When I saw that Simu Liu was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly this morning, I felt as emotional as I did when Constance Wu and Henry Golding were on the cover for Crazy Rich Asians. As a pop culture junkie, I’ve been reading EW for a long time. And as an Asian person, it hasn’t been my experience to see people from a similar background featured on the front page of a magazine that is a pop culture staple.
And now here we are – Simu Liu is getting the movie star treatment because Marvel’s Shang-Chi is coming in September and Comic-Con, which will be virtual again this year, is happening in a couple of weeks. “A New Hero Rises” indeed. But I mention Crazy Rich Asians for a reason. As noted in the article, it was the success of CRA that prompted Marvel to fast-track Shang-Chi, because yes, audiences will show up to watch Asian leads. And it is expected that a huge audience will show up to watch this Asian lead a superhero movie. Marvel is putting a lot into Shang-Chi and in Simu they have someone who is ready for this moment. Obviously it wasn’t easy getting here.
The EW piece, written by Phil Yu (also known as Angry Asian Man, whose book, Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, co-authored with Jeff Yang and Philip Wang comes out in January), opens with Simu talking about the day he got the call confirming that he would be Shang-Chi. He was working at the time on Kim’s Convenience and, given what he and other cast members have shared recently about their experience on the show, the story he tells isn’t surprising anymore but it is definitely disappointing – and also insightful.
That day, Simu had issues with one of the lines in the script that required him to deliver a play on words on his character’s name. His character was called “Jung Kim”. The script was asking him to say “Egg Foo Jung”. Simu refused. It resulted in an hour-long delay in production. Simu says he was wrecked, super emotional. No one on set wants to be the person to push back filming. I’ve been working on sets for over 15 years and when you’re the one hitting pause, for whatever reason, even when you’re right, you feel like an asshole, you feel like you’re the pain-in-the-ass. And for Simu, on top of that, he was presumably spending this energy trying to convince people to change something that, really, should never have been written in the first place.
And then he got the call from Marvel, while sitting in his underwear eating shrimp crackers which, frankly, cracked me up after that sh-tty story because, well, while being Asian is not a monolith, I think a lot of us can relate to sitting around in our underwear eating shrimp crackers. If you have not had a shrimp cracker, find yourself an Asian grocery store and glow up your snack life.
To go back to Simu and that particular experience on Kim’s, though, it has shaped his perspective on the kind of work he wants to do going forward and how he wants to spend the capital he’s accumulating. In terms of how that story gets advanced in the EW piece though, this is an example of why we also need more diversity in media – because Phil asks a question that’s related to the line that Simu didn’t want to say back on Kim’s Convenience. Egg foo young is a Chinese dish but the term has been used as a racial slur to mock Asians. I’ve been called Elaine Foo Young more times than I can remember. Or Chop Suey Lui. Or Chicken Chow Lui. Or Kung Fu Lui.
The kung fu stereotype comes up a lot. And this is where Phil does the work because he goes there with Simu, addressing with him how complicated it is to be starring in Marvel’s first movie with an Asian superhero whose superpower happens to be kung fu. Will that only entrench stereotypes? Is that actually progressive? Simu gives a thoughtful answer:
"There are two paradigms that are completely at odds with each other," he says. "One being, as a progressive Asian American man, I've always wanted to shatter barriers and expectations of what Asian men are and be very aware of the boxes that we're put into — martial artists, sidekicks, exotic, or Orientalist. And then the other paradigm is, like, kung fu is objectively super f-cking cool. There is a reason why kung fu caught fire and the world became obsessed with it, because it's incredible to watch." In Shang-Chi, Liu sees an opportunity "to reclaim that sh-t": "There was a time [as an Asian actor], I didn't want anybody to see me doing martial arts... but I grew up watching Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and I remember the immense amount of pride that I felt watching them kick ass. I think Shang-Chi can absolutely be that for Asian Americans. It means that kids growing up today will have what we never did — the ability to watch the screen and to really feel seen."
He's right. Because it’s not like Asians aren’t into martial arts. In my daydreams, I’m still one of the characters from the martial arts soap operas I watched in Hong Kong as a kid. As Simu said, “Kung fu is super f-cking cool”. It just got appropriated and also used against us. So for sure there’s an opportunity here to “reclaim that sh-t”. But you need the right team. And there are a lot of things working in favour of the Shang-Chi team. Because it’s not just Simu, it’s also Destin Daniel Cretton, the director, who is Asian American, and also screenwriter David Callaham who is of Chinese descent.
The part in the article that really got me was when Destin was describing the Shang-Chi audition process. They weren’t necessarily looking to prioritise physicality when they were searching for their Shang-Chi. Rather, they needed to find someone who understands who this person is, what he cares about, and why he moves around the world in the way that he does. Like… Matt Damon’s character, Will, in Good Will Hunting. Not exactly the movie you expected to come up in a conversation about Shang-Chi, right?
“Cretton, whose résumé leans more toward films about nuance and character than flashy action, had actors read a monologue from 1997's Good Will Hunting. "The character of Will represents this mixture of masculinity and vulnerability," says Cretton, 42, drawing parallels between Shang-Chi and Matt Damon's Southie math genius. "He also has a secret and a superpower that he doesn't quite understand and has not stepped into." Liu, who before acting earned a business degree and became an accountant to please his parents, agrees: "That movie is all about a guy going to extreme lengths to hide who he is. He's a genius hiding in plain clothes. Shang-Chi is also somebody who is kind of putting on a mask day to day. It's about Shang-Chi learning that even though there is a prescribed destiny that his dad has bestowed on him, he can also carve out his own path. It's pretty Asian American."
Specific and universal, see? Racialised people have had no choice but to find themselves in white-dominant stories since forever. But the reverse can be true too – white people can relate to Shang-Chi the same way that Shang-Chi can connect to Good Will Hunting, while telling a specific story about North American Asians and establishing an identity between two cultures. This is the potential and the power of storytelling.
For Phil Yu’s full article on Simu Liu, and to see more photos (he looks really, really good) head to EW.com.