Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh’s surprise connection to Melbourne has been revealed, a day after she made Academy Award history.
Video footage surfaced from the ABC archives on Tuesday, showing Malaysian-born Yeoh wearing a white satin sash and waving to excited Melbourne crowds after being crowned Miss Moomba International in 1984.
In a newspaper clipping from the time, a beaming Yeoh can be seen “proudly” clutching the “prestigious boomerang-and-map-of-Australia trophy” she was awarded for taking the title.
“Making history once again – a true icon both on and off the screen,” wrote the City of Melbourne on Tuesday. It had coincidentally just finished hosting the 2023 edition of the decades-old community festival.
‘Dreams do come true’
Yeoh, 60, became the first Asian woman to win the best actress Oscar at Monday’s glittering ceremony, scooping the title for her performance as stressed-out laundromat owner, Evelyn Wang, in off-beat, low-budget film Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The actor was once a talented teen ballet dancer with the London Royal Ballet. After she suffered a crippling back injury, Yeoh’s mother Janet [a former beauty queen] enrolled her in a beauty pageant where she won Miss Malaysia at the world competition in 1983.
That brought her to Melbourne, for the family-friendly Yarra-side Moomba festival.
Later in 1984, Yeoh kicked off her film career in Hong Kong, studying under martial arts experts and stunt action star Jackie Chan. In years to come, she was even a Bond girl (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997).
Until her career highlight on Monday.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she told a packed Dolby Theatre.
“Ladies, don’t let anybody ever tell you you are ever past your prime.”
Yeoh defeated Australia’s Cate Blanchett, who was nominated for her role in Tár, in what was a rough day for all the Australian nominees, who all went home empty-handed.
“I have to dedicate this to my mum [and] all the mums in the world, because they are really the superheroes. Without them, none of us will be here tonight,” Yeoh said.
“She is 84, and I’m taking this home to her … also, to my extended family in Hong Kong where I started my career … thank you for letting me stand on your shoulders, giving me a leg up so that I can be here today.”
‘My life is about taking risks’
In this week’s issue of People, Yeoh revealed she was “very sporty”, and not only was into ballet but diving and squash – eventually becoming Malaysia’s national junior squash champion.
After leaving beauty competitions and Melbourne behind in 1984, she got an audition for a commercial with Chan. She was soon cast in her first movie in Hong Kong as a woman in need of saving, in the action-comedy The Owl vs Bumbo.
“When I started off in 1984, women were relegated to being the damsel in distress … we need to be protected, according to our guys.
“But then I would go, ‘No, guys, I think we can protect ourselves pretty well. And if push comes to shove, maybe I can protect you too’,” she told the magazine.
According to US sports website, The Sporting News, it was Yeoh’s long career in martial arts that lead her to her historic Oscar win.
“This first film steered her towards the path of an action star and opened doors for her to learn various kung fu disciplines with some of the biggest names in Chinese martial arts and Hong Kong cinema.
Roles in Police Story 3 and Supercop followed – all up there were 17 action flicks before the Bond role alongside Pierce Brosnan. Yeoh then scored a lead in Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed 2000 movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
More mainstream offers rolled in, including Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Star Trek and two separate roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol: 2 (2017) and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).
But it was the all-Asian cast Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, where she played mother-in-law Eleanor Young, that brought a different, delicate side to her acting.
Fast-forward to Everything Everywhere, where Yeoh “supported the emotional dimension of her character with the confidence she carries in her movement and her martial arts-trained body”.
“This role of a lifetime would not have been possible if not for Yeoh’s unique martial arts journey and her determination to push wushu [Chinese term for martial arts] into the forefront beyond the stereotypical 1990s cop-and-robber genre,” the Globe wrote.
Let’s not forget her poise on a locally-made Moomba float!
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