What Marvel’s First Asian Superhero Means To Me
Mr Simu Liu in “Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings” (2021). Photograph by Mr Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios
“So,” my mum said. “Who do you want to be?” I was six years old, and being a child of Taiwanese immigrants, you might reasonably think she was alluding to my future career choices – like doctor, or lawyer because, well, Asian parents.
In this instance, my mother was actually asking about the fancy-dress day I had coming up at school that week. My favourite superhero was Superman, so that was an easy one. But even back then, there was a niggling feeling that it would be weird if I went to school dressed in the cape and tights. Because Superman was white, and I wasn’t.
When I turned the TV on in the early 1990s, there weren’t any heroes who looked like me at all – Wolverine, Captain America, Batman, they were all white. (Later, I was beyond chuffed to find out that Mr Dean Cain, who played Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, was actually part Japanese.) At any rate, it was too late for my mum to find me a Superman costume, so off I went to school dressed in a shiny, plastic Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle get-up that was more oversized baby bib than cool costume. Sure enough, lunchtime that day consisted of attempting to climb into my lunchbox to hide from the other kids’ laughs. I still wince when someone suggests fancy dress.
Unsurprisingly, a complicated relationship with superheroes is an experience shared by millions with Asian heritage growing up in the West, including Mr Simu Liu – the Chinese-Canadian star of Marvel Studios’ latest film: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and the first Asian man in such a role. As a newbie actor, Liu would dress up as Spider-Man to earn extra cash at kids’ birthday parties. “As an Asian man, I could never show my face,” he told Empire. “It was only once I put the mask on that the illusion of the superhero would be sold. The moment I took it off, nobody would ever think I could be that.”
It’s no secret that Hollywood has had a serious representation problem – one that’s left non-white kids pondering where they fit into the world. The good news is things are changing. In 2018, Black Panther hit cinemas, shattering all sorts of norms in its wake. It was the most tweeted-about movie of all time (back then). It was a Hollywood production with a predominantly Black cast and crew. It was mega blockbuster popcorn entertainment, cut through in every aspect with what it means to be Black.
“Hollywood has had a serious representation problem – one that’s left non-white kids pondering where they fit into the world”
You could say Shang-Chi is just Black Panther for Asians – the director, Mr Destin Daniel Cretton, was born in Hawaii and has Japanese heritage, while the cast and crew is mostly AAPI. And while, yes, it is a monumentally big deal that millions of Asian-American and Asian-European kids will see themselves depicted as a hero up there on the big screen, it’s also true that limiting the impact of the movie to just that would be reductive.
Quickfire question: which male demographic is swiped left most on Tinder? Yep, Asian men. That’s not to say people on dating platforms are necessarily racist. They – along with the rest of us – just have certain prejudices that have been developed over nearly 150 years of Asian ridicule. Asian immigrants in the 19th century provided cheap labour as America expanded westwards, sparking vitriol from whites who felt robbed of their livelihood. This vitriol birthed the concept of the Yellow Peril, an idea that hordes of mysterious East Asians wielding strange, irresistible occult powers were invading the west and stealing its land and women. Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, banning Chinese immigration to the United States until 1943.
Naturally, this fear bled into popular culture with characters such as Dr Fu Manchu – the lecherous, mad scientist with the long, wispy moustache. Created in 1913 by English author Mr Sax Rohmer, actors including Sir Christopher Lee and Mr Peter Sellers would play the role, and this personification of the Yellow Peril would become the template for Hollywood when it came to portraying Asian men on screen. (Incidentally, Shang-Chi was first conceived in 1973 as the son of Fu Manchu, the rights to whom Marvel had acquired from Rohmer. Because of Fu Manchu’s problematic past, Shang-Chi has a new dad in the film – Wenwu, played by legendary Hong Kong actor Mr Tony Leung Chiu-wai.)
Later, after WWII, and the Korea and Vietnam wars, Asian men were boxed into new stereotypes: we were now weedy nerds who were really good at maths, or kung fu masters – because Mr Bruce Lee. But even Lee, a man who spent his life punching through Asian male stereotypes, has been used to mock Asian men. And you only have to look at how Mr Quentin Tarantino portrayed Lee in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to see that Hollywood really hasn’t come that far since Mr Mickey Rooney’s yellow-faced, bucktoothed Mr Yunioshi shouted “I must protest!” at Ms Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
“Shang-Chi stands as a particularly important milestone because Liu’s character represents a new kind of well-rounded Asian masculinity”
Through a barrage of stereotypes, Asian men have been desexualised. With these caricatured portrayals on film that mock and belittle, nothing on TV or in magazines to dispute them, and a media that reveres European standards of beauty above all, Asian-American and Asian-European men, like me, have had to battle with the idea that no one in their right mind would find us attractive. Which is maybe why I leaned into sports and b-boying as a teenager – if I couldn’t change how I looked, I could at least do some damage control and be athletic.
In recent years, movies such as Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe and Mortal Kombat have all featured male Asian leads in Messrs Henry Golding, Randall Park and Lewis Tan, working to remedy not only the lack of Asian visibility in Hollywood, but also the notion that Asian men are, well, rubbish. Rubbish at charisma, rubbish at sports, rubbish in bed – perpetually destined to be the sidekick or the nerdy supporting character. But Shang-Chi stands as a particularly important milestone – not only because of Marvel’s gargantuan cultural reach, but also because Liu’s character represents a new kind of well-rounded Asian masculinity in the West. One that is at once powerful and vulnerable, funny and conflicted, and yeah, sexy.
Perhaps more importantly, the character is one that examines the uncomfortable relationship he has with his heritage, yet still manages, in the end, to reconcile where he comes from with who he is. It’s a no doubt purposeful parallel drawn by Cretton and his co-writer Mr David Callaham (who is of Chinese descent), that seeks to reassure Asian audiences that they, too, shouldn’t be ashamed of their heritage. The fact that Shang-Chi manages to save the world in an effortlessly stylish way – in what looks to be Marvel’s most impressive action film yet – well, that’s just the cherry on top.
If you asked my seven-year-old son who his favourite superhero is, he’d tell you it’s the Flash. Not a bad choice by any means. But knowing that I’ll one day say, “Who do you want to be?” and he’ll have the choice to tell me that he wants to dress up as a hero who not only looks like him, but also comes from a distinctly Asian-Western point of view like he does – that makes me excited, hopeful and happy. Because he is that much closer to belonging. And, crucially, there won’t be a shiny Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle bib in sight.