Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

No business like Yeoh business

She’s the Bond girl who smashed the stereotypical image of the China doll. We meet Michelle Yeoh, the action heroine who has charmed East and West


Jon Swain

The Sunday Times magazine, 25 March 2007

Curled up on a sofa in the suite of a Left Bank hotel in Paris, Michelle Yeoh projects an air of serenity and grace. She barely moves and her voice is pleasingly low. But under her clothes, muscles lurk like coiled springs. Suddenly her hands lunge through the air with the speed of a cobra striking at its prey as she demonstrates the reactions and control that have made her a kung-fu screen queen. It is mesmerising to watch. Sinewy and lean, her trim figure betrays no trace of fat. She is a concentrated ball of energy. This is no submissive, passive China doll, but a live, captivating person skilled in high-energy action scenes, despite no formal training in martial arts.
She does most of her own stunts, has survived a host of injuries: a ruptured artery in her leg, dislocated shoulder, cracked rib from an 18ft fall, burns. She famously threw a pillow at a film executive who had the temerity to tell her she would make a great Bond girl. "When you think of the Bond girls, you think of these bimbos yelling, 'Help, James! Save me, save me!"' Yeoh said at the time. "I could never relate to them. I always thought of myself as James Bond."
Ten years ago, of course, Yeoh did end up as a Bond girl: Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent who helped Pierce Brosnan's 007 stop an evil newspaper mogul from taking over the world, in Tomorrow Never Dies. It was a defining moment in her career, propelling the 5ft 4in actress, veteran of chopsocky Hong Kong action films, to international stardom. When she appeared as Wai Lin she was barely known in Britain, but since the Bond film she has never looked back.
Lately, Yeoh's films have been shot in Europe. She is known and admired as much in the West as in the East, where she has a huge following. Her acting career has helped to destroy every stereotype westerners have about Asian women. It has been empowering, as well, for many Asian women who identify with her as a role model of strength and independence.
Asian men are perhaps less well able to cope, and certainly, since her marriage to one ended, Yeoh has been out with few others. She was briefly engaged to an American cardiologist, but her current beau is a Frenchman, Jean Todt, the executive director of Ferrari's Formula One team.
Yeoh has flown into Paris on a weekend visit from Prague, where she has been shooting Babylon AD under the French director Mathieu Kassovitz. In the film, which stars Gérard Depardieu and Charlotte Rampling, Yeoh plays a nun who is taking care of a little girl who may have been injected with a deadly virus.
Beautiful though Prague is, she confesses, it is a small city and she needs to take regular breaks from it, hence this Paris weekend. The French capital may have an additional attraction for Yeoh, of course, in the form of Monsieur Todt.
Yeoh has many faces: Yu Shu Lien, the action heroine in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Mameha in Memoirs of a Geisha; Corazon in Sunshine, her latest film, in which she gives a powerful feminist performance as an astronaut-biologist on a mission to save Earth from a dying sun.
In her life, too, Yeoh expresses tremendous confidence in her ability to succeed. At the age of 44 she is at the pinnacle of her film career, and one wonders what comes next. Perhaps the most famous and glamorous kung-fu star of all times, her celebrity status, friends say, has not changed her. In a sign of her general lack of self-awareness, she was so thrilled when she got the phone call offering her a starring role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that she fainted.
It has been a long journey to this point from the little tin-mining town of Ipoh in Malaysia where she grew up. Her face lit up when I said I knew her home town well, and 35 years ago used to stay in its majestic colonial-style Station Hotel on R&R from the war in Vietnam. "You are kidding me. It hasn't changed much. It still has the old charm," she said. "I have just been back for four days at Chinese New Year."
Although she spends most of her time in the West, Yeoh retains her Malay-Chinese roots and loves going home for the holiday, when she abides by tradition: not sweeping the floor, not talking about death, wearing new underwear, wearing red. "Everyone is happy and it is great to have a celebration. Nobody talks of bad things… The rest of the year, after all, may be dreadful." She admits she is a bit superstitious. "I am Chinese," she laughs, "but not so it ruins my life. I was born in the Year of the Tiger and I am a Leo.
"But I haven't looked at the charts for this year. You have to decide how good it is going to be for yourself. I do not go as far as a couple of friends who swear by the I Ching, which tells them on certain days they must not travel. I think that is silly because it allows the life to be ruled.
"I have had no regrets. If I have made a mistake then I move on. This journey for me is an adventure. I got into it completely by luck. It was destiny, in a strange kind of way."
There was a pause in which the conversation could have gone in a number of directions. Having lived in Asia on and off for many years and having a number of Chinese women friends, I am interested in hearing what Yeoh has to say about the western orientalist view of the East, traditionally seen as being exotic, seductive, mysterious. "I think you should have the two, whereby the East will always be mysterious, seductive and exotic," she says. "And God forbid we lose all of that charm, because it is very charming. But without being weak and thought of as submissive. There is a big difference."
Yeoh has made the most of opportunities that have come her way. It is a sign of the times through which she has lived that this has not involved a great deal of struggle; she has not had to strike out against a culture that is important to her. "The Hong Kong Chinese have been very proud of what I do. That is very important to me. I have been so much in the limelight."
Yeoh's Asian supporters value her shining advocacy for the culture from which she comes. One Malaysian commentator says in a paean to her: "Thank you for not losing touch with your roots, for acknowledging your friends and your family, for plugging your homeland and your home town at every opportunity. In every interview, without fail, you stress your childhood in Ipoh - how happy you were, how fortunate and blessed. Thank you for not moving to Los Angeles. Despite the attractions of going mainstream, you are hanging on in Asia (living in an apartment on the Peak in Hong Kong) and supporting the region's film industry. I like the way you turned down the Armanis and Donna Karans and chose instead to wear Asian fashion [her Oscar gown was by the Hong Kong couturier Barney Cheng]. Unlike many of your Asian sisters, you're loyal to who and what you are. You've also demonstrated that you don't have to be obnoxious and recalcitrant, curmudgeonly and rude, to be noticed by the world. You've shown that Asians, and especially Malaysians, can be graceful and yet firm, diplomatic and frank."
Yeoh would not have commanded such support had she decided to act a few decades earlier. The old-fashioned stigma that Chinese society associated with acting would have been an insurmountable barrier to a woman who wished to epitomise her culture, not be rejected by it. Yeoh explains: "Being an actress in Chinese tradition is something the Chinese disapprove of." But these days, it is not such a problem. "Being an actor or singer is no longer frowned upon," she says. "Parents realise it is a way their children can make a good living." She says she has been lucky because the roles she plays have been "straightforward, disciplined, good-hearted and respectable". She has always refused to remove all her clothes on screen. "So Chinese don't look at me and say, 'What are your reasons for doing this, apart from the arts?' "
Luckily for Yeoh, this has meant not only acceptance by the West, but also that she has been able to do exactly what she wants without giving up her Asian identity. Born into a wealthy Malay-Chinese family with traditional values, albeit with an awareness of the West, Yeoh unfurls her life by describing a succession of opportunities that came her way. When she was 21, her mother entered her for the Miss Malaysia beauty contest. Yeoh won, which catapulted her into the public eye. She later moved to Hong Kong, where she came to the attention of the kung-fu film tycoon Dickson Poon. He wooed her, and won, propelling her into stardom and wedlock.
Poon launched her acting career, first by offering her a television advertising role opposite Jackie Chan, and later giving her her first film contract with his newly founded production company, D&B Films. Yeoh was hooked, and submitted to an addiction from which she has not yet managed to break free. Today, being suspended in midair, leaping exhilarated through forests, bamboo groves and across walls, as she has done in countless martial-arts action movies, is second nature to Yeoh. But it did not come easily. "When I looked at this way of fighting, it looked like an elaborate dance piece, all about choreography and movement. I said to the stuntmen I would love to be able to try some of that. I was thrown in at the deep end.
"Fortunately, I have done ballet all my life and am very good at mimicking. I could understand where the power and energy were coming from. I was very flexible and co-ordinated. I could imitate their movements and I could throw my legs and do things that they would not risk.
"So it became a great challenge for me, mentally and physically. It was very interesting for the boys and they were very proud because they were teaching this girl. It took a lot of guts to be in that arena. If they said it could be done, I was willing to give it a try. That was the most important thing. I gained their confidence. Every time they hit me I wouldn't go running into the corner and cry. I was covered in bruises the whole time. But I had such a blast. I don't like to lose. I didn't want to give them an opportunity to say, 'I told you so. These girls…' "
Despite this new departure, Yeoh seems to have felt the weight of the culture from which she comes. "I was expected to make a good traditional marriage, which I did." So it is perhaps not surprising that when Poon persuaded her to marry him in 1988, he also convinced her to give up acting to become a more traditional Chinese housewife, concentrating on looking after him and their Hong Kong home.
Yeoh submitted for 31/2 years but could not, in the end, resist her first love. The marriage ended and Yeoh was soon back on screen. She rigorously denies that the split was acrimonious in any way, and says she and Poon are still friends. Her experiences have, however, left her with a certain view of Chinese men and how their relationships with Chinese women work. "Somehow I feel that Chinese men are much more chauvinistic. It is in our genes going back generations. The majority of them would say there is nothing wrong with being chauvinistic. To their mind, that is looking after the women well. We are the damsel in distress, the one who is always rescued.
"But," she adds, "I was very fortunate in my ex-husband. I think it depends on where they were educated and where they end up. If you think of Hong Kong, it is so advanced and cosmopolitan, but it is still very Chinese."
Despite this quite stereotypical explanation about Chinese men, Yeoh does not think the general perceptions she has encountered in the West about Asian women are so accurate. "It is good to break the mould of the Asian fragile china doll," she says. "So often in western films the Chinese girl is depicted as a tea lady or as a Suzie Wong-type prostitute in a cheongsam. Those days are long gone and these action films are one way to show things have changed. When I first started doing these action films, 20 years ago now, it did not matter that I was a Chinese woman. I think it was empowering and gave women a sense of equality in a gentle kind of way. I was saying we can be feminine-looking, yet at the same time have these kinds of skills. We can be strong and independent without having to be Terminator lookalikes."
But some Asian women are dragon ladies, I venture. A smile plays on Yeoh's lips. "Yes, well, when you think about it, don't you prefer to have someone who is more tough than a total tofu next to you?" she asks. "I mean, it is the same thing for us girls. You know, a guy is cute, but if he has no balls to him, what is the point? It is the toughness that gives a person his character, a sense of strength or independence that is very exciting. It becomes dull if someone agrees with everything you say. Maybe in certain ways we women must be tougher than very traditional Chinese men. We have to deal with this, but it is very strange. It is like how it is with the Japanese. You think they are very macho, but the women in Asia are often the ones who hold the purse strings and keep the family. You may, for example, think the geisha is the one who is submissive. But submissive is the wrong illusion for women who allow the men to think they are right. There is a big difference to going out with a bimbo and with a woman who allows you to think you are the king of the world."
Yeoh personifies the global cultural mix of our time. It is impossible to classify her. And she wants that. Her parents, a lawyer and a sportswoman, raised her that way, sending her to boarding school in England at the age of 15, after which she entered London's Royal Academy of Dance, studying ballet. Yeoh was the first of her parents' children to veer from a traditional course. "I come from a family of professionals. My other relatives are doctors or engineers. My dad had this approach that you choose your own path, choose what you want to study, what school you want to go to." This unusual freedom of choice has not led in predictable directions. "When I was studying in England I did dance and I minored in drama, and I absolutely hated it. If someone had said to me, 'You are going to be an actress one day,' I would have laughed myself to death." Despite this inauspicious start, Yeoh has adapted to make a huge success of acting. "I guess the good thing about me is that I am very open-minded. That leads me to characters that are very determined and strong and take me to places you can only dream about." Part of Yeoh's appeal, which is very Asian, is that she attributes so much that has happened to her to luck. She is acutely aware that life could have taken a different course. "We can't always choose how we want to survive. When I was doing Memoirs of a Geisha I went to Patpong [an area of Bangkok renowned for its lurid nightlife] and wondered, 'How can you judge this girl for allowing her body to be used by these guys' If someone had another choice, would they be there? Of course they wouldn't."
She is entirely nonjudgmental. "Here, we are so blessed. We have everything on our doorstep, and there is no chance on Earth I would turn around and say I think less of them." And these experiences have prompted an interest in the entrapment of these girls and their exploitation. "I want to look into the mail-order-bride thing."
It is perhaps the knowledge of both eastern and western cultures, and her adaptability of character, that to the observer enables Yeoh now to wear her double identities lightly. She is both a poised and articulate ambassador for Asia to the West, and an embodiment in Asia of western opportunity. "Fortunately, I think the world is such that you can be both sides these days." But Yeoh does not always find the juxtaposition a comfortable one. "I started my career in the East and my heart will always be in the East. But the one disadvantage I have is that I don't read Chinese. When I go to the East they think of me more as a westerner, and when I go to the West they think of me more as an easterner. So it is negative on both sides. It is so interesting that the understanding between the cultures is not closer."
Nevertheless, Yeoh tries to lend the lie to Kipling's judgment that "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". "You work it out to be positive," she explains. "You can work in both and try and form that bridge. So it has been a fascinating journey."
But Yeoh doesn't always find it easy to manage the juggling act that the extraordinary diversity of her life demands. This is understandable. Her home is in Hong Kong, but she has hardly been there for two years. Her man is in France; her parents are in Malaysia. Her last four movies were made in the West, but most of her fans are in the East clamouring for her to come back.
Yeoh remains clear: "I am not going to say I will only work on American movies. I would jump at the first opportunity to do something in the East. There are amazing stories to be told."
Perhaps among them should be the story of the girl from Ipoh who nurtured powers that enabled her to seduce West and East alike.