The Chinese word for friends, when translated phonetically, is pengyo—a word primed for the pun that Penn’s Chinese a cappella group, PennYo, uses as its moniker. This spring, with a theme inspired by the popular sitcom Friends, PennYo’s show—P E N N Y O, presented in the iconic Friends font—felt even more on brand. The night saw a variety of entertaining yet poignant performances that were fun for not only those in audience who have connections to Chinese culture, but also those who might not understand all the words. Everyone could feel their passion.
Made up of 14 Chinese and Chinese–American students, PennYo puts on a show every semester with a mix of performances in Chinese, English, or a mashup of these—and sometimes even other—languages. On the nights of March 29 and 30, the show opened with an upbeat duet performed by Jason Li (E ‘20), the music director of PennYo, and Michael Zhou (E, W ‘20), who performed a cover of Chinese rock band Black Panther’s “Shameful” (无地自容). The show then returned to a sweet Chinese ballad—PennYo’s specialty—with “Waiting For You” (等你下课) by the popular Chinese singer Jay Chou. The song paints an intimate picture of classroom love, and accompanied many Chinese/Chinese–American students as they grew up in the 2000s. PennYo’s rendition—a duet by Sophia Marks (E ‘22) and Harrison Chen (C ‘22)—did the song justice, as their warm vocals transported the audience back to a time when both love and life were bittersweetly simple.
Another memorable performance of the night came from Carolynne Liu (C ‘20) and Jennifer Qiu (W ‘20), who covered the song “Eye Nose Lips” (눈, 코, 입) by K–pop singer Taeyang, with other covers by Chinese singer G.E.M. and Korean-Canadian hip–hop artist Tablo mixed in. “We ended up mashing [the song] up in all three languages, because we wanted it to be multicultural, and also because the music sounds really great together,” Carolynne, also the president of PennYo, said. The performance was fresh and beautiful, retaining the romance of Taeyang and G.E.M.’s respective versions, while infusing the hip–hop energy of Tablo’s cover. With the emotive performances of the soloists, the transition between each language felt incredibly natural.
The night also saw a great solo performance from Roxanne Zhou (C ‘21), who sang a cover of “Why So Lonely” by K–pop girl group Wonder Girls. With Chinese lyrics that she interpreted and translated herself, Roxanne had a captivating stage presence and sang with a bluesy gusto. “Her voice was just insane,” Karthik Macherla (E ‘22), who was attending his second PennYo show, said.
Other solos of the night came from the three graduating seniors in the group, who each put on unique, passionate performances. They not only had some of their fellow members sobbing in the background as they harmonized, but also allowed the audience to feel the strong community of PennYo.
Partly, this is why PennYo shows always feel so authentic and welcoming. They showcase the intimate space where they celebrate the integration between Chinese and Western cultures, and then bring the audience into that space with consistently great harmonies, truly invested solo and duet performances, and most of all, passion.
For Chinese/Chinese–American students, PennYo's show can not only feel like a splash of home, but also a heartwarming reflection of their cultural experiences at Penn. Moreover, for those who do not understand Chinese, PennYo remains accessible through their English–Chinese mashups and by presenting Chinese music with a universal passion. After all, that is the power of music—to bring us closer to one another through something beyond words or language.
Throughout the show last weekend, there were often moments when the audience and the performers shared in this unbridled joy for music. “Seeing their faces light up when they sing, when the blend is right and the chord locks and the song just takes off,” Jason said. “That is a special moment for me.”
The truth is, it feels special to the rest of us, too.