amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Shining a Light on HIV Awareness in Hong Kong

The TREAT Asia Report Interview: Michelle Yeoh

headshotnew1231.jpgActress and amfAR Ambassador Michelle YeohMichelle Yeoh is an internationally acclaimed actress and producer based in Hong Kong who has starred in over 30 films, including Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Lady. She is also an accomplished humanitarian dedicated to improving health and safety throughout the Asia-Pacific and has long been involved with multiple Asian and global charities, including amfAR. In 2014, she joined Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former U.S. First Lady Laura Bush to cofound the Suu Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving health and education in Myanmar.

TREAT Asia Report: We would like to thank you for allowing us to recognize you in February at amfAR’s first Hong Kong gala. How do you think amfAR’s engagement in the region can impact awareness and understanding of the epidemic?

Michelle Yeoh: I have been involved with amfAR for many years and was pleased to be named as one of the Foundation's ambassadors in 2007. It is exciting to have amfAR come to Hong Kong to raise awareness and funds for HIV research and education. In many parts of China, HIV awareness and testing rates remain low, and rates of infection are increasing nationally. Currently, the country accounts for 20% of new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region—second only to India, and if awareness and testing rates do not improve, that could increase.

The Hong Kong Gala provided a unique opportunity to share these and other challenges and successes in the global and regional fight against HIV with the public. And I think the media attention around the event, which was attended by many other celebrities and influential individuals like Gwyneth Paltrow and Pansy Ho, will help bolster HIV awareness in China and throughout East Asia. In addition to this event, amfAR is impacting HIV in the region through the TREAT Asia Network by improving HIV research and treatment and advocating for better HIV-related policies. I look forward to seeing what else amfAR and TREAT Asia will do in the region.

(Left to right) Michelle Yeoh, David Tang, Pansy Ho, and Silas Chou at the 2015 amfAR Hong Kong Gala (Photo: Getty Images)
(Left to right) Michelle Yeoh, David Tang, Pansy Ho, and Silas Chou at the 2015 amfAR Hong Kong Gala (Photo: Getty Images)

TA Report: How has the landscape of charitable giving in China evolved as the country’s role in the global economy has expanded?

Yeoh: While people in China often respond quite generously to natural disasters like earthquakes, other types of charitable giving are not always consistent. But as the economic situation in China has improved for individuals and the country, awareness about the importance of philanthropy has increased.

Understandably, people have tended to support organizations dealing with local issues, rather than global ones. But last year, Jack Ma and Joseph Tsai of Alibaba announced that they were setting up charities that will be funded by stock options in their company, bringing more attention to the issue. I am hopeful that this announcement and high profile events like amfAR Hong Kong will spur more giving and that people will consider donating to broader causes like HIV—which knows no borders.

movie-still-hk3.jpgMichelle Yeoh plays Burmese leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2011 film "The Lady." (Photo: Rex Features)TA Report: In many parts of Asia, there is less awareness about HIV and the challenges associated with combatting it. What can we do to increase HIV awareness among the general population?

Yeoh: The more information individuals have about any cause or issue, the more aware they will be of the needs of their neighbors and communities. In my work as Global Ambassador for the Make Roads Safe campaign, we have used various forms of popular media, such as short but dramatic videos, to try to reach people and help them understand the scale of road injuries and what can be done to prevent them, like wearing helmets on motorbikes.

Similar campaigns are needed for HIV in Asia. Discussions about sex and HIV risk remain difficult in many parts of Asia, and a lot of people do not know the basic facts about prevention, testing, how the virus is transmitted, and why they should not be afraid of people living with HIV. We need to speak about it more openly and publicly.

TA Report: How can we reach larger numbers of at-risk youth and improve their knowledge about the importance of HIV testing and prevention?

Yeoh:  We have to speak to them in a way that they understand and that they feel respects them. The language used should not be aimed at scaring them into getting tested, but at encouraging them to do this for themselves and the people they love. And social media and the Internet must play key roles in any successful campaign to reach young people. Organizations in some countries have already launched excellent social media campaigns that feature celebrities, videos, and other elements that appeal to youth.

In China, the proportion of 15–24-year-olds living with HIV nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012. There is little sex education in schools, and parents often do not teach the information at home, so one key component of any effective campaign for young people in China needs to be teaching them the basics about HIV and safer sex.

hongkongkennethmichelle4.jpgMichelle Yeoh and amfAR Chairman Kenneth Cole at the Hong Kong Gala. TA Report: What are the biggest barriers to supporting people living with HIV in Asia and reducing rates of new infections?

Yeoh: Unfortunately, the answer to this question has not changed much in the time I have been involved in HIV outreach and activism. Stigma and discrimination continue to be the biggest barriers to combating HIV. In China, people with HIV are often afraid to seek out medical care because medical professionals discriminate against them and because other people in their community may discover they have HIV.

China’s political leaders have acknowledged the impact of HIV on Chinese society and taken a meaningful leadership role. The government is committed to expanding treatment and some politicians have publicly embraced people with HIV/AIDS. We need the government and other prominent public figures to address the discrimination that makes it hard for people living with HIV to seek treatment, find secure employment, sustain relationships, and live active lives in their own communities. I think if we continue to bring the subject out into the open, people will eventually realize that having HIV is like having other chronic diseases and can be managed in similar ways.