After smashing glass ceilings with 40 years of exemplary talent, Michelle Yeoh has shared the confusion she felt when she came to Hollywood for the very first time.
In a recent interview with The Rake, Yeoh, now 60, revealed that she did not understand how she became a “minority” upon landing in Los Angeles in the latter part of the ’90’s. At the time, the Malaysian Chinese star had already established herself as a martial arts figure in Hong Kong cinema.
“We have Chinese, Malays, Indians, English, expats, which is great,” Yeoh, who was born in the picturesque city of Ipoh, Malaysia, told the magazine for Issue 86. “So we grew up not really understanding when people ask, ‘What race are you?’”
It turns out the question was thrown frequently in Yeoh’s direction — and she had no immediate answer.
“How on Earth did I become a minority, what does that mean?” she asked. “How many billions of Chinese people are there in the world? How can we be a minority?”
Over time, Yeoh learned the American cultural landscape better. She would go on to champion not only Chinese, but Asian representation, in a more racially homogenous Hollywood.
“I wanted to prove that girls can do this. I wasn’t good at Chinese, so I thought, I will hide behind movement.” – Michelle Yeoh
Issue 86 of The Rake – on newsstands worldwide now and available at the link in our bio.#TheRake #MichelleYeoh #EEAAO pic.twitter.com/qtpeRo6JG0
— The Rake (@TheRakeMagazine) February 10, 2023
Fast forward to 2022, Yeoh starred as Evelyn Wang in co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a role that would land her her first Golden Globe and the first Best Actress nomination for an Asian-presenting woman at the Oscars.
Still, she stressed that “true representation” goes beyond just “ticking the box.”
Over the last few years you see true representation – but what is true representation? You have to talk about inclusivity in the proper way, you can’t just tick the box. Yes, you may have the Asian who does “Asian things” but that isn’t right.
I think because I was in the martial arts genre, where people wanted to see that, they weren’t afraid to write me in those roles, but I would like to be able to see a woman in that role, no matter what race she is, and having to explain that she learns martial arts. White people learn martial arts too, you know.
On Sunday, around 100 guests — including “Everything Everywhere” co-director Kwan and co-star Stephanie Hsu, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” director Destin Daniel Cretton, “Crazy Rich Asians” co-stars Henry Golding and Ken Jeong, Sandra Oh and Lisa Ling — arrived at the new Mandarin Oriental Residences in Beverly Hills for a dinner honoring Yeoh. The event was hosted by Mandarin Oriental, project developer Michael Shvo and chef Daniel Boulud.
Yeoh, who has been staying at the property for the awards season, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about being surrounded by familiar faces:
Look at Sandra [Oh]. Look at Stephanie [Hsu]. We all support each other because we are collaborators. Filmmakers are collaborators. You can’t do this on your own. You need to be able to work with each other and for each other.
It’s been really, really exciting to see so many more roles and stories for the Asian community, not just in front of the camera but also behind the camera. So it’s very satisfying. I think we all want to be seen. We all want to be given the same opportunities. And hopefully next time, no one will say, “Oh, what is it like to be the Asian doing this?” Give the roles to people who can do it.