Michelle Yeoh: Smashing age, gender and diversity barriers

10 Mar

The 60-year-old, female, Asian actor has been making headlines for playing Evelyn Wang in the same-titled hit film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as "the Daniels"), for which she's become the first Asian winner of a SAG award and second Asian winner of a Golden Globe for best actress. Her snubbing at the BAFTAs in February drew widespread ire, with many fans saying she was "robbed" of the award. 


Now, she is the first Asian-identifying actor to receive an Oscarnomination for best actress. The ceremony will be held on March 12. Her winning streak has also made her a role model to people of color, Asians and women, especially those of a "certain age."

In "Everything Everywhere All at Once," Yeoh plays a harried immigrant wife and mother facing an Inland Revenue Service (IRS) audit of the family laundromat. Things change when she discovers that there are multiple versions of the universe — and herself — and they're all facing a threat that only her current avatar can stop. Thus she finds herself surfing parallel realities and picking up skills honed by different versions of herself.

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Besides showcasing Yeoh's credentials gleaned from almost 40 years of acting, the film's success reflects her own tenacity in an industry that has often written stereotypical tropes for non-white actors. Picture of a Chinese man and woman standing on a balcony dressed in clothes worn during the Qing dynasty. A procession of people passes by beneath dressed in similar colorful clothes. 

From ballerina to beauty queen

Michelle Yeoh never aimed to become an actor. Born and raised in Malaysia, she wanted to become a ballerina and was enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, until a back injury ended her ambitions. Then in 1983 her mother, Janet, entered her in the Miss Malaysia/World pageant without her prior knowledge. She went on to win the contest. This soon led to appearances in Hong Kong commercials. Her first one was for Guy Laroche watches, with none other than the world-famous martial arts actor, Jackie Chan.

Film offers followed and she rose to prominence in the 1980s starring in a series of Hong Kong action and martial arts films where she performed her own stunts, such as "Yes, Madam!" (1985), "Police Story 3: Supercop" (1992) and "Holy Weapon" (1993).

In an era pre-dating the promotion of "diversity and representation," she had originally worked under the stage name Michelle Khan — instead of her maiden name, Yeoh. This alias was chosen by film production house D&B Films based on the belief that "Khan" would resonate better with international and western audiences. She later reverted to her own name.

Between Hong Kong and Hollywood

She briefly retired from acting in 1987 after marrying Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon, who incidentally co-founded D&B Films, but resumed her career after they separated in 1992. She got her Hollywood break in 1997 when she was cast opposite Pierce Brosnan's James Bondin "Tomorrow Never Dies" as the first ethnic Chinese Bond girl. In 2010, Entertainment Weekly ranked her as the seventh best Bond girl, calling the "savvy Chinese agent," one of the few "wom[e]n of color to match wits with 007" and "the first one you could take seriously."

Yet despite breaking the mold of a typical Bond girl, Yeoh didn't work for two years as Hollywood kept offering her roles of "fragile Asian women." In a 2018 interview with GQ, she recalled: "When I first came to do movies here, I remember very specifically someone said, 'If we cast an African-American lead, there's no way we can cast you, because we can't have two minorities.'" 

Geisha, Nobel laureate, metaverse surfer: She portrays them all

In an interview with TIME that nominated her as its "Icon of The Year 2022," she elaborated that Asian actors have long been given stereotypical or inconsequential roles, and rarely top billing. "It shouldn't be about my race, but it has been a battle," she said. "At least let me try."

Then came Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000, where her martial arts background came to the fore. She also played the regal Mameha in "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005) and was a dead ringer for Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in "The Lady" (2011). More recent hits include "Crazy Rich Asians" (2018) and roles in the "Marvel," "Star Trek," "Transformers" and "The Witcher" series. But top billing eluded her until her role as Evelyn in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

In a CNN interview on February 6, Yeoh revealed that the role was in fact intended for Jackie Chan and she was slated to play his wife. But after Chan turned down the offer, the Daniels role-reversed the story, making Yeoh the lead character. "It was so overwhelming at that point to get a script that said, 'This is a very ordinary woman, an Asian immigrant woman, who is dealing with all the problems that we all can relate to,'" she said.

Iconic acceptance speeches

Meanwhile, Yeoh has also gained a reputation for witty, soundbite-peppered acceptance speeches that often refer to the barriers she's been smashing.

When she won the Golden Globe in January, she recalled how people in Hollywood were amazed at her command of English. "Someone said to me 'You speak English?' I mean, forget about them not knowing Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Asia, India. And then I said, 'Yeah, the flight here was about 13 hours long'," she recalled wryly to uproarious laughter. While accepting her SAG Award in February, she said: "This is not just for me, this is for every little girl who looks like me."

She is being widely tipped to win the Academy Award and in the run-up to the event, she has discussed in interviews her nomination and how Asians now approach her with good wishes for her to win. "I think this is beyond just me. It represents so many who have hoped to be seen in this way, to have a seat at the table, to say, 'I am of value too, I need to be seen too'."


Author Brenda Haas

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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