Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh awarded US Presidential Medal of Freedom

Yeoh, the first Asian woman to win a best actress Oscar, “has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings,” President Biden said of her.
BenarNews staff
Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh awarded US Presidential Medal of Freedom U.S. President Joe Biden awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Malaysia-born actress Michelle Yeoh during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2024.
Alex Brandon/AP

Oscar-winning Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh was among 19 people who were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom here on Friday for their “exemplary contributions” to the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.

U.S. President Joe Biden, presented Yeoh, 61, and her 18 fellow honorees with the medal – the nation’s highest civilian honor – during a ceremony at the White House in the late afternoon.

“Over four decades and on and off the screen, [Michelle] Yeoh … has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings to enrich, enhance American culture,” the president said in introducing the Malaysia-born film star. 

“Her roles transcend gender, cultures and languages, from martial arts to romantic comedies to science fiction, to show us what we all have in common. As the first Asian actor to win an Oscar as Best Actress, she bridges cultures, not only to entertain but also inspire and open hearts. And that’s what she keeps doing,” Biden said. 

As he introduced her, he fumbled Yeoh’s first name and referred to her as “Michael” before quickly correcting his error. Moments later, Biden draped the blue-ribboned medal around Yeoh, who was dressed in black. 

With all 19 recipients honored in alphabetical order, she was the last to receive the medal. 

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole talks with Michelle Yeoh (right) as President Joe Biden speaks before he awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to them during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2024. [Alex Brandon/AP]

Last year, Yeoh, who was born in Ipoh, won the Oscar for best actress for her starring role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which also won Best Picture and Best Director honors at the 95th Academy Awards.

It took Yeoh only a little under 40 years of perseverance to shatter the stereotypes that President Biden mentioned. 

During a period in the late 1990s, she refused so many films – all the roles offered were of stereotypical Asian characters – that she found herself out of work for two years, Yeoh has said in interviews.

“At that point, people in the industry couldn’t really tell the difference between whether I was Chinese or Japanese or Korean or if I even spoke English,” she told People magazine in March 2023.

“They would talk very loudly and very slow,” she said. 

This was after her international breakthrough role in a James Bond franchise film, “Tomorrow Never Dies.” In it, she plays Wai Lin, an action-oriented Chinese spy who speaks English. Yeoh is fluent in English, Malay and Cantonese.

The actress didn’t just buck Asian stereotypes, she also refused to be cast in films in which an actress was just a pretty prop, or a damsel in distress. And she did this at the start of her career, not after she had established herself.

Malaysia-born Michelle Yeoh smiles as she wins the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” during the Oscars show at the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 12, 2023. [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

The roster of 19 who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Friday featured pioneers and record breakers from the fields of arts and entertainment, education, civil rights, sports, and aerospace.

Apart from a bevy of big-name American politicians, Yeoh’s fellow honorees included TV talk show personality Phil Donohue; Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to travel into space; Medgar Evers, an icon of the civil rights movement who was assassinated in 1963; Swimmer Katie Ledecky, a 21-time gold medalist at the world championships; and the late Jim Thorpe, an athlete who excelled at multiple sports and was the first Native American to win a gold medal at the Olympics.

From Hong Kong to Hollywood    

A former Miss Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh got her break in a Hong Kong film with international action and martial arts superstar Jackie Chan – they would work in about a dozen more films together. In her debut movie, Yeoh told People magazine, she did play a woman who needed to be saved.

However, that was probably the last time she took a role of that nature. A year later, in 1985, she was offered her first lead role, an action-oriented one, as a cop in Hong Kong. She barely knew any Cantonese, so she learned the language. And she did her own stunts – another stereotype broken.

Yeoh soon established herself as a top regional star with her Hong Kong films. Then Hollywood came calling in 1997, with the Bond film, after which she didn’t work for two years.

Director Ang Lee, who had made a name for himself in Hollywood with “Sense & Sensibility,” offered Yeoh the role of a warrior – one of the three main roles – in the martial arts film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The film was a massive hit and for Yeoh, a landmark in her career – she won a best actress nomination from BAFTA (The British Academy of Film and Television Arts). In February 2023, when the movie was released in a restored 4k version, Time magazine declared that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proves Michelle Yeoh has always been criminally underrated.”

Malaysia-born actress Michelle Yeoh is seen in a still from the Mandarin-language film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which was an international hit. [Peter Pau/Sony Pictures Classics]

This martial arts film led to offers from Hollywood, again, but this time the roles were worlds better than before. Yeo then starred in several notable films, such as “Memoirs a Geisha,” “Sunshine,” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Finally, sometime in 2018, the Daniels – the director duo of Daniel Scheiner and Daniel Kwan – offered her the lead role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a film set in a multiverse.

The whacky film was the one that had been eluding Yeoh – the one with an Oscar-winning role. 

Playing a Chinese-American immigrant owner of a laundromat who alone could save existence, Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win the best actress Oscar.

She referred to her historic feat in her acceptance speech.

“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she said.

“This is proof that ... dream big, and dreams do come true.”


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