“A gamechanger for the Asian community”: Before Shang-Chi and Everything Everywhere, Michelle Yeoh Was in a Movie That Revolutionized Asian Culture in Hollywood

Michelle Yeoh transforms Hollywood and the industry is all the better for it.

michelle yeoh

SUMMARY

  • Michelle Yeoh brought her Hong Kong action movie expertise into Hollywood with her debut in the James Bond franchise.
  • Michelle Yeoh charts a trailblazing path in the industry with one revolutionary role after another through the years.
  • Despite stepping out of her usual genre, a rom-com helped Michelle Yeoh revolutionize Asian culture in Hollywood.
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Michelle Yeoh dominated the action film industry long before Hollywood caught up to her standards. Competing against the likes of Jackie Chan, the Malaysian-Chinese actress made Hong Kong action cinema her home with classics like Yes, Madam (1985) and Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992). 5 years later, the entire world would come to know of her in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as a no-nonsense agent skilled in martial arts who was anything but a Bond girl.

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Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies [Credit: Universal Pictures/Eon Productions]
Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies [Credit: Universal Pictures/Eon Productions]
However, being pigeonholed into a stereotype, be it in the Hong Kong film industry or Hollywood, was never in the cards for Michelle Yeoh. The trailblazing star’s career path – from ballet at 16 to winning the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant at 20 to rising as an indomitable force in the stunt-action movie industry at 23 to winning the Oscar at 60 as the first Asian actress, nothing has ever been out of her reach.

Michelle Yeoh Transforms Hollywood for the Better

Real change can only be affected when a pioneer in the field charts a path for the first time, setting a precedent for generations to come. Michelle Yeoh was that pioneer when it came to the arena of Asian culture and martial arts. After revolutionizing the movie industry with Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), she went on to terrorize millions with her role as the mother of the groom in Crazy Rich Asians (2018).

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Michelle Yeoh (R) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Credit: Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures]
Michelle Yeoh (R) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Credit: Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures]
However, to compare her physicality in the action movie with her subdued role in the rom-com would be a gross mistake. Despite the 2018 film’s straightforward plot, Yeoh established a formidable character and broke down cultural myths through a role that did not need her to lift a single finger. Her character, Eleanor Young’s persona underneath all the filthy rich display of opulence was, in her words, “a game-changer for the Asian community”

In an interview with The Guardian, Yeoh claimed:

Originally, she was just written as mean. But the rest of the world would just say, ‘Uh-oh. Asian tiger mom.’ It’s not that superficial. She wasn’t accepted by her own mother-in-law, and she had to fight to keep her family together. I see it all around me: the sacrifices women make. Sometimes it’s not appreciated. That’s very relatable to me, so I knew she was not this cold, cruel person.

Crazy Rich Asians was followed by Marvel’s 2021 fantasy spectacle, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) which won her the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role – a first for Yeoh and the entire Asian community.

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Michelle Yeoh Instills Terror in Crazy Rich Asians

Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) [Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) [Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
2018’s breakout box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu in the lead, was a surprising and refreshing take on the rom-com genre, even without the cultural divide embedded in the plot. However, it was Michelle Yeoh’s role as the quiet, calculating, and intimidating matriarch that stole the spotlight in the movie. Comparing the film to Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Yeoh says:

Shang-Chi is something different: it doesn’t change the game but it endorses and cements what belongs in our community. What was amazing in Crazy Rich Asians was being able to represent that culture in Asia itself, rather than in Britain or America.

As a result, her role as Eleanor Young portrayed an inherent aspect of the Asian culture that has been misconstrued, exploited, and wrongfully stereotyped in Hollywood cinema. By going all out on her portrayal of Young, Michelle Yeoh disbanded the notion of disapproving mothers and replaced it with terror – “I’ve had men and women come up to me and tell me, ‘I’m so scared of you.’ I love that!”

6 years later, a sequel to the hit Jon M. Chu rom-com is in the works with scriptwriter Amy Wang adapting the screenplay from China Rich Girlfriend, the second book in Kevin Kwan’s trilogy. Filming is slated to begin in 2025 and will be released in the form of a Max-distributed series [via Variety].

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Crazy Rich Asians is available to stream on Netflix.

Diya Majumdar

Written by Diya Majumdar

Articles Published: 1676

With a degree in Literature from Miranda House, Diya Majumdar now has over 1600 published articles on FandomWire. Her passion and profession both include dissecting the world of cinema while being a liberally opinionated person with an overbearing love for music, Monet, and Van Gogh.