Michelle Yeoh recently headlined one of the wildest, most transformative movies of the year: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (2022). Soon after it released, she was awarded the #SeeHer Award at the Golden Gala in June. During her acceptance speech, she said, “Why can’t women, especially Asian women of a certain age, be more than just an immigrant character?”
Asian actors have been a part of Hollywood history since Anna May Wong, but the range of roles offered to them, especially when it comes to women, has been narrow. Either Asian women are shown as subservient, trembling dolls who need a white saviour or they’re fierce, manipulative assailants. For the longest time, if there was a Chinese or Japanese character in a Hollywood film, they were bound to be the bad guys. According to Stop AAPI Hate, 68% of the victims of hate crimes against Asians are women. While it’s impossible to ascertain exactly how much of anti-Asian sentiment can be attributed to popular culture, the way communities are represented in mainstream entertainment plays a big role in how they’re seen by the rest of society.
Ever since Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Asian stories and Asian actors have been getting more attention from Hollywood, but one actor who’s been making her community proud for years is Michelle Yeoh.
Born in Malaysia to an affluent family, Yeoh almost had a career as a ballet dancer. When an injury sealed off that option, she ventured into the Hong Kong film industry, initially playing the – no surprise – damsel in distress. She wasn’t happy to just watch her male counterparts perform dangerous but choreographed stunts. Yeoh started her action career in hit films like Yes, Madam (1985) and Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992) in which she starred opposite Jackie Chan. Since then, Yeoh has performed in an enviable range of roles, often portraying women who are strong, elegant and subversive. Through her work in projects such as Gunpower Milkshake (2022), Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), the actor has proved to be a one-woman battering ram against the stereotypes that surround Asian women.
Here are 5 such roles that we loved.
1. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (2022)
The interdimensional, sci-fi saga was originally centred around Jackie Chan, with Yeoh playing his wife. But when Chan was unavailable, directors Daniel Kwan, and Daniel Scheinert (also known as The Daniels) had a Eureka moment – why not cast Yeoh as the lead character? Thus came into being EEAAO’s unlikely hero Evelyn Quan Wang, an ageing Asian-American laundromat owner who must fight an evil force taking over the multiverse.
Evelyn is the opposite of what you’d consider a formidable assassin – with greying hair, a queer daughter she cannot get along with and a life full of regrets, she seems like the quintessential Asian mother. “She is the voice of those mothers, aunties, grandmothers that you pass by in Chinatown or in the supermarket that you don’t even give a second glance to,” Yeoh said in an interview. Tasked with saving the world from an all-powerful version of her daughter, Evelyn gradually learns to accept herself and mend her relationship with her daughter in the process. The film is an imaginative look at the dynamic between immigrant parents and their children.
2. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Asian actors have a long history of appearing in James Bond films – but it’s not a very pleasant legacy. Bond girls, regardless of their race, were always viewed as sex objects (even their names were double entendres such as Pussy Galore). The 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice infamously features Sean Connery asking Tsai Chin (a Chinese actress), who plays Bond girl Ling, “Why do Chinese girls taste so different from the others?”
By the time Yeoh was approached to play a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), a gradual shift was taking place. Yeoh’s Colonel Wai Lin is a formidable badass, matching Pierce Brosnan’s Bond at every step. She is often listed as one of the best Bond girls of all time. Yeoh’s role marked not only the franchise’s shift in viewing Bond girls as equal to James Bond but also in giving dynamic roles to non-white characters in the franchise.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Historically, martial arts films from East Asian countries have stood at the lowest rung possible for their depiction of women. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out for giving us three multidimensional female characters, including Yu Shu Lien played by Yeoh.
Shu Lien is a seasoned fighter – a father in the film says that he hopes that his newborn daughter will be half as strong as Shu Lien — and has a complex romance with another legendary fighter (which is rare for wuxia films, where romantic relationships are usually marked by a power imbalance). Yeoh imbues her character with grace, intimacy and strength. The film’s success changed how American (and other countries’) audiences viewed Chinese women. “If you read a lot of Chinese literature, there have always been very strong women figures — warriors, swordswomen — who defended honour and loyalty with the men. So it’s not new to our culture, it’s always been very much a part of it. It’s good that now the Western audience would have a different image of the Chinese women,” Yeoh said in an interview.
4. The Lady (2011)
Yeoh played Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at a time when she was still revered as one of the world’s most respected pro-democracy leaders (her subsequent stand on the Rohingya crisis has significantly tarnished her image). The film offered a portrait of the Burmese politician, focusing on her marriage with British academic Michael Aris and their children. Yeoh seemed to transform and while her performance of the leader’s quiet strength received praise, the actor was blacklisted from entering Burma by the country’s authorities at the time. Acting opposite Yeoh was David Thewlis (who played Aris), who is among the most celebrated British actors of his generation. As Aris, he played the role of a husband who supported Suu Kyi’s decision to stay in Myanmar instead of living with him and their children in England. This specific dynamic between a British man and an Asian woman turns the “the Lotus Blossom” stereotype — which shows East Asian women as subservient to men, particularly foreign men — on its head.
5. Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
As the sword-wielding Emperor Philippa Georgiou, Yeoh made history as the first female Asian in the Star Trek franchise to hold such a principal position. Emperor Philippa Georgiou is the Captain of the starship Shenzhou and mentor and de facto mother figure to the series lead Commander Michael Burnham, played by another woman of colour, Sonequa Martin-Green. Yeoh spoke about why the role was important to her: “I understand when I’m sitting in that chair and I’m coming across as an Asian woman captain, it means so much to women of Asian descent everywhere around the world. Because it just tells them that we are recognized to be in a position of power.” And even though she was in her 50s at the time, Yeoh performed all her own stunts.
Such was the impact of Yeoh’s performance as Emperor Philippa Georgiou (and – spoiler alert – her evil Mirror Universe equivalent) that the character will have its own spin-off series, reportedly called Section 31.