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Breaking Boundaries: Malaysian Michelle Yeoh Honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom


US President Joe Biden has awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Malaysia-born actress Michelle Yeoh. She was one of 19 recipients this year who was awarded for their “exemplary contributions” to the United States, and for continuing to “shatter stereotypes and enrich American culture.”

Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, and became a top star in the Hong Kong film industry before coming to Hollywood in 1997. Yeoh’s Hollywood breakthrough roles came when she was cast in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the latter being one of the most popular romantic-comedy movies in the United States in nearly a decade.

In 2022, she played a Chinese American immigrant laundromat owner who channels her newfound powers to fight bizarre and bewildering dangers from the multiverse in the movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once.” While it took 59 years for Yeoh to land her first lead role in a Hollywood movie, it was an unexpected massive hit, earning over $70 million in the US. She won an Oscar for Best Actress for her star role in the movie, which also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director at the 95th Academy Awards in 2023.

While accepting the Best Actress Prize at the 2023 Oscars, she said, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she said. “This is proof that dream big, and dreams do come true.

At the Presidential Medal of Freedom 2024 ceremony, Joseph R. Biden praised Yeoh at The White House for her contributions, “Her roles transcend gender, cultures and languages, from martial arts to romantic comedies to science fiction, to show us what we all have in common.” Yeoh, the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, “has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings to enrich, enhance American culture,said President Biden.

Biden’s remarked that, her efforts to advance gender equality, conservation issues, and global health have been felt worldwide.” He applauded her ability to not only entertain, but also “bridge cultures, inspire, and open hearts”.

Other Asian-American who received this honor include Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-American who advocates for religious freedom; Yo-Yo Ma and Maya Lin, two Chinese-American who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington; and Minoru Yasui, a Japanese-American veteran in World War II.

Arrizka Faida is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington DC. She received her master’s degree from Cornell University, Brooks School of Public Policy, studying MPA in Science, Technology, and Infrastructure Policy.