Yes, She Chan! – Gemma Chan’s powerful performances and outspoken advocacy have shattered barriers and opened doors for under

By Joseff Musa
Jan 08, 2024

Gemma Chan’s high cheekbones, bright eyes and full lips characterise a face that is symmetrical to the point where it seems statistically improbable. This may be the reason behind her frequent casting in superpowered or non-human roles, such as the selfless android, Mia, in the British TV series Humans, space sniper Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel, and immortal alien Sersi in Eternals. But though her striking face will have helped her acting career, it is really just a superficial footnote to a person who runs truly deep.

Long before Hollywood came calling with a part in Crazy Rich Asians, Chan nearly took a different professional path. She declined a job offer from a prestigious London legal firm after earning her law degree at Oxford University in 2004. Rather, she enrolled at the esteemed acting school Drama Centre London. Two decades on, the British-Chinese actor has reached a comfortable level of celebrity status, capturing the hearts of audiences worldwide with her talent and unwavering commitment to breaking barriers in the entertainment industry.

Not So Crazy Rich

From humble beginnings to trailblazer, Gemma Chan’s life story is one of perseverance, resilience and a relentless pursuit of empowering others. She has openly acknowledged that her parents – hardworking Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong (father) and mainland China originally (mother) – overcame great adversity to earn degrees in engineering and pharmacy respectively.

Now aged 41, she was born in London and raised in a tight-knit Chinese family who had made Scotland their home. Her parents instilled in her the values of hard work, education and cultural heritage. Her father had survived two years of homelessness when their one-room flat in Hong Kong burned down and put his five siblings through school by working on oil tankers – which is why he considered Gemma’s artistic dreams not at all practical.

Some of her many early jobs include stocking shelves at the UK chemist chain, Boots, manning a shopping centre perfume counter and working as a lifeguard – all unimaginably far from the glamorous lifestyle she is now experiencing.

Diversity in Hollywood

But her breakthrough via the role of Astrid Leong-Teo, a strong, independent woman and a famous actress, in the surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) proved her father’s view wrong. The film not only became a global phenomenon but also marked a significant milestone for Asian representation in Tinseltown.

In various interviews, Chan has emphasised the importance of diversity in the film industry. She believes in the power of representation and the positive impact it can have on audiences. She says: “When people see themselves on screen, it validates their existence, their experiences, and it tells them that their stories matter.”

Playing celebrated social climber Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots (also 2018) was another step toward prominence, and it was swiftly followed by her strong entry into the Marvel universe. Chan has a platform now that she is well-known in the media, and she is using it to every minority’s benefit.

She has been spotted on the red carpet, sporting clothing from Asian designers including Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Kenzo, Altuzarra and Adeam. “I was just so moved,” she says.

Power to the Women

Beyond her on-screen presence, Chan has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights and combating gender stereotypes. Spotlighting the need for more complex and diverse female characters, she says: “It’s important to tell stories about women, showing them as fully realised human beings with desires, flaws and dreams.”

She did just that in Captain Marvel, supporting the first standalone female title character (played by Brie Larson) in the Marvel universe in the first Marvel film directed by a woman. Chan also expresses her admiration for Gurung who has been “putting plus-size and transgender models on the runway”. She adds: “I love opening up a magazine and seeing a whole mixture of body types … grey hair, dark skin, wrinkles – we are saying that we find these things beautiful.”

Chan’s passion for empowering women extends beyond her acting career. She has been involved with various organisations, including the Time’s Up movement, to call out sexual harassment, address inequality and promote gender parity in the entertainment industry and beyond. Her advocacy work amplifies marginalised voices and challenges societal norms.

She supports Time’s Up Justice and Equality Fund, the British counterpart of the Legal Defense Fund that assists people challenging workplace sexual harassment and an unequal status quo. Additionally, she collaborated with fellow actor Ruth Wilson and the British Film Institute to conduct educational sessions with more than 400 drama school students on how to spot various forms of power abuse, comprehend nudity clauses, and safeguard oneself from compromising audition scenarios.

“What’s going to be expected of you if you have to do a sex scene? What if you get asked to do something you’re not comfortable with? How can you say no?” asks Chan. “These are things they don’t teach you in drama school.”

To Be Continued

Despite her rising fame, Gemma Chan remains grounded and acknowledges the challenges she has faced. She emphasises the importance of staying true to oneself, stating, “It’s really important to find your own voice and your own path, and to not be afraid of speaking out and saying no.”

With all this activity in her life, from superhuman roles to battling for better industry standards, what could be next on her agenda? She expresses a desire to create more opportunities for underrepresented voices, saying: “I want to be part of making those stories visible, and hopefully, that will inspire someone else to tell their story.”