According to Michelle Yeoh, she thinks no more of playing a Korean or a Laotian or whatever than an English actress would think of playing a German or a Pole. So that’s a data point worth considering, when the debate comes up. Actually, she’s Malaysian by birth, though Chinese by descent. She still doesn’t read Chinese at all, though she speaks Cantonese. She had to learn her Mandarin lines phonetically for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I think a lot of Americans tend to think of China as more monolithic than it is; even the language that we call “Chinese” is a number of mutually unintelligible languages that still somehow get called “dialects.” (Yeoh doesn’t read any of them.) Which I guess is why Americans who do know get so touchy about the casting thing; we’re worried that it contributes to the “all those people look alike” sort of thing.
Actually, Yeoh is another person I’m doing for this column despite not being enormously familiar with their body of work. It’s not that I dislike her; it’s that I’m not a huge fan of martial arts films. I’ve seen Crouching Tiger, of course, and Memoirs of a Geisha, and I think I’ve seen Tomorrow Never Dies once not long after it came out. But I’ve never seen a movie that she did with Jackie Chan, which I believe is like a lot of them? They’re just not films that appeal to me much. I am charmed and amused that Jackie Chan is now an honorary Oscar recipient, but that doesn’t mean i’m going to rush right out and watch a bunch of his movies.
Though apparently Yeoh is one of the only women Chan allows to do her own stunts in his films. Her training is in dance, not martial arts, and what little I’ve seen of it, it looks as much like dancing as anything else. She is extremely graceful. I don’t think those skills completely translate to martial arts, but this is cinematic martial arts, after all. It’s about knowing where your body is and how it works. Clearly, that’s something Yeoh is quite capable of handling, and that’s why she has had the career she’s had.
I believe Yeoh was one of the Asian women considered for the role of the Ancient One, before Marvel decided that having an Asian woman as the Ancient One was just asking for some really awful fan fiction. I would say, though, that she seems to have had the career she’s wanted. She even retired from acting for a while, when she was married in the late’80s and early ’90s. Someone who would retire from acting for a marriage is probably content with not having a big, splashy acting career. Besides, she’s going to be a Starfleet captain on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.
While researching this article, I discovered that Yeoh has received a wide array of honours and official positions. She has recieved a Malaysian title, Darjah Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak, from the sultan of her home state of Perak. She is also one of the small number of people to hold the title of Tan Sri from Malaysia, though I can’t tell if she’s one of the variety where there can be 250 living or the variety where there can only be 75. I don’t know much about Malaysian titles, of course. I also don’t know much about United Nations Global Road Safety Ambassadors. But she shares that job with Grover.