From aspiring ballerina to beauty queen to delivering blockbusters on screen—Michelle Yeoh’s achievements have captivated people all over the world. I remember watching the enchanting actress appear next to the brooding (and personal favorite 007 actor . . . sorry, Daniel) Pierce Brosnan in the 1997 hit Tomorrow Never Dies, in which she effortlessly played the role of the bewitching “Bond girl.” The 52-year-old is revered as one of the top martial arts performers on screen, but heroics aside, Yeoh has established herself as an acclaimed actress, a film-maker, and a patron of many charitable organizations.
Born in Ipoh, Perak, in Malaysia, Yeoh’s birth name was “Yeoh Choo Kheng.” From an ethnically Chinese family, Yeoh spent her younger years doing sport, playing the piano, studying Chinese painting, and dancing. At 15 Yeoh went to boarding school in England, and later joined the Royal Academy of Dance. However, her dancing career came to an abrupt halt when she suffered a spinal injury during college, leading her to switch fields. In 1982, Yeoh was awarded a BA in Creative Arts with a minor in Drama, and went on to complete her postgraduate studies in England. A year later, after her mother secretly sent her photo to the Miss Malaysia (World) contest, Yeoh ended up winning the title at the young age of 21 (here’s a clip of Yeoh at the Miss World contest in 1983). More details can be seen here.
Yeoh’s film career took off after a commercial with Jackie Chan in Hong Kong. Her first film was The Owl vs. Dumbo (1984), where she plays Ms. Yeung—a young, inexperienced teacher at a youth probation center. Looking for a more action-packed role, Yeoh later starred in several movies that involved a few back flips, intense fight-training, and fearless battles against thugs, the likes of which had never before been seen in cinema! And lo, the “Girls with Guns” genre was born, Yeoh being a perfect example of the “strong woman” role that was just beginning to emerge in film.
On top of all that, Michelle Yeoh is a Buddhist. On The Buddhist Channel, she commented on her role as an immortal sorceress in the film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), “Honestly I would not like to be an immortal and there’s nothing good that comes out of it. . . . I think you feel very sad for the mother and daughter (in the movie), they are immortal not by choice.” Yeoh said she believes in an afterlife, and added “I think with the Buddhist religion we believe in ourselves and we believe that it’s enlightenment that we’re after.” Yeoh stars with the famous Jet Li in this movie—guaranteeing that the film, with two of Asia’s most renowned action heroes, was a box-office hit. Jet Li, also a Buddhist, was the subject of Buddhistdoor’s Celebrity Spotlight just a few weeks ago.
One of Yeoh’s notable films is The Lady, released in 2011 and based on the life of Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Yeoh’s rendition of Suu Kyi, and not simply because of their uncanny resemblance in the film, is bold and transparent. In an interview with online magazine AVIVA-Berlin, Yeoh talks extensively about The Lady and her interactions with and portrayal of Suu Kyi (better known in Burma as “Daw Suu”). When questioned whether it had helped that both she and Suu Kyi are Buddhist, the actress replied, “We can be born Buddhist, but we have to practice to be a good Buddhist. I was asked: ‘How can a mother choose to stay in the country and to be separated from her children?’ But as a Buddhist, your family is not blood-related, the whole world is your family. It is enlightenment that you practice upon. It is suffering, but Buddhists do not relish in suffering. Through true suffering you understand what is the goodness that comes beyond it. You gain a slightly better understanding of compassion, of how to let go, it is not about revenge or retribution. So, Daw Suu and me having that same philosophy did help me tremendously.”
Michelle Yeoh is also the executive producer of Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey (2012), a documentary film depicting the journey of 700 people (both laypeople and monastics) across the Himalayas. The goal is to bring attention to the world’s “third pole,” which is threatened by climate change. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals Honoree, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, is also featured in the film, along with internationally renowned Bollywood star Amir Khan. The documentary has already won international acclaim, receiving the Silent River Film Festival’s award for “Best Documentary” (2012) and the Big Bear Film Festival’s “Audience/Best Environmental Film” (2012) award. “Pad yatra” is Sanskrit for “spiritual journey on foot,” and the Eco-Pad Yatra is now an annual event. Registration information can be found on their Facebook page. Those embarking on the Eco-Pad Yatra “trek from village to village to educate locals on ecological responsibility, to collect plastic litter from the rivers, and to carry out the loads of pollutants on their backs as an example.”
In an interview with Asia Tatler (Singapore) in 2011, Yeoh speaks about her passion for conservation and also for road safety. As the global ambassador for the Make Roads Safe campaign, Yeoh traveled the world for about four years promoting road safety issues. “We can save lives and it doesn’t cost us much more. We have to implement it into the infrastructure and there’s enforcement and education. It’s been a worth experience as a personal journey,” she says. Also an ambassador for amfAR, an organization dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic, in “An Interview with Michelle Yeoh—Fighting AIDS from the Heart” Yeoh elaborates on how celebrities can further a cause much more quickly: “The media is the quickest and most powerful way to speak out. Those of us who have the attention of the media are privileged, and we have the responsibility to put that privilege to good use! I am fortunate because I can draw public attention to HIV/AIDS and help people understand that this is a disease that can be eradicated.”
Yeoh has also been involved with the Active Conservation Awareness Program (ACAP) and the Wildaid Program, which fight to protect wildlife, addressing issues on the illegal usage of natural resources and the protection of endangered flora and fauna. Read more about Yeoh’s work at her website.
The girl with guns, the humanitarian, and the believer in the afterlife . . . Michelle Yeoh is indeed the crouching tigress ready to fight for the causes she supports!