t the start of Michelle Yeoh’s acting career in the early ’80s, the publicity powers- that- be decided she would be much more marketable to international and Western audiences if the Malaysian actor changed her name. And so it was that Michelle Yeoh became Michelle Khan.
“One of my uncles called my dad and said, ‘Did Michelle marry an Indian man?’” Yeoh recalls with a peal of laughter. Speaking to Stellar from LA, the 56-year-old enunciates her words carefully, a likely result of being fluent in not only English but Malay and Cantonese. “Then I realised if people can say the name Schwarzenegger, how difficult is it to say Yeoh?”
It was only once she had close to 20 film credits under her name that Yeoh decided Khan just wouldn’t cut it anymore. “I thought, ‘Maybe I have to be who I am and be proud of that. If they like me, they’ll make an effort to remember me.’”
Audiences not only liked and remembered her, they cheered for her – especially when Yeoh made the crossover from Asian actor to Hollywood star in the James Bond franchise with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. While there is still a dearth of Asian faces in feature films and television in 2018, Asian actors in mainstream movies 20 years ago were even more rare. Especially ones who were not a staid cliché of “the bad Chinese guy/girl”, a stereotype that Yeoh is keen to avoid.
“I have had a very blessed journey [in this industry], in the sense that I’ve always been able to choose roles that empower women. Because that’s how I see women,” she tells Stellar. “I will not endorse any stereotypical clichés of what an Asian woman should be.”
Pierce Brosnan, Yeoh’s co-star in Tomorrow Never Dies, has called her the “female James Bond”. In recent years, there have been calls for just that – a female Bond – and Yeoh is onboard to play the part, with one exception: “It has to be a different kind of Bond. Not a womanising kind of Bond. Just… no.”
After Tomorrow Never Dies came more roles for a Western audience, notably the critically acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and 2005’s Memoirs Of A Geisha, as well as a surprise cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 2017 and a lauded turn in TV series Star Trek: Discovery, this year and last.
Much like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, her latest film Crazy Rich Asians is set to introduce Asian culture to a wider
audience. Based on the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan, the Hollywood film boasts an all-asian cast and director, and Yeoh applauds that significance. “It’s a long time overdue. I’ve been waiting a very long time for something like this to happen,” she says. “[This film] is about Asians from all over the world coming together to bring a story about love, values, family and what it is to be Asian – whether you’re born in America or Australia, or whether you’re born in Asia.”
She is quick to note the film is “not just about, ‘Oh yes, we need more diversity.’ No, this is a good representation of who we Asians are. It’s not a period piece, it’s not a martial arts piece; it’s contemporary, it’s today, and it’s inclusive. We must stand together to ensure we’re not desperate to just be part of something. We are proud to be who we are. We will demand roles that showcase us in the proper light.”
She credits her supportive parents for getting her to a point where she has that ability. It was her father, in particular, who encouraged her to chase her dream, telling her: “You have to carve out your own path.” Yeoh’s path led her to England as a teen, where she attended ballet school, a discipline she had been studying since she was just four years old. A spinal injury later crushed the dance dream but did not crush her spirit. “Don’t let anything or anyone define you,” is what she learnt from that chapter, she says now. After winning the title of Miss Malaysia when she was 21, Yeoh went on to star in a number of commercials with other wellknown Asian stars, such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun- Fat. She was offered a film contract while shooting an ad in Hong Kong. “I never thought I’d be an actor,” Yeoh muses. “It was fate.” Given her love of dance, it’s no wonder Yeoh quickly became famous for her stunt work on set. And don’t go expecting that to change anytime soon, even as she nears 60. “Oh yes, I still love it,” she says with a laugh. “I just finished a film in China where I play a hotshot mafia gangster. It’s been quite an exciting year, you know? One day I’m in China being the head of a triad, then I’m Eleanor in Crazy Rich Asians, dressed in splendour and jewels, and then I’m back in space with Star Trek. What more could a girl want?” Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas nationally from Thursday, August 30.