Moments after winning the Oscar for best actress, Michelle Yeoh hopped on a video call with her mother, who was back home in Malaysia, watching the ceremony with a crowd of supporters.
“Malaysia boleh!” Janet Yeoh said, blowing kisses to her daughter.
“Boleh” – which means nothing is impossible – certainly captured the mood not just in Los Angeles but also on the other side of the world.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me,” Yeoh said.
“This is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she continued, holding up the trophy as the first Asian woman and only the second woman of colour to be honoured as best actress in the award’s 95-year history.
Yeoh – and the sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once in which she played a Chinese immigrant – was a frontrunner and a favourite to win but her victory still had the power to surprise and thrill an audience whom Hollywood recognition has long eluded. And the elation was there to see.
At the watch party in Kuala Lumpur, Janet Yeoh was promptly drowned in news camera lights as soon as her daughter was proclaimed the winner. Supporters dressed in gowns and tuxedoes raised their hands in the air and shouted for joy. And billboards on display on the highways of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, proclaimed her as the pride of the country.
The same jubilation was palpable on social media, where feeds were bursting with tweets, posts and comments of people celebrating what was was a historic night at the Oscars. Twitter in Asia had some some 350,000 congratulatory posts while Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, said a hashtag lauding her win was viewed about 360 million times.
On Weibo she was hailed for representing Asian women “beautifully on the most prestigious stage for film in the US”; on Instagram, her win was welcomed as a victory for all Asians; and there was plenty more praise on Twitter.
Malaysian-British heartthrob Henry Golding, who played Yeoh’s son in the hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians, posted on Instagram: “WOW… Just, wow”. Simu Liu, her co-star in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, tweeted, “Continue to blaze a golden trail and show all of us what’s possible. I AM SO… HAPPY”.
Echoing Yeoh’s mum, Malaysian stand up comic Ronny Chieng said on his Instagram story: “Malaysia Boleh!” And popular Hong Kong singer-actress Josie Ho Chiu posted a photo of Yeoh’s Oscar moment with the words, “Dreams do come true”.
Korean-American pop culture blogger Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man said that in fact “the Academy Awards won a Michelle Yeoh” and not the other way around.
Malaysia’s prime minister Anwar Ibrahim tweeted his congratulations, saying the country took “enormous pride in her achievement”. Hong Kong’s culture secretary Kevin Yeung put out a statement calling Yeoh’s win “well-deserved”.
Yeoh burst into Hollywood in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, playing a Chinese femme fatale opposite Pierce Brosnan’s 007. By then she was already a celebrity in Asia, having made her debut in Hong Kong.
But it would be another 26 years before she would be in the running for an Oscar.
“This is proof that dreams – dream big, and dreams do come true,” a tearful Yeoh said in her acceptance speech on Sunday night. Then, acknowledging her mother, she said: “I have to dedicate this to my mum, all the mums in the world because they are really the superheroes and without them none of us would be here tonight.”
Mrs Yeoh told Malaysian publication The Star that her daughter won because she is hardworking.
It was fitting that Yeoh received her trophy from Halle Berry, who in 2002 had been the first woman of colour to win best actress. Twenty one years on, Yeoh is just the second woman of colour to receive that honour.
Yeoh’s award was one of seven picked up by Everything Everywhere All at Once, which swept the evening. The film also won best picture, director, best supporting actor for Ke Huy Quan and best supporting actress for Jamie Lee Curtis.
Like Ms Yeoh, Mr Quan’s journey to an Oscar gold took decades. He started as a child actor in the early 1980s and one of his most memorable roles was Short Round, Harrison Ford’s sidekick in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“My journey started on a boat,” said Mr Quan, who played Ms Yeoh’s husband in Everything Everywhere All at Once. “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage. They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This, this, is the American Dream.”
But Yeoh stole the night – her win in what some have described as one of the “whitest” Oscar categories stood out for a few reasons.
For one, she is not Asian-American but rather someone who started off on shores well beyond the US. And she acknowledged this when she thanked her colleagues in Hong Kong, for “letting me stand on your shoulders giving me a leg up so I could be here today”.
And second is her age: it’s not often that a 60-year-old woman makes Hollywood history for playing a superhero. Closing her acceptance speech, Yeoh took on the ageism in Hollywood that is biased against women.
“Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are past your prime, never give up.”