Best Actress Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, in the role of her life, shatters the glass ceiling to smithereens.
“For my husband [Donnie Yen] to be invited to be present on stage for this year’s Oscars, and being in the theatre among so many legends was definitely a night to remember,“ recalls Cissy Wang, 48 hours after the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles. “But this particular Oscars is so important as we witness, live, history in the making! When Michelle [Yeoh]’s name was announced, Donnie and I both jumped for joy. It was a moment so many of us have been waiting for. A very emotional moment for the entire Asian community.
And no less pertinent for Prestige magazine in Hong Kong. Our launch issue, way back in the dim distant, pre-Instagram, pre-Spotify sands of 2005, featured Ipoh, Malaysia-born Yeoh on the cover, promoting Memoirs of a Geisha, which she’d made in the luminous company of Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Ken Watanabe. In retrospect, how could we not have cover-girled her?
The ambition, ferocity and grace that had brought Yeoh global recognition (which many thought as far as she could go) was in reality just another stepping stone for Yeoh. Was Geisha the best movie she’d ever done? “No,” she told us. “Unless you choose to retire, you always think that the next role is going to be more challenging. You need to be constantly challenged into thinking, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve not done that.’ There are so many things I haven’t explored or done.” Such as? “I want to go dog sledding. I want to go camping in the wind.” And despite the Japanese culture, dance steps and language being so different from her Chinese provenance, if she’d been born in the time of Mameha (the character she’d played), would she have made a good geisha? “I’d have been the best.”
The best. US film director Oliver Stone once told this writer in a former life that Yeoh was “a woman of elegance and magnificent grace – the young grand dame of Hong Kong cinema.” This was the “reluctant” star who was playing a lead role in her third movie Yes, Madam (1985), alongside Jackie Chan, and became a Bond girl with close ties – literally handcuffed in a famous motorbike scene – to Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, in the year of Hong Kong’s return to China (1997). She was already setting precedents in her approach to work. “I won’t be a stereotyped Suzie Wong,” she said, referencing The World of Suzie Wong. “With this movie, we’re beginning a new generation of Bond girls.” And charismatic screen heroines. She was rapidly leveraging a personal brand that felt one part Diaghilev, one part Dirty Harry.
And one with a blueprint to the future mapped out. “Hollywood is beginning to recognise that the world market includes Asia – and that’s a very big market out there,” she told us in the ’90s. “The curtain is going up, and now we’re finally going to be able to have a good show.” That statement, shortly before she made the Bond film, followed one of her worst injuries – jumping off a 5.5-metre-high wall, hearing her neck snap as she landed and “every muscle, every ligament in my body was screaming”. In other words, everything, everywhere, all at once was in agony. “They put me in cement to keep me immobile,” she said. A month later, she was filming.
Post-Bond, the legendary – and late – former Time magazine film writer and Asian film supporter Richard Corliss penned the following line. “It will be a great show indeed if Michelle Yeoh is at the centre of a Hollywood movie. That would be the toughest stunt any Hong Kong actress has pulled off.”
Last year the same title named her one of the 100 Top Influential People and writer Kevin Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians) noted that Yeoh was achieving “the impossible again and again”. An aristocratic Malaysian beauty who’d become the queen of Hong Kong’s male-dominated action cinema. She’d done that. And then Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Crazy Rich Asians, from subverting stereotypes in a Bond movie and breaking into the global consciousness with an Oscar-winning kung-fu epic, Yeoh had done it. Not only had she front and centred a Hollywood movie, she led the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years to become the highest-grossing romantic comedy in over a decade.
And then came Everything Everywhere All At Once. When The Daniels directing duo approached Yeoh about the contemporary sci-fi project, she knew it was special. As Evelyn Wang, a downtrodden Chinese immigrant who owns a struggling laundromat with her husband, and whose unassuming trip to her business’s IRS audit turns into a bizarre, whirlwind adventure spanning the multiverse – it’s quirky, wacky and weirdly engaging fare. “This is something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time, which is going to give me the opportunity to show my fans, my family and my audience, what I’m capable of,” Yeoh said. “To be funny, to be real, to be sad. Finally somebody understood that I can do all of these things.”
If those words issued from an especially deep place, consider that Yeoh, despite her humongous successes, has acted – and competed – alongside the finest in China. In working with Li (Geisha) and Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Geisha), Yeoh has mixed in the celluloid company of extravagantly talented stars. Li’s only crime was saturating the big screen long before Hollywood was ready for her, and Zhang, once dubbed “the little Gong Li”, was conscious of her legacy. “Times are different now from Gong Li’s day,” Zhang told this writer on the set of Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2000.“Chinese cinema has been rising for some time, has more exposure, and therefore my chances of becoming internationally known are better.” Zhang’s next stop was Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour, and it wasn’t hard to draw parallels with Yeoh.
What was Zhang’s favourite moment of Crouching Tiger? “It’s when I first meet Michelle Yeoh, when she comes to me to seek out the sword, and we fight. I have to play innocent, despite knowing the whole story and having stolen it, I have to pretend to know nothing. I like that scene … very much.”
Cinematic audiences loved it to pieces. In droves. Then and now. Google it again, and watch, wonder and weep at its multi-layered majesty. While Yeoh parades an inventory of piercing weaponry with the pitch-perfect movement of a fighting Fred Astaire, Zhang parades an acting prowess barely imaginable in such a scene. Cinema cognoscenti to this day call the six-minute sequence between Yeoh and Zhang the most dynamic and elegant combat scene in the history of cinema.
But brilliant and passionate though her performances were, Yeoh didn’t get the plaudits. Film folk thought Zhang stole Crouching Tiger – and almost a decade later said the same of Li and Geisha. Sylvia Chang, this month’s cover star, told this writer in 1999 that “all over the world, even Hollywood, a good role for a female actress over 40 is very hard to come by. So I went the more aggressive route by becoming a director. It helped me stay in the business longer.”
Luxury consultant Peter Cheung, who works closely with Prestige magazine and helped assemble our Women of Power 2022, on which Yeoh was prominent, has known the actress since both were partying their late twenties. In Cheung’s various roles with Dior, Versace and Van Cleef & Arpels, their paths crossed often and they became friends. “When Michelle won the Oscar, I screamed, jumped up and down clapping then I just cried. I’ve been such a fan of hers for so long that I still pinch myself that I can even humbly call her a friend. This couldn’t have happened to a better, more daring and kinder person. In the decades I’ve known her, she’s always shown kindness and genuine care, which is so rare for a famous global figure in such a brutal industry.” For good measure, Yeoh’s also been a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Development Programme since 2016. “What you see is what you get. I can’t wait to see her again and give her a huge hug,” Cheung says.
Although Hong Kong actor Karen Mok hasn’t worked with Yeoh, she shared the following sentiment. “Like everyone else, I am of course thrilled about Michelle’s ‘grand slam’ win. She is an inspiration to so many of us in the industry, the Asian community, and beyond.” The terms “grand slam” and “beyond” manifest the stature of this cultural Yeohment. “Michelle is a true inspiration to all women,” says Cissy Wang, “[for] her dedication, work, intelligence and elegance. I will always remember her speech. “Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you, you’re never past your prime.”
A continent and a global audience rose in unison with Michelle’s Yeohment. And in Everything Everywhere All at Once, she finally found a project, both commercial and personal, that allowed her the freedom to go camping in the wind, and indulge it to the hilt.
“This is a historic moment. Tonight we broke that glass ceiling,” Yeoh said post-award in her Oscars95 press room interview. “Light that fire in your soul, and stay on the path, believe and dare to dream. Nothing is impossible, look at me, I’m here.”
And the rest … is one for all, and all for one. The future is a braver new world of representation on a multiverse of levels, where Everything Everywhere … belongs to Everyone All At Once.