ASIA

MADE IN

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Front Page - By an Ac­tress in a Lead­ing

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.

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