Ke Huy Quan fled South Vietnam in 1979 and arrived in the United States as a refugee. Decades later, after a career that has taken him from Hollywood star to film school student and back, Quan won the film industry’s highest honour.
“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp,” Quan said, accepting the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars March 12 for his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. “And somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage.”
Quan fled South Vietnam with his family. He travelled to Hong Kong with his father while his mother and siblings went to Malaysia. The family was reunited America.
At age 12, Quan earned a major role in the 1984 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom after accompanying his brother to an audition. Thirty-nine years later, Harrison Ford presented the Academy Award to his former co-star.
In the interim, Quan, now 51, earned a degree in film and worked as a stunt coordinator and assistant director.
In the sci-fi adventure Everything Everywhere All at Once, Quan plays a husband and father in a Chinese American immigrant family that bounces through parallel universes while saving the world. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture.
The movie’s portrayal of an immigrant family working through family dynamics and the stresses of work has resonated with Asian Americans, many of whom see the success of the film and its actors as a signal they can accomplish anything.
Quan is the first Vietnamese American to win an Academy award for acting, and his co-star Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian to win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Yeoh, of Malaysia, started acting after an injury derailed her ballet training at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Despite lacking formal training in martial arts, she excelled at choreographed fighting scenes. She found roles in Hong Kong, performing her own stunts and co-starring with martial arts heroes Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
In the 1990s, Yeoh came to Hollywood and took roles in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” Yeoh said, accepting her Oscar.
As Quan said: “They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This, this is the American dream!”