LOS ANGELES – Asian actors are off to a roaring start as Hollywood’s awards season kicks off this year.
At the Golden Globes on Jan 10, Michelle Yeoh, 60, became the first Malaysian to win the Best Actress gong for her role in the science-fiction comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022).
Her Vietnamese-American co-star Ke Huy Quan, 51, took home Best Supporting Actor, and both are widely considered front runners for the Oscars on March 12.
The film is also a hot favourite for the night’s Best Film honours.
In a story praised for shattering Asian stereotypes, Yeoh and Quan play a Chinese immigrant couple who run a laundromat in the United States and find themselves drawn into a battle of good versus evil across parallel dimensions.
Later in 2023, the pair will reunite for a much anticipated Asian-led action-comedy television series on Disney+, American Born Chinese, the story of an Asian-American teenager (Ben Wang) plunged into a war involving figures from Chinese mythology.
An adaptation of the Gene Luen Yang graphic novel, it is directed and executive-produced by Asian-American film-maker Destin Daniel Cretton of Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021) fame, who has also been tapped to direct Marvel Studios’ Avengers: The Kang Dynasty (2025).
It also stars Daniel Wu, Yeo Yann Yann, Chin Han and another Everything Everywhere All At Once cast member, Stephanie Hsu.
Speaking at a press event for the show held days after their Golden Globe double wins, Yeoh and Quan reflected on how far Hollywood has – and has not – come in terms of Asian representation.
Yeoh, who will play the Chinese goddess of mercy Guanyin in American Born Chinese, spoke again of the barriers she has faced as a minority and a woman in the industry.
“I started my career in Hong Kong and everybody looked at coming to Hollywood as the ultimate dream – until you get here and go, ‘What the heck.’ When I came here, I didn’t see any faces that looked like me, and there were not many roles representing who we really were,” says Yeoh, who went on to star in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and the award-winning crossover martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
“But I think that got me motivated to say there has to be better representation, true representation.”
Things have improved since then, but there is a tendency towards tokenism, she believes.
She adds: “The times have changed because everybody is talking about inclusivity and diversity. But you can’t have them just tick a box of, ‘Oh, I have a Chinese actor, that means I’ve diversified.’”
Real change looks like projects such as the hit 2018 romantic comedy film Crazy Rich Asians, in which Yeoh had a key supporting role as Eleanor Young, the domineering mother of leading man Nick (Henry Golding).
“A lot was riding on it, and god forbid if Crazy Rich Asians hadn’t been successful. But it was, thanks to (Chinese-American director) Jon Chu’s brilliance,” says Yeoh.
“That’s what we need – good storytellers who understand what are the stories that need to be told and who give us more opportunities.”
The star also credits the “visionary film-makers” whom she has worked with for advancing representation.
Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, for instance, cast her in her breakout Hollywood role as Bond girl Wai Lin because they knew the iconic franchise “had to evolve”.
“And then I was blessed to be involved with Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings and Destin. We had our own Chinese superhero and that was another huge step forward,” she says.
But the role of a lifetime was Everything Everywhere All At Once, which allowed her to draw on her martial arts background while also flexing her comedy muscles for a change.
“It was all the things an actor could hope for,” says Yeoh.
“So, yes, I think we’ve broken that glass ceiling. I hope we have ninja-kicked it to hell, but the only way we can keep this going is by getting the right storytellers and having studio executives understand and keep pushing it forward, which will create more opportunities (for Asian actors).”
Quan, a former child star who appeared in the iconic films Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985), explains why he retreated from acting for many years.
“When I started out, it was very difficult being an Asian actor. There were just not a lot of opportunities,” he says.
From the late 1990s till 2018, he turned to jobs in film production instead. “I was working behind the camera, and I was content doing that until I noticed that the landscape had changed drastically.”
Now, Quan is “very thankful for what Hollywood has been doing for the last five years”. He adds: “There is a lot more progress.”
In American Born Chinese, Quan plays Freddy Wong, an actor who starred in a popular 1990s sitcom on which his character was an Asian stereotype – a part he was offered before Everything Everywhere All At Once was released.
Hollywood trailblazers such as Yeoh and Cretton, a Hawaii native of Japanese descent, also inspired him to return to his first love, acting.
“They were the ones who really gave me the courage to dream again,” says Quan.