Is Michelle Yeoh a Martial Artist? Here’s What You Should Know About The Malaysian Actress


Michelle Yeoh, who was born into a wealthy Malaysian family, began her career as a ballerina before being crowned Miss Malaysia in 1983. The following year, she established herself as one of the top female action stars in the Hong Kong film industry, appearing in films such as Yes, Madam! and Supercop. Yeoh later gained international acclaim for his roles in Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and Everything, Everything, Everywhere have contributed to a wave of Asian American talent in Hollywood.

How Old Is Michelle Yeoh?

Michelle Yeoh was born Yeoh Chu-Kheng on August 6, 1962, in Ipoh, Malaysia.

Early Years

Yeoh, the daughter of lawyer Yeoh Kian Teik and housewife Janet Yeoh, had an active upbringing that cultivated her competitive instincts: in addition to ballet and piano lessons, she participated in basketball, swimming, and rugby, and was a junior squash champion.

Yeoh moved to England when she was 15 years old to continue her ballet training at London’s Royal Academy of Dance, with the goal of one day opening her own dance studio. Unfortunately, a back injury dashed her hopes of a career in the performing arts.

After returning to Malaysia, Yeoh competed in and won the Miss Malaysia pageant in 1983. At dinner one night, a friend recommended Yeoh to Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon, who needed last-minute talent for a TV commercial. Yeoh boarded a plane to meet Poon, and the following day she shot a wristwatch commercial with actor Jackie Chan.

Is Michelle Yeoh a Martial Artist?

Yeoh made her big-screen debut as a “damsel in distress” in The Owl vs. Bumbo, playing the ethnically ambiguous “Michelle Khan” (1984). She became fascinated by its fighting sequences and enrolled in intensive martial arts training before landing a lead butt-kicking role in Yes, Madam! (1985). With In the Line of Duty (1986), she delivered another physically impressive performance, which was followed by Easy Money and Magnificent Warriors (1987).

Yeoh returned from an acting hiatus in Police Story 3: Supercop as an Interpol inspector alongside Jackie Chan (1992). She then co-starred in The Heroic Trio (1993) and established herself as an action star with Wing Chu (1994). Her willingness to perform dangerous stunts, however, caught up with her while filming The Stunt Woman (1996), as one misjudged leap resulted in a fractured vertebrae and cracked ribs.

International Movie Star

‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997)

Although Supercop was re-released in the United States in 1996, it was with her role in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies that Yeoh truly broke through as an international star—and finally dropped the Khan stage name. Yeoh, the first Asian female lead in the long-running franchise, defied convention by providing Pierce Brosnan’s 007 super-agent with a formidable fighting partner.

‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)

Yeoh dazzled audiences once more in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, displaying both her graceful physical prowess and her dramatic chops as the conflicted warrior Yu Shu Lien. Yeoh received a BAFTA nomination for propelling the Oscar-winning film despite having to learn lines in a difficult older form of Cantonese and suffering a torn knee ligament one week into filming.

‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ ‘Reign of Assassins,’ ‘The Lady’

After reuniting with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon co-star Zhang Ziyi for Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Yeoh moved on to roles in the sci-fi cult classic Sunshine and the survival epic Far North (2007). Her return to her Hong Kong fighting roots in Reign of Assassins (2010), as well as her decidedly non-combat role as Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady, were both well received (2011).

‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

Yeoh sizzled as steely matriarch Eleanor Young in the box-office smash Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Hollywood’s first all-Asian-headlined production since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. She then played mentor Ying Nan in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), the first Marvel movie to feature an Asian actor (Simu Liu) in the lead role.

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

The Malaysian actress’s first leading role in Hollywood was written specifically for her in the genre-defying Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Yeoh received praise for her portrayal of embattled laundromat owner Evelyn Wang, as well as for capturing the realistic struggles of an aging immigrant and displaying varying degrees of martial-arts expertise during the more fantastical segments of the story.

TV Shows

‘Marco Polo,’ ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

Yeoh moved to television in 2015 as a double agent on Cinemax’s Strike Back, after 30 years of choreographed battles and sweeping dramas on the big screen. She had a recurring role on the Netflix historical drama Marco Polo before joining Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 as Captain/Emperor Philippa Georgiou, a role intended to be the basis for a spin-off series.

Marriage and Relationships

Since 2004, Yeoh has been in a relationship with Jean Todt, a native of France and former Ferrari racing executive turned International Automobile Federation president. From 1988 to 1992, she was married to Dickson Poon.

Accolades, Philanthropy and Personal Life

Yeoh received the Malaysian title of Tan Sri in 2013 and the French Legion of Honour in 2017. The actress was also honored with the Excellence in Asian Cinema award at the 2013 Asian Film Awards, and she was named to the Time 100 and BBC 100 Women of the Year lists in 2020.

Yeoh is a conservationist who has volunteered as a WildAid ambassador for endangered animals and as a United Nations Development Programme ambassador for sustainable development. She has also worked with AIDS organizations and road safety initiatives.

She divides her time between Kuala Lumpur, Geneva, and Paris. She enjoys food and jewelry (one of her rings is featured prominently in Crazy Rich Asians), as well as horror films.


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