An open letter to Michelle Yeoh
There are aspects which deserve attention, at a time of ever-increasing ethnocentrism and religious bigotry in Malaysia.
Malaysia is naturally, and rightly, ecstatic at the fact that compatriot and daughter, Ipoh-born Michelle Yeoh, received the Best Actress award at this year’s Oscars in Hollywood, becoming the first Asian to do so. There is special pride in Hong Kong too where she began her movie career despite rusty Cantonese.
There is pride around the Chinese world and particularly in the diaspora, which has known of her talents and beauty since 1983 when she won the Miss Malaysia contest, went on to work with Jackie Chan, became an action movie star in her own right, and, after an interlude, returned to the screen in Hollywood, starring in the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and later Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and performing in many roles including as Aung San Suu Kyi in “The Lady.”
Her Oscar-starring vehicle was “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which itself won a fistful of awards, including for Ke Huey Quan, a Vietnamese living in a Hong Kong refugee camp in 1978-9 at a time when Yeoh was at a convent school in the UK.
Both ended in Hollywood, which can also take some satisfaction that it has, albeit belatedly, recognized the ethnic diversity of the US, let alone the world.
But there are aspects of Michell Yeoh which also deserve our attention at a time of seemingly ever-increasing ethnocentrism and religious bigotry in Malaysia.
From a privileged ethnic Chinese background though she was, Michelle Yeoh grew up speaking more Malay and English than Cantonese or Hokkien, later studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in the UK before launching herself into a career in Hong Kong. It was a time when there were far fewer social barriers between ethnic groups in Malaysia than there are today, when young women of all races had fewer restraints than they do today, when social mores generally were more relaxed and pro-Bumiputra policies were seen as a passing phase in Malaysia’s development.
Michelle, you remain proud to be a Malaysian, to visit often, to take in the familiar sights, sounds and tastes of this green, multi-ethnic nation. But you cannot be unaware of some things which have not progressed. Now, age 60 and with an astonishing career behind you and the respect of the vast majority of Malaysians of all races, it may be appropriate and appreciated by most if you could speak a few words on behalf of the multiracial identity of Malaysia, of individual choice whether of career or costume and particularly in the equality of women, whose role in Malaysia has been circumscribed by a culture that keeps shackles on all too many of its population of all races.
In your role as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, you have been praised for focusing on empowering the most vulnerable, including women, those living in poverty and those facing disasters. There is ample room for you to emphasize that role in Malaysia, the country that nurtured your early years. Please try to pass on some of the benefits you enjoyed in getting to the pinnacle in your own country as well as Hollywood.