Michelle Yeoh Recalls Hollywood Quota System: ‘We Can’t Have Two Minorities’ in the Same Film

“Crazy Rich Asians” star says she encountered bias when she started out in 1990s Hollywood

Michelle Yeoh
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“Crazy Rich Asians” star Michelle Yeoh recalled her challenges as an Asian actress starting out in Hollywood in the 1990s — including what she described as an apparent quota system for nonwhite performers.

“When I first came to do movies here, I remember very specifically someone said, ‘If we cast an African-American lead, there’s no way we can cast you, because we can’t have two minorities,’” Yeoh said in an interview with GQ.

The Malaysian Chinese actress also said she found herself turning down roles that continuously asked her to play “fragile Asian women” or the “Ming Wave” stereotype.

Of course, Yeoh played several kick-ass heroines in films like “Supercop,” “Wing Chun” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and she often spent up to 11 hours in the gym per day to perform the martial arts stunts she wanted to do.

When she starred in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” alongside Pierce Brosnan, she said the production company hired a Hong Kong stunt coordinator so she could do her own combat scenes.

“She’s equal to Bond, so all the Asian girls are going, ‘Hey, I can be a spy too,’” Yeoh said. “What was amazing with Pierce, he was so confident a man that he goes, ‘Yeah, let her fight!’ Then he would just stand there like a proud dad.”

In the GQ interview, Yeoh said the “Hong Kong A-listers,” which include Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat, often look out for each other while they make their way through the industry.

“Sometimes I wish that if I had a really strong mentor, maybe I could have done more,” Yeoh said. “When I wanted to do my first action movie, a few strong business women in film championed it and said, ‘Yeah let her try! You bring a very exotic girl from Malaysia. She’s not our usual Hong Kong girl. Why stick her in the same kind of roles?’ So it was the ladies in the company who stuck up for me… I’m very happy with the career that I’ve had. I don’t dwell on missed opportunities because that would be wasting time.”

Yeoh now co-stars in Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” playing what she calls a “dragon mom” to leading man Nick Young (Henry Golding).