‘I know all about the crazy rich lifestyle’: Michelle Yeoh on Hong Kong high society and her new blockbuster film
September 9, 2018
Star of autumn’s big hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians, Michelle Yeoh – who has played everything from Bond girl to kick-ass heroine – tells Lina Das why she had to break out of her own super-wealthy bubble.
It’s hard to believe that when Michelle Yeoh, the impossibly elegant star of this year’s blockbuster romcom Crazy Rich Asians, first entered Hong Kong society in the mid-1980s she felt like ‘a fish out of water’. Recently crowned Miss Malaysia, she had started dating billionaire Dickson Poon (the current owner of Harvey Nichols) and was invited to dinner with his family: ‘A casual dinner, I’d been told,’ she says. ‘So the door opened, and everyone was in cocktail dresses, and there I was in my tennis shoes. After that I learned, “OK, there’s no casual here!”’
It’s a scene that could have found its way into Michelle’s latest film, which has created a huge buzz on both sides of the pond not only for its whip-smart, laugh-out-loud script but also as a cultural phenomenon, shining a spotlight on the powerful economic force that is Asia. Set to be released here on Friday, Crazy Rich Asians made an impressive $34 million (around £24 million) at the box office on its first few days of release in the US, and a sequel is already in the pipeline. On one level it’s an everyday tale of boy meets girl; girl finds out boy’s family is crazy rich; girl freaks out before trying to navigate her way through family members and high-society schemers intent on sabotaging her relationship. Luckily for Michelle, star of hits such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Tomorrow Never Dies, she had a much easier ride. ‘I made so many faux pas, but people were so nice’ – including her mother-in-law, she says, after she and Dickson eventually married. ‘She was wonderful, and even when the marriage ended she always loved me for who I am, and the feeling is mutual. We still see each other for tea.’
Of course, such bonhomie rarely a good romcom makes, and in the case of Crazy Rich Asians, there is a whole lot of crazy before the surprising denouement. Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel (which was labelled ‘Dynasty on steroids’ by Vanity Fair), the film is the first Hollywood movie since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian principal cast. ‘So it’s important,’ says Michelle, ‘but it’s also fun. It transcends the fact that it’s Asian because you’ll recognise characters from all parts of society, in America or in the UK.’
It’s the story of loved-up university professors Rachel Chu and Nick Young who travel to Singapore for a wedding. While Nick tells Rachel he’d love her to meet his family, what he doesn’t tell her is that they’re rich – rich enough to make even Jay Gatsby look shabby. So the biggest challenge for US-born Rachel is meeting Nick’s intimidating mother Eleanor (played by Michelle) – a woman with very distinct ideas of who her son should marry. Needless to say, a girl like Rachel isn’t high on her list.
As a film, it captures the zeitgeist perfectly. As Kwan noted when he wrote the book five years ago: ‘I don’t think China had a single billionaire ten years ago. A decade later, there are 122 billionaires on the Forbes list from China.’ And the film has fabulous fun accessorising the various crazy rich protagonists – classy Dior and Ralph Lauren for the old-money Youngs; gawdier trappings for the arriviste Goh family. (Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh, played by Ocean’s 8 star Awkwafina, is seen sporting an arresting pair of Stella McCartney animal-print pyjamas, while the family home has more gold pillars than is strictly necessary.)
‘I’ve seen that kind of wealth myself,’ says Michelle. ‘When I was in Hong Kong, there was a couple called the Chau Kai-bongs who were cute and would match their outfits to their pink Rolls-Royce. They were lawyers, so they were smart too,’ she adds. ‘But the movie is about more than the wealth. It’s about the heritage of Asians, what family means and what love means – between a young couple, a mother and son, friends, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It was important to me that the film explored all these relationships.’
Petite and beautiful, Michelle, 56, exudes a warmth that is slightly at odds with her fierce all-action turns in films such as the Oscar-winning smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. It even permeates her portrayal of the intimidating Eleanor, imbuing her character with more layers than she might otherwise have possessed.
‘My godson was upset when he heard I was playing Eleanor because, he said, “I read the book and she’s so nasty!” I was hesitant when I got the script because she seemed a bit two-dimensional – and why should the mother be a villain? She wants her son to be happy and fulfil his dreams, but she also recognises that he is heir to the family empire and has a responsibility to the families who work in the company. She sees Rachel as an independent, ambitious young woman, which is fantastic, but she doesn’t see her as someone who would put her son first. And in Asia, that is what happens most of the time.’
That tug between family loyalty and personal gratification is something Michelle herself has experienced. After becoming Miss Malaysia in 1983 aged 20, she starred in a commercial with Jackie Chan which gave her an entrée into the thriving Hong Kong film industry. Then, following a series of all-action films where she gained a reputation for doing her own stunts, she married Dickson in 1988 and retired from acting at his request. ‘It was a choice I made,’ she says, ‘and I believed in it. I believed that [getting married] would be so that I could have a family. Acting was never my burning ambition – it fell into my lap – and [after marriage] my priorities changed. Of course, after a while certain things did not happen; then you have to consider, what’s next? We were married for three years. Although it didn’t work out [we] remained friends. He’s an amazing man.’
Michelle has never had children, either with Dickson or her fiancé Jean Todt, the 72-year-old French motor sport executive she has been settled with for the past 14 years. Did she want them? ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I tried IVF, everything.’ Was she philosophical about the situation? ‘At the beginning, no. I was desperate. I love kids and saw myself surrounded by them. But there’s only so much you can put your body and mind through. It comes to a stage where you have to accept it, move on and deal with the repercussions. And in a Chinese family, [having children] means a great deal,’ she says softly.
She is, however, godmother to several children, including her ex-husband’s daughter Dee, from his first marriage. ‘I’m very strict with my brother’s children,’ she says. ‘My sister-in-law will call me from Malaysia and tell me: “They won’t go to sleep.” So I’ll ask for them to be put on the phone and I say: “Go to sleep now!” and they do. I adore children, but they need that kind of discipline.’
Michelle’s own childhood wasn’t short of discipline either. Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, to a lawyer father and ‘traditional’ mother of Chinese descent, she recalls when she was first allowed to date as a teenager. ‘My mum would come too,’ she laughs. ‘Once, I was at the cinema with a boy and my mum, and I realised there were two hands on my lap – my mum’s and his. They both thought they were holding my hand when they were holding each other’s. I thought to myself: “Huh, this is interesting!”’
Her parents did allow her to go to boarding school in England aged 15. ‘But it was an all-girls school,’ she says, ‘and I would never have dared to stray because I never knew where my mum might pop up!’ She then studied ballet at London’s Royal Academy of Dance, but a back injury put an end to her hopes of becoming a prima ballerina. She stayed on at the academy, studying choreography as well as drama (which she hated, ironically), and on returning to her homeland, discovered that her mother had entered her into the Miss Malaysia pageant. Apart from the break from acting during her marriage, she’s worked ever since.
She may possess the delicate looks of a beauty queen, but anyone who saw her wielding a sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knows that, even at 5ft 4in, she’s not a woman to be trifled with. Did she ever need her martial arts skills when she worked with the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who executive-produced the Netflix series Marco Polo? ‘Well, if I’d used them, he wouldn’t be around. He’d be limping,’ she says emphatically. ‘I’m very clear that I’m not a victim and won’t put up with any bull****. The thing about action films is you learn how to keep calm [on set]: you have people running at you with knives and the only way you can be alert is to stay calm. That helps in life, because panicking makes things worse.’
Michelle sounds so eminently sensible, you can’t imagine her wedding to Dickson being a lavish affair on the scale of Crazy Rich Asians (spoiler alert: the film features a bridal walk down an aisle that has to be seen to be believed). ‘Actually, we did have a big wedding,’ she admits. ‘I had nothing to do with the organising. I just had to worry about the dress and showing up. But he transformed the hotel into a beautiful garden and I walked through a tunnel of flowers and fairy lights. It was a whole production.’
As if taking his cue from the wedding talk, Michelle’s fiancé Jean walks in, plants a kiss wordlessly on her lips and then walks out again. The couple met in Shanghai when Michelle was at a presentation ceremony. ‘A guy was trying to clear the stage and was being rude, so Jean went up to him and talked him down. He’s about my height, and the fact that he could talk down someone bigger than him was my first impression of him – and a good one.’
They’ve been engaged for a decade without quite getting around to a wedding, ‘and it’s got to the stage where we say: “Bring out your schedule. When do you have time off?” and I think, “This is so unromantic!” But he is very romantic. A couple of months ago, he said: “Do you know, this is our 5,000th day together?” And I said: “You count the days?” And he said: “The minutes, too.”’
They split their time mostly between Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong, although Michelle says she misses England. ‘When I was filming Sunshine [in 2005], I used to love riding my bike around Knightsbridge.’ So did she indulge in some crazy rich shopping like her movie counterpart? ‘Actually,’ she says sheepishly, ‘my favourite place is Costco in America. I go mad in there.’
A wholesale warehouse packed with bargains? Those crazy rich Asians would be mortified.
Craziest richest purchase It’s something so practical, I’m afraid – an apartment in Ipoh. In Malaysia you can afford a bigger garden.
Hidden talent Knitting. I made a cardigan without a pattern – one long rectangle for the back and two for the sleeves.
Describe yourself in three words I hope they would be: kind, reliable, fun.
Nip and tuck or not I’m a real scaredy-cat. I think that to go under [anaesthetic] just to take away a few lines isn’t worth it. Why would I take that risk? Nowadays, there are things like noninvasive machines to exercise your face. Plus, if you’re happy it shows.
Last time you cried Oh, I’m such a wimp. I cried the other day talking about the movie and my family. My dad died four years ago and I was thinking how much he would have loved this film.
Favourite food Just about everything you see in the film! I keep telling my friends to eat before they watch it because they’ll feel so hungry otherwise. I love chicken and bean sprouts and fish head curry.
Tell us a secret I love horror movies. The Exorcist is my all-time favourite, but I still can’t watch the entire film without covering my eyes.