Singaporean Rebel With A Cause -- Gwendoline Yeo

Singaporean Rebel With A Cause -- Gwendoline Yeo

Gwendolyn Yeo

Why would a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa UCLA grad defy her country's tradition of choosing 'respected' careers like medicine and law and plunge head first into one of the most notoriously difficult (and just plain notorious) of all: Hollywood Acting?

Remember Michael Fay, the American teenager who was sentenced to caning by the Singaporean government for vandalizing a car? Unfortunately, that's about all the average American remembers about the tropical island country, which also happens to be the birthplace of stunningly beautiful actress, musician, and former Miss Chinatown USA Gwendoline Yeo.

Yeo figures that Singapore is about due for an image makeover, something that would greatly boost its embryonic film industry. "Probably the one stereotype to come out [of Singapore] is how strict it is," Yeo remarks. "And how clean it is. And people don't want to watch a strict and clean movie." The multitalented Yeo may be just the woman to stir things up a bit.

You might recognize Yeo's face if you happened to watch the 1998 Miss Chinatown USA pageant, or the 1996 Miss Asia America pageant, both of which she won. Or, you may have happened to see the premier episode of NBC's Watching Ellie, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on which Yeo played Andrea Barlow. If you're an avid theatre-goer, you might have caught Yeo's performance as the double lead in East West Players' "The Tempest," which earned her praise from LA Weekly and Yolk Magazine.

Yeo's voice might ring a bell too, especially if you're a fourteen year old boy; she's the voice of the evil lady Deathstrike, a character in the X-men and Wolverine's Revenge games. If you're eagerly awaiting the release of Final Fantasy X-2, which comes out in December, you might recognize Yeo's voice as she delivers her favorite line as the tough, sexy Paine: "Are you ready to feel the hurt?" In fact, you might even own the official Gwendoline Yeo Final Fantasy X-2 Paine doll.

To Yeo, success in Hollywood isn't necessarily synonymous with achieving Lucy Liu status, but instead is belonging to an "invisible working class of actors" who aren't necessarily driving Ferraris down Rodeo Drive, but aren't waiting tables either. Yeo falls easily into this category, utilizing her diverse talents to make a comfortable living. Actors in this class, she observes, must hawk their various talents "like subway gold watch sellers-We got watches! We got jewelry! We got necklaces!" Yeo's website (, touts her as a modern day Renaissance woman, with sections devoted to her acting, modeling, pageantry, and music.

Music? Did I mention Yeo is a classically trained pianist who graduated from San Francisco's Conservatory of Music? When she's not busy captivating the hearts of 14-year old boys worldwide, she enjoys rocking out on the Chinese zither, a traditional Chinese instrument that looks somewhat like a sideways harp. But Yeo's take on the zither is anything but traditional. In fact, she can probably safely say that she plays the zither like no one else in the world, infusing an ancient Eastern instrument with a hip, western edge, producing a unique, jazzy sound she likens to an Asian version of Pink Floyd. Her first two tracks, "Beautifully," and "Eventually," debuted on KCRW 89.9 FM, a division of NPR, and she was the subject of a half hour special on "The Politics of Culture," which she wrote, narrated, and scored.

But Yeo wasn't always the laid back, yoga-loving Californian she is today. Growing up in Singapore, Yeo was a self described "mega-gigantic nerd" who, like most of her peers, was brought up in the traditionally strict and disciplined Singaporean educational system, designed to hone what Yeo terms the "Singaporean mind athlete," but which until recently de-emphasized the arts-except, of course, classical music. Yeo moved to San Francisco about 14 years ago to study piano at the Conservatory of Music ("Now when ever I see a piano, I just want to make a face at it."). During her first year at UCLA, she still clung to her disciplined upbringing, which didn't always land her the vote for Miss Congeniality-as a barely 18 year old Resident Advisor at UCLA, she enforced a stringent no drinking, no smoking policy, once prompting pizza to be flung at her door. The next year, she swapped her iron-fist policy for a more relaxed, don't ask, don't tell approach that quickly won her the hearts of her residents. (To clarify, Yeo actually did win the crown for Miss Congeniality-in 1996, during the Miss Asia America pageant.)

It's been a long journey for the self assured, beautiful actress who straddles two cultures and an ocean full of misconceptions about her nationality and her ethnicity. At UCLA, she deviated from the well-trodden paths of medicine, law, and engineering blazed by countless Singaporean immigrants before her, instead graduating at age 19 with a major in communication studies and linguistics, a decision which has helped her greatly in her sitcom and voice-over work. "I think there isn't really much respect for the arts, not only in Singapore [but universally ] as well. When you say you're an artist in Singapore, people scoff."

"I'm full Singaporean and full American," she declares, "and I spent the beginning part of my career trying to quiet the fight between my Asian side and my American side; the free spirited side, and the disciplined, persistent side; the perfectionist side and the artist side." When she goes back to Singapore, her American accent causes a bit of unease as Singaporeans struggle to determine whether she's a "kantang"-literally, a "potato head," the local term for an American, named so for a perceived love of french fries.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Yeo struggles with the challenges facing many Asian American performers, namely, a lack of diverse roles. "There are only so many half-breed Chinese Japanese roles that Lucy Liu, who has my utmost respect, can do in 'Kill Bill'," she says. "There are only so many mysterious, kick-ass, black belt fighting Kelly Hu's." According to Yeo, echoing the sentiments of longtime friend and mentor Nancy Kwan, what is most desperately needed to help foster Asian American acting "is more sitcom writers, not just more stars. No sitcom writer's thinking, 'Pretty funny Asian woman, hilarious.' They're thinking, fat guy. Hilarious." Sitcoms, Yeo believes, even more so than films, have the power to change middle class America's notions of Asians living in America.

Yeo notes that it may prove harder for Asian Americans in the industry to be accepted by mainstream America than it has been for Asians. "I think Americans have always accepted Asian cinema, like the Hong Kong fighting movies, Chinese Gong Li films with translated subtitles, and it's always been okay, because they're away" and don't constitute a threat to Americans. "For the melting pot of America to allow [Asian Americans] to melt in, it is going to take some time. But I think right now, we, the Asian American face, the slant eyed, as it were, are right on the cusp. And people are just ready to put salt and pepper on us, and take a spoon full." Yeo optimistically sees the stereotyping of Asians on television as a transitory stage. "Sometimes, for the expense of moving middle America from the unknown and ignorance to giving them some information, sometimes that 'some information' is slightly stereotypical. And it's unfortunate. The next level is moving to something more unique, and that's going to take some time."

An alternative market for Asian American talent: Asia, of course. "I think Asia is open to Asian American talent," Yeo notes, "and that's where the money's being put into." The past few years have already seen an increasing globalization of the entertainment industry, with Asian filmmakers seeking Asian American talent, American studios wooing Asian talent, and Asian countries all borrowing heavily from each other. In this globalized industry, Singapore, Yeo remarks, has a unique advantage over other Asian countries-Singaporeans grow up speaking English, giving them an edge in seeking work in America, and they speak non-accented Mandarin, making them desirable in Taiwanese, Chinese, and Hong Kong markets.

Although Yeo wants to continue her work in America, she has no plans to turn her back on her heritage, and hopes to one day return to Singapore to work on a film that will help put the country on the map. What Singapore needs, Yeo figures, "is a 'Life is Beautiful' - a really well-written script, from the voice of a Singaporean person, that would could showcase the beauty of the country and could be shot there."

In order for Singapore's budding film industry to grow to the likes of the Indian, Hong Kong, and Japanese film industries, Yeo predicts that the country will have to rely on its relationships with other Asian countries. "We always look to the motherland for information. We import everything, 99 percent of our water. The only thing we export is brainpower. And it's the same thing for the entertainment industry." More emphasis on the arts in the educational system would help, too: "If I had to change one thing about the Singaporean educational system it would be higher emphasis on the right brain. I think Singapore has left-brainers down to a science."

Meanwhile, between composing zither music, shooting commercials, guest starring on the sitcom Grounded for Life, and finishing up an indie film called "A Day Without a Mexican," a comedy about all the Mexicans in L.A. being fumigated, Yeo is also working on her one-person show, and just finished starring in a pilot for "Bench Pressley and Showgirl," a new cartoon from Klasky Csupo (Rugrats) to come out in 2004.

"The more I live here, the more I excavate my Singaporean side, the tradition," says Yeo, "because no matter what, I can't change the passport that I wear on my body. This is a full body tattoo of the color of my skin, and an internal tattoo of my upbringing. Every role that I bring myself to is a Singaporean American, Mandarin speaking, English speaking, bicultural, Chinese zithering, funny in all the meanings of the word, occasional extrovert." Is Singapore ready to embrace Gwendoline Yeo, bicultural Chinese zithering extrovert?

"When I went to Singapore, my family said, 'We're proud of you.' And it meant a lot to me." Later, she adds, "I hope Singapore is proud of me."

Published: Friday, November 7, 2003