Beautiful, powerful, and timeless are just a few words that describe this accomplished actress. From being Miss Malaysia to an international action star; she challenged gender boundaries in Hong Kong action films by doing her own stunts. In a time when we are looking for more Asian representation in media, let’s take a look at the career of mega superstar Michelle Yeoh.
Born Yeoh Chu-Kheng in Ipoh, Malaysia, on August 6, 1962, Michelle is the daughter of Janet Yeoh and Yeoh Kian Geik, a lawyer and MCA politician.. Malay and English were her first languages,later followed by Cantonese and Mandarin. Michelle knew from an early age she wanted to dance, so at age 4 she began ballet lessons. This would continue for many years when she moved to the United Kingdom at age 15, continuing her lessons at a boarding school, eventually enrolling into The Royal Academy of Dance in London. Due to an injury, her ballet career abruptly ended, yet she did get a degree in Choreography and Drama.
In 1983, Michelle competed in a few beauty pageants winning the titles of Ms. Malaysia and Ms. Moomba. Her pageant victories led to commercial appearances with action star Jackie Chan which caught the attention of Hong Kong film company D&B films. Going by the stage name Michelle Kwan, her first role was more damsel-in-distress, it was on the set of The Owl vs. Dumbo in 1984 which inspired her to make a change. She trained more than 10 hours a day to get into fighting shape for more physical roles. Her next set of films showcased that training, and it all paid off with her third film Yes, Madam earning her a nomination for Best Newcomer award and solidified Michelle as an action star.
Michelle would star in 3 more action films – In the Line of Duty, Dynamite Fighters (Magnificent Warriors in America)and Easy Money., before marrying D&B executive Dickson Poon and retiring from acting. Both the her marriage and retirement lasted only 3 years. In 1992 Michelle made her comeback in Police Story 3: Supercop this movie was a box office success and elevated Michelle to the top female action star. Over the next few years Michelle would see more highly successful films such as The Heroic Trio, Tai Chi Master and Wing Chun. As Michelle’s superstar dome in Hong Kong peaked, she began to draw the curiosity of the American market.
In 1997, she finally gained international acclaim by staring in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, Pierce Brosnan went on record applauding the now Michelle Yeoh saying she was “a wonderful actress” and “she could be a female Bond”. Michelle’s biggest success came in 2000 when she was cast in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The movie was box office success and opened the door for Michelle to take on more dramatic roles.
In 2002 Michelle produced her first film The Touch through her production company Mythical Films. Her next western role was the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha, followed by the sci-fi film Sunshine in 2007, then the action fantasy The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor along with Jet Li. Michelle finally went back to TV in 2014 appearing in the fifth and final season of the Cinemax action series Strike Back. At last, Michelle reprises her role of Yu She Lien in the Netflix produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
Michelle Yeoh’s full career has been trying to break the stereotype that Asian women are fragile.”If we stick to this very stereotype and we endorse those kinds of characters then, yes, the audience will think ‘yes, the Chinese girls are like that’ or ‘the Japanese girls are delicate little butterflies.’ We are delicate, but we are silk and steel. Put it that way.”