Ke Huy Quan's historic journey from refugee to 2023 Oscar winner

He made his debut at the age of 12 but quit acting later due to a lack of opportunities

Ke Huy Quan won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Reuters
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After a two-decade break from acting due to a lack of substantial film roles for Asian performers, Ke Huy Quan marked his return to the art form with the 2022 film Everything Everywhere All at Once.

On Sunday, he became the first Asian man in 38 years to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — Haing S Ngor previously won the award for the 1985 film The Killing Fields. Quan was honoured for his role as Waymond Wang, the affable and loving husband of the protagonist Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh.

Yeoh also made history on Monday, picking up the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, the first-ever win by an Asian woman.

Ke Huy Quan's 'American dream' acceptance speech

"My mom is 84 years old and she's at home watching. Mom, I just won an Oscar," Quan said, tearfully accepting the award on the stage of the Dolby Theatre.

"My journey started on a boat,” Quan said in his acceptance speech. “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!"

Quan said he “almost gave up” on trying to realise his dreams in the entertainment industry and urged others to keep their dreams alive. He also thanked his wife for encouraging him.

"I owe everything to the love of my life, my wife Echo, who month after month, year after year, for 20 years, told me that one day my time will come. Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine — to all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive. Thank you, thank you so much for welcoming me back! I love you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Refugee to Oscar winner

Born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, his family fled Vietnam in 1978. Quan, along with his father and five siblings ended up in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, while his mother and three other siblings left for Malaysia. The family was reunited in the US in 1979.

He made his debut at the age of 12, starring alongside Harrison Ford in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A year later, he co-starred in the adventure comedy The Goonies. In 1990, he played Jasper Kwong in the sitcom Head of the Class for two seasons.

However, as an adult, he found a lack of acting opportunities in the US, eventually quitting the art form and enrolling in a film programme in the University of Southern California. After graduating, he helped plan the fight scenes in the 2000 film X-Men and assisted as a stunt choreographer in the 2001 film, The One. He also worked as an assistant director on the 2004 romantic drama 2046.

It was the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians that inspired Quan to return to acting, as the film marked progress in Asian representation in Hollywood.

“Over the years, I’ve met a lot of Asian talent now working in Hollywood. They always thank me and say, ‘Man, it was so great to see you up there on the screen, because I was able to see myself. Thank you for paving the way for us to be here,’” Quan told GQ in April last year.

“And, of course, it’s really interesting because they’ve paved the way for my return. My return to acting is the direct result of the progress made by them. It proves how important it is for not just Asian, but for all groups of people to be represented in entertainment.”

Scroll through the gallery below for all the winners at the Oscars 2023

Updated: March 13, 2023, 8:28 AM