PETALING JAYA: She is the darling of Malaysia, the actress with many faces and a favourite of film critics and audiences worldwide.
She is, of course, none other than Michelle Yeoh, who – unless you’ve been living under a rock – has been the talk of the town of late.
The Perak-born actress has been bestowed with numerous awards and accolades for her work in the critically acclaimed “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. And the 61-year-old, who holds a Tan Sri title, has just won big at the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday night, clinching the Best Actress prize.
With this win, Yeoh is the first-ever Malaysian to win an Oscar.
So, how did a young lass from Ipoh come rise to such stardom? Her life story is one as exciting as her many acting roles, and deserves to be told more often.
Yeoh’s story begins in Ipoh, where she was born on Aug 6, 1962 to lawyer Yeoh Kian Teik and housewife Janet Yeoh. Christened Yeoh Choo Kheng, she proved to be a capable youngster, mastering Bahasa Malaysia and English. She would only pick up Chinese in her 20s.
For the most part, she was a physically active girl, spending most of her weekends swimming or playing squash.
Her main passion however, was ballet, which she started learning at the tender age of four at the London Royal Academy of Dance. Unfortunately, a spinal injury sustained during ballet practice would shatter her dreams of becoming a professional dancer.
Despite the setback, she persevered and planned on opening a ballet school. However, fate took a strange but meaningful turn in 1983.
That year, her mother signed her up for the Miss Malaysia pageant – which, much to her surprise, she won.
During her tenure as Miss Malaysia, she met Dickson Poon, a Hong Kong businessman who was making a commercial with Jackie Chan in the lead role.
Yeoh was cast as Chan’s co-star, her first dive into the acting world, as well as the beginning of her long friendship with Chan.
Her first true movie role was in Sammo Hung’s 1984 action comedy “The Owl vs Dumbo”. Ironically, she played a woman who needed saving – a far cry from the action girl she is now famed for.
It was in 1985 that Yeoh displayed her talent at action films, with her stunt work in “Yes, Madam!” drawing attention in the industry. “I got myself into action films because I didn’t believe that women were damsels in distress. Their stories need to be told correctly,” Yeoh told the BBC in an interview recently.
On the domestic front, Yeoh married Poon in 1988 and retired from acting for a time. The marriage was short-lived, however, ending in 1992, although the two remain amicable.
Her subsequent comeback that year saw her crowned as the action queen of Hong Kong when she reunited with Chan on the set of “Police Story III: Supercop”.
The blockbuster heralded a string of films that saw Yeoh cast as tough female characters who were as strong as they were gorgeous.
Soon, Hollywood began to take notice of the star, but it was her role as Colonel Wai Lin in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” that shot her to fame in the west.
Not long afterwards, she was cast in Ang Lee’s blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. A personal friend of Lee, Yeoh put on an excellent performance despite difficulties memorising her lines in Mandarin, which she did not speak.
For her work, she was nominated as Best Actress for numerous awards, including the United Kingdom’s Bafta and Taiwan’s Golden Horse.
A star on the big and small screen
Yeoh continued to work on many projects in the following years, taking on roles in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Sunshine”, “Babylon AD” and “The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”.
She also played Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2011 biopic “The Lady”, which saw her being banned from entering Myanmar.
Then, in 2017, she starred in yet another blockbuster, with her performance as Eleanor Young in Jon Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” widely praised by critics.
Besides feature films, Yeoh ventured into other entertainment mediums, with roles in television shows like “Star Trek: Discovery”.
She has also lent her voice to animated films, including the Soothsayer in “Kung Fu Panda 2” and Master Chow in “Minions: The Rise of Gru”.
All said and done, it was last year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” that has cemented her colourful career, with her performance as Evelyn Wang loved by audiences and critics alike, earning her the nomination that would make her the first actress to identify as Asian up for the prize.
To her credit, the classy Yeoh is cognisant of what she represents. “I’m very aware it’s beyond me being recognised as an actress,” she told the BBC. “It’s like a whole community of Asians coming forward and saying, ‘You’re gonna do this for us, you have to do this for us, you will do this for us.’
And today, with her having walked away with an Oscar, Yeoh has added further sheen to the mantle of great Malaysians achieving great things.