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The Bookish Life of Michelle Yeoh

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

Michelle Yeoh, who turned 60 last week, is a Malaysian Chinese actress, former Miss Malaysia, martial artist, and so much more — she’s lived a very bookish life and is set to continue on that path. She has recently been in the public eye as the star of Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is not based on a book but has the multiverse vibes of Sal and Gabi Break The Universe, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and The Space Between Worlds.

Yeoh was born on August 6, 1962, in Ioph, Perak, Malaysia. She took ballet lessons beginning at age 4 and continued after her family moved to the UK when she was 15. A spinal injury while she was at the Royal Academy of Dance led her to switch majors to choreography, with a minor in drama. After a few years of beauty pageants, she appeared in a TV commercial with Jackie Chan, and began working in cinema, where she performed her own stunts.

She got her cinematic start in Hong Kong action movies, including Heroic Trio (one of my personal favorites) in 1993; the same year, she starred in Butterfly and Sword opposite Tony Leung, based on the novel Liuxing Hudie Jian by Gu Long. In 1997 she began making Hollywood movies, beginning with a starring role in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th in the series based on Ian Fleming’s novels and the second starring Pierce Brosnan.

In 2000, she starred opposite Chow Yun-fat in the internationally acclaimed, Mandarin-language film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an American-Chinese co-production based on Wang Dulu’s Iron Crane series. A native Malay speaker who also speaks Cantonese, Yeoh learned her Mandarin lines phonetically. The movie has since been adapted as a comic book, among other things. She continued to work in both Chinese and American cinema, and in 2004 starred in the titular role in Silver Hawk, based on the character from Huang Ying by Xiao Ping.

In 2005, Yeoh starred in the adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden. The film’s casting was controversial, as Yeoh is Malaysian and star Zhang Ziyi and co-star Gong Li are both Chinese, while the characters are Japanese. The film’s western box office was middling after a high opening week, and reviews were mixed; China banned the film entirely and the reception in Japan was mostly negative. It was nevertheless nominated for several awards.

Although Yeoh never stopped working, she took on several under-the-radar roles, including Far North, based on a short story by Sara Maitland; The Lady, a biographical film about Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon based on Iron Knight, Silver Vase by Wang Dulu; and a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. She had a recurring role on Star Trek: Discovery from 2017 to 2020.

In 2018, Yeoh starred as one of the titular Crazy Rich Asians in the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel, playing Henry Golding’s domineering mother. The film was a box office and critical success, though it was also criticized for some of the casting choices, including casting non-Chinese actors in Chinese roles and of non-Chinese Singaporeans in subservient roles only.

In 2021, Yeoh returned to the MCU in a new role as Simu Liu’s aunt in Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The film cast Chinese and Chinese diaspora actors in Chinese roles, and was a critical success.

In her personal life, Yeoh is a Buddhist, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and a patron of the Save China’s Tigers project. She is also Popo (grandmother-in-law) to her partner’s grandchildren. And we know she reads — she even Instagrams her bookish encounters.

And if all that wasn’t enough, she voices a Minion.

American Born Chinese, a Disney+ series based on the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, wrapped shooting last month and is set to premier on the streaming service in the near future (an exact date has not been announced as of this writing). Also upcoming is an adaptation of The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, coming to Netflix in fall 2022.