Michelle Yeoh, the Kung Fu actress who appeared in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, is a former Miss Malaysia. A member of Malaysia’s Chinese community, she appeared with Jackie Chan in Supercop and more than a dozen Asian and Hong Kong action movies. She was chosen by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 1997 and was featured prominently in the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism advertising campaign. In 2008, the film critic website Rotten Tomatoes ranked her the greatest action heroine of all time. In 2009, she was listed by People magazine – as the only Asian actress – as one of the "35 All-Time Screen Beauties". [Sources: michelleyeoh.info. IMDB, Wikipedia, News reports]
Yeoh appeared in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Memoirs of a Geisha. She was the Bond girl in “Tomorrow Never Dies” and played Aung San Suu Kyi in a 2011 biopic of the Myanmar pro-democracy leader. Regarded as Hong Kong's most respected kung fu film actress, she has appeared opposite Jackie Chan in several films and suffered serious injuries on several occasions doing stunts. At one time she was the highest paid Asian actress, earning $13 million per film.
Standing 5-foot-4-inches and weighing 100 pounds, Yeoh was born to Chinese parents in Ipoh, Malaysia. In school, she was a good swimmer and rugby player and her dream was to become a ballet dancer, but all that changed when he mother entered her in a Miss Malaysia beauty contest without her knowing it in 1983 and she won.
Yeoh is one of the only female stars whom Jackie Chan lets do her own stunts. In Jackie Chan’s in “Police Story III: Supercop,” she rode a motorbike onto a speeding train and jumped from helicopter into a moving convertible. Yeoh has dislocated her shoulder, cracked some ribs, and ruptured arteries in her leg. While leaping from an 18-foot overpass in “Stuntwoman” she missed the safety net and dislocated her neck. "I heard a snap in my back when I landed and said, 'Uh-oh, I'm going to be paralyzed for life.'" She recovered after spending several months in a full body cast. On doing fight scenes, she said, “I prefer to be kicked four or five times well, you know, hard, than twenty or twenty five times not so good.”
Michelle Yeoh’s Early Life
Michelle Yeoh was born as Yeoh Choo-Kheng in 1962 in the mining town of Ipoh in West Malaysia in the lunar year of the Tiger. Her parents are Janet Yeoh and Yeoh Kian Geik, a lawyer and MCA politician. She spoke English and Malay before Chinese. The surname "Yeoh" is pronounced "yo".
According to michelleyeoh.info: Growing up in the tropical tin-mining town, young Michelle spent countless weekends swimming and diving with her friends at the Ipoh Swimming Club, which was located right next door to her parents' house. Michelle was a tomboy and loved many sports. As a teenager, she represented Malaysia at national level for swimming, diving, and squash. She was the Perak state representative for squash and once the Malaysian Junior Squash Champion. Michelle was also very into playing piano and loved Chinese painting. However her real passion was in dance, particularly - but not exclusively - ballet. Young Michelle was sent to a Convent school in Malaysia where she received her early education in English. [Source: michelleyeoh.info]
Yeoh was keen on dance from an early age. Her mother recalls that Michelle started to dance before she could even walk. She began ballet training at age 4. At the age of 15, she moved with her parents to England, where she was enrolled in a boarding school. Yeoh later studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, majoring in ballet. However, a spinal injury---which she suffered during a ballet practice session— prevented her from becoming a professional ballet dancer. The doctor she consulted announced that a rotated disk in her spine would not be able to stand the daily intensive ballet workout. She the focused her attention on choreography and other arts. She later received a B.A. degree in Creative Arts with a minor in Drama.
Michelle Yeoh’ “Beauty Queen”
In 1983, at the age of 21, Yeoh won the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant. She represented Malaysia at the Queen of the Pacific 1983 beauty pageant which was held in Australia and won the crown. She was also Malaysia's representative at the 1983 Miss World pageant in London. From there, she appeared in a television commercial with Jackie Chan which caught the attention of a fledgling Hong Kong film production company, D&B Films.
According to michelleyeoh.info: When Michelle returned to Malaysia for summer vacation in 1983, she did not have any advance knowledge that her mother had entered her for the national beauty contest (by way of submitting photos of her for the perusal of the competition judges). By the time she got home, she already had made it past the qualifying rounds. To please her mother, the then still self-confessed tomboy went ahead with the rest of the competition. She was subsequently crowned Miss Malaysia at the age of 21.
The following year, Michelle did not return to England to continue her advanced studies. Instead, she served her one-year term as Miss Malaysia (a post which she has likened to being a goodwill ambassador for her country). Somewhere along the line, she also earned the Miss Moomba title that same year in Australia.
Michelle Yeoh’s Early Career
Her first on camera work was the 1984 commercial Jackie Chan.According to michelleyeoh.info: Towards the end of her term as Miss Malaysia, she got introduced to a Hong Kong businessman named Dickson Poon who was looking for someone to do a commercial with the action star Jackie Chan for the brand of watches one of his companies sold . Michelle was invited to Hong Kong and did the commercial. She also appeared in another one with Chow Yun-Fat. After doing those commercials, Michelle was offered a film contract by Dickson Poon in his newly founded film production company, D&B Films. (N.B. Its 'D' stands for Dickson and 'B' comes from one part of the Chinese personal name of his partner, Sammo Hung Kam Bo.)
In 1985, she began making action movies with D&B Films of Hong Kong. She appeared in films such as Yes, Madam in 1985, after which she did most of her own stunts. Never a trained martial artist, she relied on her dance discipline and her on-set trainers to prepare for her martial arts action scenes. She uses many dance moves in her films. She still does most of her own stunts and has been injured many times. Ironically, she still cannot read Chinese and she has to have Chinese script read to her.
Yeoh retired from film between 1988 and 1992 when she was married to business tycoon and producer Dickson Poon. Yeoh resumed her career after the marriage collapsed and appeared with Jackie Chan in “Police Story III: Supercop.” Yeoh's performance in Police Story 3: Super Cop sealed her comeback. She acted in The Heroic Trio in 1993, and the Yuen Woo-ping films Tai Chi Master and Wing Chun in 1994. When she returned to acting, she became very popular to Chinese audiences and she became known to western audiences through her co-starring roles in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). She turned down a role in a sequel to The Matrix (1999).
Michelle Yeoh’s Early Hong Kong Action Films
Michelle's first movie role was in Sammo Hung's action comedy, The Owl vs Dumbo (1984). She did not have an action role. Instead, she was given a stereotypically pathetic female to play in a film that wouldn't be memorable if not for its making Michelle's movie debut. One (more) good thing that came out of her participating in The Owl vs Dumbo is that Michelle had the opportunity to see action being staged and filmed in that special Hong Kong movie way. Looking into how Sammo Hung and other guys fight fascinated Michelle. Rather than being intimidated or over-awed by the men she saw doing this, her reaction was to reckon that since she had the same number of arms, legs and such as them, she could do it too. When D&B Films gave her a choice of what to do next, Michelle unhesitatingly opted to do action work. [Source: michelleyeoh.info]
To prepare herself for an action role, Michelle went under intensive physical training - ten to twelve hours a day in a gym with a bunch of guys to practice all kinds of kicks, punches, and martial moves. In 1985, Michelle participated in her first on screen fight in a cameo role as a Judo instructor in Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan's Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars.
Also in 1985, Michelle had her second major screen appearance in Yes, Madam, co-starring with Cynthia Rothrock. In the film, Michelle - playing a fearless policewoman - performed her first major stunt. This involved her flipping backwards on a railing and smashing her head through glass while simultaneously throwing two thugs off the balcony! Showing her willingness and ability to do the difficult acts, Michelle kicked her way in a male-dominated world of actions.
Yes, Madam was a breakthrough and pioneering film. It marked the birth of the Girls with Guns genre and its brightest star - Michelle Khan/Yeoh. After Yes, Madam, Michelle again played a feisty female police officer in another contemporary action film Royal Warriors (1986). This film features one of the best yet brutal fight sequences I've ever seen.
During the filming of Michelle's third action film, Magnificent Warriors in 1986, she ruptured an artery in her leg. This rather serious injury put her off action films for a while. Consequently, and somewhat understandably, her by then fiance Dickson Poon gave her a non-action role in the next movie, Easy Money (1987) - which turned out to be her final film for D&B Films.
Michelle Yeoh’s Interests and Private Life
Yeoh speaks 3 languages, English, Malay and Cantonese. However, she can't read Chinese and relies on pinyin (a system of phonetic notation) to pronounce words. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she used pinyin to recite her lines (with help from Mandarin speaking crew members) in Mandarin as she doesn't speak the language. She is a Buddhist.
Yeoh was married to Hong Kong entrepreneur Dickson Poon, who owns businesses such as Harvey Nichols and Charles Jourdan. According to michelleyeoh.info: In February of 1988, Michelle got married to Dickson Poon. The wedding was huge. On the surface, the billionaire and the (former) beauty queen seemed to be a perfect as well as glamorous match. At the insistence of Poon, Michelle retired from acting and became a fixture in Hong Kong's fashion boutiques and on the society pages as Dickson Poon's wife. But the marriage lasted for only a little more than three years. Though rumors and juicy stories abound, nobody except the once married pair seem to know the reason behind their decision to separate. Soon after the divorce, Dickson Poon dissolved his film company. The two of them remain as friends. After she divorced Poon in 1992, she remained close to Poon's second wife and is a godmother to Poon's daughter.
In 1999, Michelle was engaged to Dr. Alan Heldman, an American cardiologist who lives in Baltimore. They met each other in London when Michelle was doing her Bond movie tour. After that Dr. Heldman accompanied Michelle to many public activities and Michelle was frequently traveling between Hong Kong and Baltimore. But the couple announced their disengagement in June 2000.
In July 2008, Yeoh confirmed news that she was engaged to Jean Todt, the director of the Ferrari F1 team and a leading figure in motor racing, during an interview with Craig Ferguson on CBS's The Late Late Show. In 2001, she was given the title of "dato'" by the Sultan of Perak, her native state. "Dato'" is an honorary Malaysian title somewhat like an English knighthood, and it lies below the ranks of "Dato' Seri," "Tan Sri" and "Tun."
In March 2008, she visited Vietnam to film a documentary for the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF). Yeoh is also a patron of the Save China's Tigers project committed to protect the endangered South China Tiger.
Michelle Yeoh’s Hong Kong Action Films in the 1990s
According to michelleyeoh.info: In 1992, after four years away from it, the Hong Kong film industry warmly greeted Michelle's comeback. From the several offers she received (including one to co-star with Jet Li), Michelle chose the third installment of Jackie Chan's Police Story series to be her comeback film. Police Story III: Supercop was supposed to be a Jackie Chan vehicle, but history will remember it more as Michelle Yeoh's "Hello, I'm back" announcement. To the chagrin of some Jackie Chan fans (and probably Jackie himself!), Michelle stole every scene she was in and easily matched him fight by fight, stunt by stunt.[Source: michelleyeoh.info]
In truth, the two superstars shone together, brought out the best in each other and got motivated to perform their most fantastic and dangerous stunts. Jackie jumps and hangs onto a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter that proceeds to fly over the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (a stunt which Michelle wanted to do but was told she would not be allowed to do). As 'compensation', Michelle got to ride a motorbike and land it onto an actual speeding train in pursuit of said helicopter (and keep in mind that at the time Michelle did not know how to ride a motorbike)! The film broke the box record in Asia.
Later that same year, Michelle made two more movies (released in 1993): a stunning super-heroine action fantasy entitled The Heroic Trio (in which Michelle teams up with two other top Hong Kong female stars, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung) and her first classical costume swordfighting tale Butterfly & Sword. Michelle even sung the endsong for Butterfly & Sword and made a MTV video appearance.
In 1993, Michelle starred in a total of six movies: a spinoff of her Director Yang character from the Police Story III called Project S; a dark sequel of the Heroic Trio named Executioners; the all-star costume action comedy Holy Weapon; an action adventure Wonder Seven; and two Yuen Wo-Ping's fantastic martial art semi-historic stories Tai Chi Master (co-starring with Jet Li) and Wing Chun. Two of them, Wing Chun and Wonder Seven, were released in the next year (1994).
Michelle Yeoh at the Peak of Her Career
Yeoh fought her way to the top in the male-dominated genre of Hong Kong action films, where she has been known for years as the "queen of martial arts". She is one of the highest paid Chinese-language actresses in the world and highest paid actress in Asia. In 1993, she released a single CD in 1993, "Love Quite Like a Comet", from her movie Butterfly and Sword (1993). Her Salary for “Tomorrow Never Dies” was $2,500,000. She is credited as Michelle Khan in some of her earlier films. This alias was chosen by the D&B studio who thought it might be more marketable to international and western audiences. Yeoh later preferred using her real name.
According to michelleyeoh.info: Yeoh starred in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as Wai Lin. Natasha Henstridge was rumoured to be cast in the lead Bond girl role but eventually Yeoh was confirmed. Brosnan was impressed, describing her as a "wonderful actress" who was "serious and committed about her work". He referred to her as a "female James Bond" in reference to her combat abilities. She wanted again to perform her own stunts but was prevented because director Roger Spottiswoode considered it too dangerous. Still she performed all of her own fighting scenes. Thereafter, she was offered the role of Seraph in the two sequels to The Matrix, but she could not accept due to a scheduling conflict (the Matrix writers then changed Seraph into a male character and cast Collin Chou in the role). In 2002, she produced her first English film, The Touch through her own production company, Mythical Films.
Ang Lee asked Yeoh to star in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which was nominated for 10 Oscars and went on to win four, including the Best Foreign Language Film). Ang described to Yeoh as "Sense and Sensibility meeting martial arts". Michelle always had her faith in Ang Lee despite the director never having done any martial arts films. She was the first actor who signed on the project and in fact, the only one who agreed to star in the film among the four actors Ang Lee initially wanted for the four main roles. The five month shooting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not an easy experience for Michelle in 1999. Not only did she injure her knee at the beginning of the shooting, but she also had to deal with the constant nightmare of memorizing lines in a language she did not speak.
On taking her role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Yeaoh said, “The reason why I decided to wait two years after the Bond movie, and to work with Ang Lee in a martial arts movie, is because I really believe that this genre deserves more respect and dignity than it's ever been given. Before, people saw it as a fairy tale; they felt they could take it easy. But it shouldn't be about that. It's so steeped in our culture, it should have more depth to it. It's never easy to find that balance, when it's such a magical type of film, to make you accept our soaring to the skies... it was a risk, but when we did this movie, it was for a Western audience.
In 2005, Yeoh starred as the graceful Mameha in the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, and she continued her English-language work in 2007 with Sunshine. In 2008, Michelle Yeoh also starred in fantasy action film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor with Brendan Fraser and Jet Li. On “Memoir of a Geisha,” she said: “Learning how to walk in a kimono was an art form in itself - if you didn't learn to do it properly it was like dragging a dead cat across the floor! We had to walk with a piece of paper between your knees and a tea tray balanced on your head. In Asia, we constantly play Koreans, Malay, Chinese. We do not question that, as you do not question an Englishman playing an American or a German.
Michelle Yeoh’s Later Career
In 2010, she starred in Reign of Assassins. In October 2011, she was chosen by Guerlain to be its skincare ambassador. Yeoh will play a role in strengthening the French cosmetics company's relationship with Asia. Apart from action films, she is famous for playing nationalists in two biopics. In 1997, she played Soong Ai-ling in the award winning The Soong Sisters. In 2011, she portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson's The Lady. On playing Aung San Suu Kyi in “The Lady (2011), she said. “If there is one thing I learned from this experience it's you need to believe in people, and their ability to grow and to change. You can never give up hope.”
Yeoh was a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 and a member of the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1999. She was a very close friend to Anita Mui since early 90s. She hosted a memorial event for Mui in 2007. In October 2007, Yeoh was named a Chevalier of the French Legion d'Honneur, for her contributions to international culture.
Yeoh has her own production company, Mythical Films and has trained with the Shen Yang Acrobatic team for her role in The Touch (2002), an English language film she is both starring in and producing. She hopes to use her company to discover and nurture new filmmaking talent. She also wants to act in roles that combine both action and deeper spiritual themes.
Michelle Yeoh’s Injuries
According to michelleyeoh.info: For a while now, Michelle has been the highest paid actress in Asia. But it is also hard to forget what prices she has paid. Though action films strongly depend on choreography, cinematography, and editing to look good, it must never be forgotten that in Hong Kong, the blows actors throw and receive in the course of filmed combat are real (in the sense that they involve full contact). [Source: michelleyeoh.info]
Early in her career, in 1986, the young lady who had trained to be a ballerina dislocated her shoulder and got burned during the shooting of Royal Warriors. When filming Magnificent Warriors in Taiwan, the former beauty queen got kicked so hard that an artery in her leg was ruptured.
1993 was a successful yet a hard year for Michelle. The extremely tight and sometimes overlapping shooting schedules led to her having no time to stay in the hospital even when that might have been the best thing to have done. At the beginning of the year, the final action sequence of Holy Weapon triggered her old spinal injury. During her final scene in Executioners, the actor who was lifting her in the air accidentally touched the spot on her injured spine. The pressure and pain made her twitch and vomit.
In the shooting of Wing Chun, Michelle dislocated her elbow in a fight scene. Also while filming the movie, her old spinal injury recurred as the result of falling from a horse. One day at the shooting location in Beijing the pain was so bad that she could not move at all. Upon her return to Hong Kong, Ching Siu-Tung's Wonder Seven had been waiting for her. Not wanting to disturb that film crew's plans, she went to work as scheduled. She ended up re-injuring her spine while shooting a scene of that required her to fall into water. When she finally went to see doctor, the doctor was surprised at how she had managed to stand the pre-existing pain for so long without seeking medical attention. She was ordered to stay in hospital for a week.
In the following year, 1994, Michelle planned to take a small break. But while on holiday, an Alpine skiing accident landed her once more in a hospital bed. This time, she tore her right knee ligaments and had to undergo surgery to repair this injury. Up to today she still has a screw in her knee (she later got a "matching" screw in her left knee from another injury sustained while filming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It took a few months for Michelle to recover. In that year, Michelle only made a cameo appearance in Shaolin Popey II: Messy Temple.
Worse was to come. In 1995, Michelle sustained her worst injury when starring in Ann Hui's film about a stunt woman - Ah Kam. It is a more dramatic flavored role. But things went wrong during the filming of what was considered by Michelle to be a not very difficult stunt. In an 18 foot fall Michelle landed from a wrong angle and the accident nearly cost her life. It is effectively a miracle that she escaped with 'only' deep-tissue bruising and a cracked rib. Michelle spent three weeks in hospital. A.) Some post accident scenes are actually shown at the end credit part of the film which was released in 1996.
When resting in bed, Michelle had time to think about her future career. It doesn't seem to be entirely coincidental that in her next film, she had a purely dramatic role. Mabel Cheung's historic drama The Soong Sisters (filmed in 1996, released in 1997) was Michelle's first non-action movie. She was nominated as the Best Supporting Actress (Hong Kong Film Award) for her remarkable performance.
Michelle Yeoh Filmography
Michelle Yeoh Films (Year, Title, Role, Notes): 1984, The Owl vs Bombo, Miss Yeung, ; 1985, Yes, Madam, Inspector Ng, ; 1985, Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars, Judo instructor, ; 1986, In the Line of Duty, Michelle Yip, a.k.a. Wong ga jin si; 1987, Magnificent Warriors, Fok Ming-Ming, ; 1987, Easy Money, Michelle Yeung, a.k.a. Tong tian da dao.
1992, Police Story 3: Super Cop, Inspector Jessica Yang, ; 1993, The Heroic Trio, Ching / Invisible Woman / Number 3, ; 1993, Butterfly and Sword, Lady Ko, ; 1993, Executioners, Ching/San/Carol, ; 1993, Holy Weapon, Ching Sze / To Col Ching, ; 1993, Once a Cop, Jessica Yang, ; 1993, Tai Chi Master, Siu Lin, ; 1994, Shaolin Popey 2 – Messy Temple, Ah King, a.k.a. Shao Lin xiao zi II: Xin wu long yuan; 1994, Wonder Seven, Ying, a.k.a. 7 jin gong; 1994, Wing Chun, Yim Wing Chun, ; 1996, The Stunt Woman, Ah Kam, a.k.a. A Jin de gu shi; 1997, The Soong Sisters, Soong Ai-ling / Madam Kun.
1997, Tomorrow Never Dies, Wai Lin, ; 1999, Moonlight Express, Sis, a.k.a. Sing yuet tung wa; 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yu Shu Lien, ; 2002, The Touch, Pak Yin Fay, ; 2004, Silver Hawk, Lulu Wong / The Silver Hawk, ; 2005, Memoirs of a Geisha, Mameha, ; 2006, Fearless, Ms. Yang, (director's cut only); 2007, Sunshine, Corazon, ; 2007, Far North, Saiva, ; 2008, The Children of Huang Shi, Mrs.Wang, ; 2008, Purple Mountain, ; 2008, Babylon A.D., Sister Rebeka, ; 2008, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Zi Yuan, ; 2009, Turning Point, As herself, Make Roads Safe Documentary; 2009, Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh, As herself, National Geographic documentary.
2010, True Legend, Sister Yu, ; 2010, Reign of Assassins, Zeng Jing, Chinese title Jianyu a.k.a. Jianyu Jianghu; 2011, Kung Fu Panda 2, Soothsayer, (voice); 2011, The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, biographical film about the Nobel laureate; 2013, Final Recipe (formerly Cooktales), Julia, directed by Gina Kim (post production); 2014, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny, Yu Shu Lien, ; 2015, The Golden Age: The Lost Treasure of Zheng He.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015