Michelle Yeoh: I'd rather not work than endorse stereotypes

Michelle Yeoh: I'd rather not work than endorse stereotypes
PHOTO: Warner Bros Singapore

Michelle Yeoh did not want to play a caricature when she took on the role of a dragon lady in the Hollywood romcom Crazy Rich Asians based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel of the same name.

"That was the first thing (director) Jon (M. Chu) and I spoke about when we Skyped to talk about being involved in this movie," the 56-year-old Malaysian actress said at our interview at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills.

"I asked him, 'Are you making a Hangover or are you making something more?' After I'd read the book, I thought it was an amazing opportunity to show the rest of the world the heritage, the traditions of what it is to be in a Chinese family in Asia and also what it means to be an American-born Chinese.

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"The role of the mother is so powerful because the burden, the responsibility was placed on her."

In the story of Crazy Rich Asians, which opens here on Aug 22, Yeoh's character Eleanor Young does not think her son Nick's (Henry Golding) new Chinese-American girlfriend (Constance Wu) is good enough, and makes no bones about it when he brings her home to Singapore to visit his uber wealthy family and attend his best friend's wedding.

Looking impeccable in her character's designer clothes, dripping with jewels (some of them her own), Yeoh excels at embodying the matriarch who says all the expected polite things, but there is no mistaking that subtext.

Other movie mothers-in-law do not even come close to how terrifying she is.

Yeoh thinks Chu breaks all stereotypes about Asians with this movie, adding: "Jon Chu took a baseball and went ka-pow and hit it right out of the park. I think it is time that it is all broken... We should see more and more of that, so this is a good opportunity and I hope there are more opportunities to tell stories like that."

Singapore actors Fiona Xie, Pierre Png work the Crazy Rich Asians red carpet in LA


Of course, we have to talk about her wardrobe. Yeoh said: "We wanted Eleanor Young to be elegant. She is always coiffed and put together because she is not just the perfect mother, but the perfect wife.

"With Asians, the face is very important, so she has to be presented in a way that when everyone sees her they will recognise that she comes from a good background, a very important family."

With a movie of this name, there was no stinting on the costume budget, with brands like Armani and Carolina Herrera.

"I think one of my favourites was during the wedding, and she came in dressed in Elie Saab with all the crystals," Yeoh said.

"I brought in some of my own jewels because we said no fake jewellery for Eleanor Young. She has to wear the real thing.

"We were very fortunate that jewellers would come forward with their own jewels, so we had some bodyguards around the place whenever we had to dress up Eleanor Young."

What about the reported US$100,000 (S$138,000) belt buckle?

"It was (actually) a brooch and we were like no, let us just put it on the belt," she said, laughing. "You will see it on (her dress for the wedding)."

While Yeoh is now working on sci-fi series Star Trek: Discovery shooting in Toronto, Canada, she reflects on her career since Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) put her on the radar of American audiences.

"After I did the James Bond movie, I waited two years and I did not take on another role until (the 2000 Chinese wuxia film) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because the roles that came to me were the stereotypical Chinese Asian roles. If I took those on, I endorsed these representations of us. I would prefer not to work.

"Fortunately, my parents were well off enough that if I had to wait, they were ready to assist me. But then over the years what I have found is, you have to go and seek the roles as well. It is like (the 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi biopic) The Lady. I went and sought that."

And then there is her whole other career in martial arts films.

Said Yeoh: "I have been very, very fortunate that I have had a good balance of martial arts roles and dramatic movies.

"When I was filming Crazy Rich Asians, I was also doing the movie (Master Z: Ip Man Legacy) in China with Master Ping (Hong Kong director Yuen Woo-Ping). It is a spin-off of Ip Man and I play a mafia boss.

"It is a genre of films that is much loved... and they still make some of the best martial arts films."

Yeoh has been with her partner, French motor sport executive Jean Todt, for 14 years, saying: "He adores what I do, and he would never comment and say 'Oh, why are you working in Canada? Why are you doing this? Why don't I see you much more often?'

"I say if you want to see me, come with me, so he is here now (in Los Angeles) and it is vice versa. I don't think I will ever need to give up something as long as I want to do it."

The couple live in her native Malaysia (with homes also in Geneva, Paris and Hong Kong), and she has a lot of relatives in Singapore, which she calls her "second home".

She said: "The Government has done an amazing job with the country. It's literally a small little place, but the sights, the places that they have to offer, like the Night Safari and Botanic Gardens... I think the Singapore Government will be very happy that we shot (Crazy Rich Asians) there."

When asked about her favourite local hawker food, she raved: "Oh God, curry laksa, roti canai and rojak. When you watch this movie, please eat your dinner first. Don't go in the cinema with an empty stomach, or else you will be eating your chair, I swear."


Hot off the heels of the Crazy Rich Asians premiere in Los Angeles last week, Singapore will be hosting its own Crazy Rich Asians red carpet event at the Outdoor Piazza in front of Capitol Theatre on Aug 21 at 7pm.

Leading man Henry Golding, director Jon M. Chu and producer John Penotti are flying in from the US, and Singapore is their only stop in Asia to promote the movie.

Singapore-based actors Pierre Png, Tan Kheng Hua, Koh Chieng Mun, Fiona Xie, Selena Tan, Janice Koh, Amy Cheng, Constance Lau, Daniel Jenkins, Victoria Loke and photographer Russel Wong will be joined by Australian actor Chris Pang, Malaysian actress Carmen Soo and singer Jasmine Chen on the red carpet.

The event is organised by Warner Bros Singapore with the support of Singapore Tourism Board, Singapore Film Commission and Singapore International Film Festival.

This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.

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