On the 'Crazy Rich Asians' set: Michelle Yeoh talks changing family values and Lee Kuan Yew

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
Michelle Yeoh (Photo: AP)

It was during a conversation about changing family values that the name of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, came up, as Michelle Yeoh held court at a roundtable of reporters at the set of the upcoming “Crazy Rich Asians” movie.

“I remember one time, at the Clinton Global Initiative, and we had the late Lee Kuan Yew. And he turned around and said, ‘oh no, Singapore women should stop having so much independence because they’re not having kids’,” recalled the 54-year-old Malaysian actress.

“And I remember Mr [former US president Bill] Clinton sitting there looking at him like, ‘I don’t believe he just said that! If I said that, Hillary would have my head!’ Times have changed, and I think both genders have changed too. At the end of the day, you have to do what you’re comfortable with,” she added with a chuckle.

The veteran actress was in Singapore last month as the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast came to town for two weeks of filming.

Together with Constance Wu and Henry Golding, the former beauty queen is headlining the movie as matriarch Eleanor Young. The movie is based on the bestseller of the same name by Singaporean author Kevin Kwan.

It tells the story of a Chinese-American academic who discovers that her boyfriend is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and the ensuing family drama that happens when she visits the country.

Singapore itself has seen its own share of real-life family drama in recent weeks. The children of the late Lee — current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling — have been involved in a public dispute concerning their father’s last will and the fate of the family home on 38 Oxley Road.

‘Family will always come first’

During Yahoo Singapore‘s visit to the set at CHIJMES on 16 June, Yeoh was the very picture of grace and elegance. Sitting casually in a dinner gown — presumably her costume for the day’s evening shoot — on a couch, she was thoughtful and eloquent in her answers.

Asked if there was a particular value in the “Crazy Rich Asians” story that spoke to her, Yeoh responded without hesitation, “Ah, family. I think in our lives, family will always come first, no matter what you say.”

She added, “But I do see in like the olden families, where the dad will tell you what you should study, what you should do…and I think in the past, a lot of us conformed to this. If he wants you to be a lawyer, chances are, you will be a lawyer.”

“In a way, because we want to be good children, we do what they tell us,” Yeoh said.

“Nowadays, they are open to having conversations, they are not so stuck in their way. Everybody is more on an equal footing. Times have changed.”

Inspiring the next generation

Yeoh readily acknowledges that it has been an “incredible” year for her. She appeared briefly in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2” and is one of the leads in the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” (which she is totally bringing her accent to).

Together with her previous stint as a Bond girl and her role in “Crazy Rich Asians”, Yeoh has been in “some of the most iconic franchises around”.

“I hope I can inspire the next generation, or people who want to believe. I think that always helps, when you look at someone and go: hey, she’s a girl from Ipoh, who knows where is Ipoh? And if she can make it big, I stand a chance. I’m not particularly pretty, I’m not particularly smart. I’m damn hardworking.”

She acknowledged with a smile that she had drawn on the experience of her previous marriage to Hong Kong tycoon Dickson Poon in playing Eleanor Young.

“Don’t think for a minute that this not hard work. It’s like being a politician’s wife – you’re expected to know the who is who and what is what. The seating of the tables, the arrangement of this, it’s a full-time job. So it was interesting to be able to reflect on certain things that happened to me before.”

But Yeoh also turned feisty when asked how she felt about paving the way for the next generation of Asian actors.

“Oh no no, no no, I don’t pave no way for them. They still have to work and slave their way through, they have to carve their own path,” said Yeoh. “But I will say there’re more opportunities, slowly, for Asian actors than before. So what I do hope is that when the opportunity does come, do treasure it.”

“Do be good at it, so that you can be a shining example for the rest of the world to see: we Asians are very professional, we work hard, we’re good at what we do.”

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