Michelle Yeoh: An Asian-American Representation Icon

Last year, Kevin Kwan’s critically-acclaimed trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians, received its film adaptation. The movie was directed by Jon Chu and starred Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and more. It was the first American film to feature an all Asian-American cast. Needless to say, the film’s wide success proved a monumental step towards representation for Asian-Americans. One of the cast members, in particular, has long involved herself in this particular battle for Asian-American representation on mainstream Western media: Michelle Yeoh, who plays Eleanor Young, Nicholas Young’s strict and overbearingly protective mother in the film.

Yeoh, 56, has been acting in movies for more than half of her life. She debuted as an actress with a series of commercials that she starred in alongside Jackie Chan. Before Crazy Rich Asians, she starred in a variety of movies, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Memoirs of a Geisha. She has even produced her own movie, Touch. Because of her extensive history in the film industry, Yeoh has been a long-time advocate for Asian-American representation in Western media.

Image Source: rawpixel.com

“Because I've been in the business for a while now and I've been trying to push this East-West envelope for so long, and it's been so far and few between, the roles that are really cast for Asians,” said Yeoh about Crazy Rich Asians. “It took 25 years for this movie to be made, and the pressure was enormous. I was terrified. Terrified, because if it didn't work, it would've set us back another 25 years.”

In addition to being an advocate for Asian-American representation, Yeoh wants to make sure that Asian-Americans are being portrayed correctly and positively. Asian-American females are often portrayed as fragile and submissive. Yeoh is adamant about changing this negative perception, and the characters that she plays definitely do not fit this stereotype.

“If we stick to this very stereotype and we endorse those kinds of characters then, yes, the audience will think 'yes, the Chinese girls are like that' or 'the Japanese girls are delicate little butterflies,’” said Yeoh. “We are delicate, but we are silk and steel. Put it that way."

Image Source: Satoshi Hirayama

While Western media still has a long way to go before the Asian-American community receives the recognition that they deserve, we are lucky to have films such as Crazy Rich Asians and individuals like Michelle Yeoh making these significant strides in entertainment history.