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Michelle Yeoh's Oscar nomination is a "culturally defining moment" - here's why

Elle McPherson-Yoon shares what the Oscar nomination means to her, in her own words…

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My father emigrated to Canada in 1971, where he opened a Taekwondo studio following an already decorated career in the sport and martial arts’ rising popularity in the West.

For much of my childhood, martial arts had been reserved to sweaty dojangs and echoing arenas across the nation. That was until the 2000 release of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. At the age of 10 I watched Michelle Yeoh portray the character of female warrior Yu Shu Lien on screen with power and dancelike elegance, in a film that would go on to beat American box-office records for a foreign-language film produced overseas. 

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Elle McPherson-Yoon Committee Co-Chair of the charity Art History Link-Up

Twenty-three years later, I watch Michelle Yeoh take centre stage in, what is for me, another culturally defining moment: Her Oscar nomination in the category of Best Actress for her role in The Daniels' Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), one that is being widely celebrated for being the first nomination of its kind for an actress of Asian descent. 

The Malaysian actress has, over the course of her long and distinguished career, garnered a loyal fanbase for her adeptness at portraying Asian stories in cinema and an ability to bring strength and dignity to her characters. Her most recent role, Evelyn Quan Wang, who was described in the South by Southwest Film Festival program as “…an exhausted Chinese American woman who can’t seem to finish her taxes” has resonated deeply with immigrant families, first and second-generation immigrant children, everyday superheroes and beyond.

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I spoke with Janice Li, MA V&A/RCA History of Design and Curator at Wellcome Collection about the level of public accolade Michelle Yeoh has received since her Golden Globe win for Best Actress and subsequent Oscar nomination in the same category; an international reception that has been unprecedented for the actress.

"I’m still stunned by a newfound sense of openness when it comes to celebrating Yeoh," a sense of openness, which on reflection, Li imagines could be part of a bigger trend following the Stop Asian Hate movement and ensuing socio-political support. Yeoh’s nomination has, in fact, been acknowledged in remarks by President Biden at this January’s White House Lunar New Year Celebration and, closer to home, The King and The Queen Consort have hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the contribution of East and South-East Asian communities to the United Kingdom (invitees included London based contemporary designer Eudon Choi and White Lotus star Will Sharpe). 


Michelle Yeoh as laundromat owner Evelyn Quan

And while Asian arts and culture continue to go from strength to strength, this historic nomination also highlights how far the Oscars have yet to go in their quest for diversity. It is, after all, the first nomination of its kind for an entire continent, one which is made up of diverse nations, and the first Hollywood movie where Yeoh has had top billing; a glaring symptom of systemic barriers within the film industry. Yet, the decades of hard-work, discipline, and conviction that Michelle Yeoh has displayed on a global stage over her lifetime and career thus far move the needle forward and just might break the glass ceiling. 

Begging the question, what does one wear when breaking the glass ceiling? "Style wise, she used to wear a lot of cheongsam, which was very much integral to her early image as a martial arts actress," says Li, who is currently curating an exhibition on beauty. "Now she is wearing Armani Privé, Carolina Herrera, and Alexander McQueen and there is a significant shift towards couture." The answer for an actress with the world at her feet? Whatever she wants. 

Elle McPherson-Yoon works at The Royal Academy of Music and is Young Patrons Committee Co-Chair of the charity Art History Link-Up. She has devoted her career to the arts and in her spare time supports philanthropic endeavours in the arts and culture sector. 

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