family histories, he felt his music had plateaued in Australia. “We don’t really fit into what’s widely consumed here,” he said.

As a result, his attentions have shifted to Asia’s music scenes. Besides the track with Chendy, Yeo spent much of 2019 working with musicians in Singapore. He said to expect more music from him in Mandarin, possibly an EP, and also forthcoming music from those collaborations with Singaporean artists like Indie-Pop group M1LDL1FE.

Now the 34-year-old singer often travels in Asia. On trips to Singapore, he hangs with new friends and enjoys soaking in the sounds of Hokkien, refreshing his language skills. Yeo recently returned to his parents’ hometown of Penang after nearly 20 years to visit his father’s final resting place. He said he felt fond of the coastal city. Familiar scents and food reminded him of childhood visits and of the fluidity with which he once moved back and forth between his two worlds.

Yeo no longer moves so easily between the two, and neither he nor his family view him as Malaysian in the way they once did. Australia also still presents challenges. Covid-19 as a virus and a pretext for emboldened anti-Asian racism can be discouraging. Singapore represents a middle ground, a place where Yeo feels comfortable and doesn’t have to be either Australian or Malaysian-Chinese.

“We’re a little bit like chameleons,” Yeo said. “We code switch depending on where we’re at. I think it’s built into all of us. Because we want to communicate.”

But for Yeo, the best way to connect has little to do with identity politics. After spending so much time feeling his way back to his roots, Yeo said he’s ready to refocus on music. “It’s strange,” he said, “I just released a song in Mandarin, but to me, it’s just music, this universal language that works across everything.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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