Figures of Speech: Michelle Yeoh

Every year, the country tends to celebrate the same historical figures. They are the civil rights leaders, suffragettes and contributors to society whose faces we see on calendars and postage stamps. These same figures resurface annually when we commemorate those who have transformed America and quite frankly, they deserve all of their accolades, and then some. But in light of Women’s History Month, we’d like to take the time to highlight women whose inspiring contributions have been otherwise-invisible. 

Nearly 40 years into her esteemed acting career, Michelle Yeoh showed and told the world on Oscar Sunday that a woman is never past her prime. Unironically, the acclaim came from her performance as Evelyn Wang, a middle-aged Chinese-American immigrant who saves the world through kindness, compassion and love – values she has exemplified throughout her own work. 

Yeoh, hailing from an affluent Malaysian family, was born on August 6, 1962, in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia. Her mother dedicated her time to raising Yeoh and her siblings, while her father was a distinguished politician in the country. From a young age, she exhibited her competitive spirit through sports such as basketball and swimming, but it was the graceful movements of ballet that ignited her love for the arts. Moving to London with her family at 15, Yeoh pursued her passion for ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance. Unfortunately, a spinal injury put an end to her ballet career, and as any artist would, she redirected her talents elsewhere.

In 1983, at the age of 20, Yeoh participated in the Miss Malaysia pageant, and it came as no surprise when she won. The newfound fame brought her opportunities that would ultimately lead her to stardom. Following her win, she made her debut in a wristwatch commercial with Jackie Chan and soon after, signed her first movie deal for The Owl vs. Bumbo, a Hong Kong action comedy. Yeoh was fascinated by the fighting sequences in her debut film and immediately began to learn martial arts to prepare for future roles. Her background in ballet and rigorous training made the transition easy, and she went on to mesmerize audiences through various action roles, where she delivered her own martial art stunts – a feat few have achieved.

After taking a break from acting between 1988 and 1992, Yeoh returned to the industry with another physically demanding role in Police Story 3: Supercop, again starring alongside Jackie Chan. She continued positioning herself in groundbreaking roles, where she showcased her fearlessness, gracefulness, and stunt expertise, cementing her status as an action icon. Despite suffering cracked ribs and fractured vertebrae on some occasions, Yeoh persevered. Her breakout role came in 1997 in the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, where she became the first female lead of Asian descent in the franchise – just one of her many ‘first’ accomplishments. 

Yeoh’s passion for acting prompted her to learn Mandarin in the 2000s for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a performance that earned her a Best Actress nomination at the British Academy of Film and Television. Her career continued to take a new trajectory as she transitioned from her traditional stunt work to roles that showcased her acting prowess. From Crazy Rich Asians – the first Hollywood production featuring an all-Asian main cast – to Star Trek, Yeoh made her mark in nearly every genre. And on March 12, 2023, she shattered yet another glass ceiling, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Actress at the Oscars for her enthralling performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Now one of the most recognizable actors in the world, Yeoh’s passions and achievements stretch far beyond the world of film. Her humanitarian and philanthropic work has led her across the world in support of everything from sustainable development to women’s rights. After experiencing firsthand the tragic earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, Yeoh made it a priority to revisit the country to spotlight recovery efforts and the importance of disaster preparedness, but also to advocate for the existing inequities that aren’t often exposed until after a major tragedy – like the earthquake – strikes first. And because of her passion for empowering the most vulnerable, the United Nations Development Program named her a Goodwill Ambassador. 

Throughout her life, Michelle Yeoh has been a voice for the voiceless, a tireless advocate for women across the globe and an inspiration for anyone questioning if their dreams can become a reality. And as we all witnessed just days ago, no matter your ethnicity, gender, or age, any and every dream is more than attainable.