First Asian superhero in a Marvel movie: Simu Liu as ‘Shang-Chi’
The tide is rising in the Marvel multiverse, and there’s never been a more appropriate time to be a socially progressive fan of the superhero world.
Simu Liu, the 32-year-old Chinese-Canadian newbie actor of Kim’s Convenience fame, is shaking things at the white boys’ club. As the first Asian lead of a Marvel superhero film, he’s on the cusp of becoming the face of diversity, representing a population which isn’t all white, whilst carving out a permanent place for himself amongst Hollywood A-listers.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, due for release on 3 September, showcases a predominantly Asian cast, and pits superhero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) against the terrorist group, Ten Rings, that was introduced in Iron Man. Social media sensation and Crazy Rich Asians’ actor Awkwafina also stars.
We take a look at Liu’s rocky path to stardom, which mirrors the progress of the times.
Born in Harbin in 1989, Liu was raised by his grandparents until the age of five. His parents had migrated to Ontario to complete their education at Queen’s University and “start a better life”. By 1995, they were financially secured for their son to join them, but the two generations of the family were complete strangers. In an open letter to his parents, Liu states, “I was excited to finally meet my real parents and start my life in Canada, but I had no recollection of you.” It was a period of resentment, tough adjustment and culture shock for the youngster. “We fought often… If I tripped on my laces, I was clumsy. If I scored below an A, I was stupid. If I wanted to hang out with my friends, I was wasting my time. I spoke dismissively about you, told you I hated you, and that I couldn’t wait to leave the house. But privately, I yearned for your love and affection.”
From Accounting to Acting
Like most Asian families, Liu’s highly qualified, aerospace-engineer parents raised him to pursue a career in the sciences. Little did they know destiny had other plans. After graduating from Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School by the skin of his teeth, he got an accounting job with Deloitte in its downtown Toronto office. It was crash and burn from the word go. Liu hated crunching numbers, Deloitte was not a fan, and after nine months, he was laid off. “The first round of cuts, and I was right out,” he recalls.
Ashamed and embarrassed, he considered leaping from the balcony to avoid facing his high-achieving parents. But the thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can only go up. A pink slip motivated him to try something new – performing arts – and he was instantly drawn to the world of acting.
More than a Stunt
Liu’s leading man status has been hard-earned. He started out as a stunt artist; Hollywood expected an Asian man in the industry to know martial arts. As a side gig, he performed stunts at birthday parties for extra cash. Serendipitously, it was a Craigslist ad directed him to his first acting role – an extra “deep, deep in the background” in the 2013 sci-fi film, Pacific Rim.
The aspiring star has always showed drive. Not one to sit back and wait for the ideal role or the perfect opportunity, he grabbed whatever came his way and gave it his all – and that tactic has paid off, big time!
Plea to Marvel
The struggling actor was “handing out dog-food samples on the side of the road in Toronto” when he put out this 2014 tweet, “Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian-American hero?” Seven years later, he has just become one.
Unbeknownst to him, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, often criticised for its affinity with conventionally handsome white males, was internally rebooting to stay socially and politically relevant in the #MeToo age. It was gearing up to unveil a swathe of diverse superheroes. Shang Chi, with its momentous Asian casting, promises to be one of this year’s marquee blockbuster releases. Simu Liu as a Chinese superhero has not only deepened the conversation around race and representation – the step up is also being seen as a huge leap for Hollywood – one that marks progress over profits and doesn’t reduce diversity to an act of tokenism, a stunt or a sidekick.
Years of toil on the acting fringes paid off in 2016 with a role in critically acclaimed Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, the show about the day-to-day happenings of a Korean immigrant family. Liu plays one of the central characters, Jung Kim, in this smash hit; it quickly drew an avid following and was one of the most watched comedies on Netflix in 2018. Ironically, the show runs parallel to his own life and immigrant story.
Umma (Jean Yoon) and Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) are mellow, easy-going folk, who gradually begin to see the world beyond the prejudices that surface with each new customer. Much like Liu’s own experiences, the children in the show – Janet and Jung – learn to appreciate their parents’ struggle, live through their idiosyncrasies and find love, care and support in their largely affectionless home. In the end, despite all the ups and downs, everyone pretty much gets along. Similarly, as Liu matured, he came to see the world through his parents’ eyes. His open letter is a tribute to them: “In hindsight, I know that you were doing the best. Money was always tight. And so you worked hard and often. You pushed me as hard as you could so that I would never have to know the struggle of not knowing where my next meal would come from.”
With more than 30 film, TV and ad credits to his name, including Fresh Off The Boat, Orphan Black, Slasher and Bad Blood, the actor is increasingly popular on both the big and small screen. But you might recognise him from somewhere else. In 2014, during his dog-food promoting days, Liu did a photoshoot for iStock images for US$120 – a quick cash solution that he, at the time, didn’t realise would be splashed all over the internet – for countless job advertisements, bus posters and even as the cover of accounting books. “That stock photo shoot always finds a way to come back and haunt me. LOL”, he shares with his fans on Instagram.
The world in which we grew up could not imagine an Asian as the face of a Marvel movie. Representation matters when you have millions of eyeballs forming an image of what heroes look like. Simu Liu’s starring role sends a powerful message – that in 2021, race, gender and sexual orientation should not come in the way of being a hero. Hopefully, the tide will continue to rise from one studio to another until the day issues of diversity will no longer be magazine stories.
(Text: Nikita Mishra)