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What Michelle Yeoh taught me about motherhood

In a phase that marks the beginning of the end for most actresses, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Michelle Yeoh is reaching even greater heights after 40 years of career. There is something about Yeoh as a mother that, in every shade and variation, transcends: cool and elegant inside Crazy rich Asiansimperious and twisted Star Trek: Discoveryhurried and bewildered inside Everything Everywhere Everything at once. In any version, she is elementally familiar, especially to my generation. She resembles the mother we have or the one we want, the kind we dread or crave, or both.

Four years ago, after initially getting engaged without my parents’ consent, I wrote about how Crazy rich Asians brought painful clarity to my own impasse, caught between romance and family. Much of my revelation was fueled by Yeoh’s superb portrayal of Eleanor Young—her unyieldingly high standards for her child’s well-being, and the child’s realization that there could be no happy ending without her as part of it. When I interviewed Yeoh for THRIn the cover story of the 2018 movie, she told me she only took the role after she was sure it wouldn’t add to one-dimensional stereotypes. In less skillful and intuitive hands, Eleanor would be the story’s easygoing villain. Instead, when I took my parents to the movies on opening weekend, my mom left the theater excited by the wisdom and strength of the character and (much to my chagrin at the time) found validation in their shared perspective. EERAOEvelyn Wang, the downtrodden laundromat owner, couldn’t be more different from one percent Eleanor, but in her tenacity and persistence to drive her daughter to the ends of the multiverse — rifts of culture and generations and literal rocks be damned — I saw yet another dimension of my dynamic with my mom playing on screen.

Both my mother and Yeoh exude a formidable presence that belies their frail stature, and while I’ve never seen the first literally beat someone up, she’s always been fearless in confrontation, wielding words as skillfully as a swordsman with her sword. . Her fortitude, both physical and mental, is superhuman, a 90-pound seventies who devotes her retirement years to caring for my father, who has Parkinson’s. Despite the punishing demands of that job, she hasn’t sacrificed her style and style qi zhi – a refined, graceful temperament – a quality Yeoh, even as scruffy Evelyn, also exudes. Neither woman has ever been caught dead in a short, curly Asian mother perm.

In Yeoh’s portrayals, demanding expectations—be it a scathingly pronounced “You’ll never be enough” or a clumsily flapping “You’re getting fat”—are contextualized as arising from a deep, almost unspeakable reservoir of love and care for your child. She does justice to real Asian moms by portraying characters who serve as reparations for the racist, evil damage Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom trope has implanted into the American imagination.

Last year, I took the opportunity to pitch a feature that’s been on my bucket list for a long time: a cover profile of Yeoh, one that would explore the woman behind the legend. She had long been a fixture in the Asian news media, but at that time I had read little about her personal life in Western articles. I was especially curious about her ability to channel with such uncanny precision and authenticity the complex and sometimes paradoxical qualities of our own real mothers. A quick internet search confirmed she has no biological or adopted children of her own, and a deeper dig through old clips turned up references that that’s a matter of fate, not choice.

Another reason for my fixation with the motherhood angle is that I had learned last January that I was pregnant. While the pregnancy was welcome news for my husband and I, the sudden confrontation with the impending reality of a new identity brought new fears to the surface. ‘I don’t know how to be a mother! I barely know how to take care of myself,” I wailed one night, huddled next to my mom in her bed on a weekend visit. She spooned her little body around mine as she assured me that, like all women, I would rise to the occasion when the time came.

The day before my conversation with Yeoh, I had my first ultrasound appointment. A technician swept me with a probe as an image of my womb – still and silent as a tomb – appeared on the monitor. “There’s a lot of blood,” she said, pointing to the cloudiness on the screen. My obstetrician said I could take a week to decide whether to go the medical or surgical route (and this was February 2022, four months before I fully realized what a blessing it is to live in California, where such potentially life-saving options remain available). On my way out I felt like apologizing to everyone at the clinic for my perceived failure.

I never went back there with my decision. A few days later, my brother called at 2:30 in the morning: “Mom had an accident.” She had been talking about increasing dizziness for the past week, which we all attributed to the strain of lone care. Apparently she got up in the middle of the night, lost her balance and hit her head hard against a piece of furniture. Her second call was to 911. The first was to my brother, telling him to come stay with my dad so he wouldn’t wake up scared and alone in the morning.

My husband, Mike, and I arrived in Orange County at 4:00 AM. My mother was already in the hospital, a few drops of blood in the doorway left a telltale trail of where she had been wheeled out by the paramedics. For the next week, Mike spent most of his time in the kitchen, preparing, serving, and tidying up my dad’s meals while I nursed, getting him out of bed, showering, dressing, and commuting around the house. At night I lay in my mother’s bed soundlessly praying a desperate prayer to heaven: “Not so, God. Don’t take her like that.”

THR’s Rebecca Sun (left) with her mother, Julie Sun, at home on Dec. 25, 2022.

Thanks to the topic

During that time I occasionally experienced cramps that felt like my body was trying to turn itself inside out. One afternoon I passed my embryo in the toilet. Mike and I stared into the bowl in silence, wondering if the worst was over. I fished out the bulk (we were worried the toilet would clog if we flushed it), wrapped it in a bag and left it on the floor of the garage next to the recycling. When I went back later to check on the laundry, Mike followed and we clung to each other and finally sobbed, our lost hopes wrapped in bloody tissue on the concrete a few feet away. We stole fleeting seconds of personal grief before household chores came again, and I wondered if this was what being a parent was like: elevating yourself in the service of others, finding reserves to do what needs to be done.

After my mom was fired with six staples in her head, the challenge kept her from going straight back to housework. Mike returned to LA for work, and I tried to multitask remotely, ostensibly telling the Yeoh story from my parents’ kitchen table, but in reality I spent my days managing health care and exploring options for long-term concern. (Daniels, EERAO‘s directors, graciously moved after I ghosted them during our originally scheduled interview.)

Over the next few weeks, my main story slowly came together, mostly at night while I typed on the futon in my parents’ study. Looking back at Yeoh’s stunt-induced close call of permanent injury and death in the late ’90s, I thought of my mother in the next room, determined to heal her body and live another day. But what was most revealing to me was the relationship with Yeoh herself. For the first time, I saw her not just as a mother figure, but as a woman who had to reconcile her own hopes with reality, who wanted to become a mother and pursued all means for that dream. In her I found comfort and solidarity, and alongside the courageous revelations of my friends and other women about their fertility journeys, I was able to mourn my failed pregnancy without any shame.

“I love children. I really wanted to start a family, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me,” Yeoh told me during our interview. “It’s hard as every month… this is all I want. We were all doing [fertility treatments]. As a woman, up to a certain age, you can do it. Then at a certain point you have to accept reality.”

From left Michelle Yeoh with Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians;  and Stephanie Hsu, Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

From left: Michelle Yeoh with Henry Golding in it Crazy rich Asians; and Stephanie Hsu, Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan Everything Everywhere Everything at once.


I couldn’t help but feel grateful but apologetic that by denying Yeoh her personal desire, this particular universe transformed her into a conduit of motherhood, not just for those who were directly touched by her motherly nature – she is “Mama Michelle or “Popo Michelle”. to her goddaughter’s child, friends, family, and co-workers—as well as generations of strangers who found solace and resonance in her portraits of motherhood. “She has a very family energy,” EERAO co-writer/director Daniel Kwan told me. “She’s very caring and can transplant herself into any situation and she’s suddenly the aunt or the mother who takes care of everyone.”

It feels unfair to ask a woman, even an internationally famous movie star who has agreed to an on-the-record interview, to share such a specific and personal pain as infertility, so I briefly told Yeoh about my own experience , just to make the exchange feel more like a conversation between fellow human beings.

“But you’re still…?” asked Michelle Yeoh, once the caretaker.

I nod. “We’re still trying.”

“That’s good. I think you should try until you can’t anymore.”

And I did. Around Thanksgiving, both my parents got COVID, so Mike and I moved to Orange County again for a few weeks. It was a mirror image bookend at the beginning of the year, with a few significant differences. This time we were more practiced working together as caregivers – and I was joined by a new presence, one with a strong heartbeat and an equally strong kick. As Yeoh makes history with her Oscar nomination for EERAO, I am now in my third trimester. I know firsthand that the future has no guarantees. But if I’ve learned nothing else from the strong women in my life over the past year—the sorority of infertility and pregnancy loss, our mutual mother Michelle Yeoh, my own mother—it’s to keep trying while you can. And even when you reach the limits of time and your physical body, being a mother is so much more than a biological capacity. It’s an attitude – an attitude of persistent, generous love.

This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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