Giving Voice to the Unsung Heroes of Hollywood: Asian American Actresses before Michelle Yeoh


by Daisy Herrera

The Asian representation within Hollywood has seen steady growth in the last ten years as we see films in which stories are being written for Asian Americans, which showcase representation. 

There has been a long history of Asian Americans being misrepresented in the media and the film industry. However, in the 19th and into the 20th century, there was a significant improvement in Asian representation as Asian creators were now in control of their narratives. Allowing actors to showcase their acting abilities as casting directors is beginning to offer more opportunities and representation to Asians.

Michelle Yeoh has starred in significant blockbusters as a strong female lead in films such as starring in the James Bond movie (1997) and starred alongside Jackie Chan in Supercop (1992), making her an established action star. In recent years she has been reintroduced to a new age of viewers today with films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Everything all at once” which have garnered her recognition. Michelle Yeoh became the first actress since Merle Oberon in 1935 to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. It is no surprise that Hollywood has taken this long to recognize a talented woman of color who has been in the industry for over 20 years.

Yet only a few people recognize the name, Merle Oberon. So who is she? She was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson. She starred in two best-picture oscar nomination films. At the height of her career, She was cast in many movies in the 1930s and 1940s. She was the leading lady in many British films. As she moved to England in 1928 to pursue her acting career, she caught the attention of Hungarian director Alexander Korda casting her in his 1933 “The Private Life of Henry VIII” film and casting her as Anne Boleyn. Wanting to make her dreams a reality, she moved to the US to star in her first American film, the 1934 “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” film which was a major success. She earned her Oscar nomination for her 1935 performance in “The Dark Angle.”Breaking from the distinctive look of the blue-eyed blond girl that set her apart from the rest of the girls in the industry at the time. She hid her actual birthplace and biracial identity during her life, as hiring a person of biracial background as a lead was unacceptable at the time. She spent her whole life pretending to be white. She hid her darker complexion by wearing heavy makeup. Merle is of South Asian origin. She was born in Mumbai, India, although she would tell the press she was born in Tasmanian Australia. Her work had begun to decline in the 1950s as she was not receiving many casting offers. Merle Oberon hid her true identity to make her breakthrough in Hollywood and was still able to influence the early film industry significantly. She passed away in 1979.

Another honorable mention is Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese actress who won an award as a “supporting actress” for her role in “Sayonara” where she played a submissive wife in 1957 alongside Marlon Brando. Her acting abilities lead her to be in the 1958 Flower Drum Song movie. The film was the first musical film with an all-Asian cast. She was celebrated for her acting ability and for being a dancer and singer. Although her characters would frequently be negatively stereotyped, she only made five American films. Hollywood is still working on bringing more inclusion to its movies; remembering the women before Michelle Yeoh is still important, as modern viewers often overlook. Three generations of actresses worked their way into Hollywood to pave the way for not only future Asian women but women of color.


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