When I and many of my Asian American peers were growing up, we were so hungry to see ourselves represented that we’d scream and call the family to join us in the living room when an Asian guest star wandered into the scene, or a commercial came on featuring an Asian family. We’d scour celebrities’ biographies to surface “undercover Asians,” those with trace evidence of Asian heritage. Phoebe Cates, yes! Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no.
Now here we are, on the cusp of the release of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the first big-budget American blockbuster to center on an honest-to-goodness Asian superhero. The film stars Simu Liu, who whirls into action with all the unique splendor promised by a movie that fuses the eye-popping spectacle of Chinese martial arts with Hollywood’s unparalleled storytelling technology.
When we’re first introduced to our titular protagonist — going by the westernized name “Shaun” — he’s depicted as a good-natured, smiling parking valet who nods and stammers when condescended to. He begs his over-the-top BFF Katy (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum) not to make noise or trouble.
He’s living as many of our Asian parents counseled us: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” they said. They encouraged us to blend in, to adopt cultural camouflage, to avoid standing out in ways that might make us vulnerable to the racial targeting that they may have experienced themselves.
But it’s not long before Shaun rips off his metaphorical glasses and steps unabashedly into the spotlight as Shang-Chi, a larger-than-life, pyrotechnic presence who draws every eye and fills the screen as only superheroes can.
For those of us who ultimately rebelled against our parents’ advice to shrink ourselves, Shang Chi’s heroic arrival is a satisfying refutation of their warnings. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t draw attention. Don’t take up space. This was well-meaning counsel, but it had tremendous unintended consequences, leading many of us to avoid asserting our Asian heritage.
In the course of conducting interviews for our forthcoming book, a history of Asian America from the nineties to now, Phil Yu, Philip Wang and I spoke with Asian American journalists who avoided covering their own communities for fear of being boxed into an ethnic niche. We heard from Asian American authors who resisted writing Asian American lead characters into their novels. We talked to Asian American performers who’d normalized the expectation that they could only be secondary players, onscreen and in life.
Sandra Oh, now leading Netflix’s hot-topic dramedy “The Chair,” told us that when she found out she was being offered a spot in the cat-and-mouse assassin thriller “Killing Eve,” she assumed it would be for a recurring role or supporting character.
“I looked through the script, and I couldn’t find an Asian doctor or receptionist or whatever,” she recalled. “And that’s when my agent told me that they wanted me for the lead. For Eve. The character in the title. That’s the moment that I realized how deep the internalized racism had been for me by that point in my career: I couldn’t even see the part I was supposed to be playing. I’d gone from a place of tremendous possibility and confidence when I was very young, to not even being able to see myself.”
Shang-Chi isn’t the first Asian protagonist we’ve seen on a screen. But as a big-budget, big-screen Marvel superhero, he’ll be ubiquitous. Superheroes today are on every screen, device and platform, visible to every demographic in our society. Shang-Chi will usher in the next cinematic phase of the most successful franchise in global history. In his wake will come more Asian heroes: Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani as Sersi and Kingo in “Eternals,” Iman Villani as Ms. Marvel in “The Marvels.” Their casting ensures that a generation of young Asian Americans will, for the first time, see themselves front and center, larger than life, on the biggest of screens.
So will the rest of the world, which is arguably even more important — when people see us as heroes, they’re forced to see us as humans.
That can mean the difference between life and death. Throughout our history in this country, Asian Americans have seen the dire consequences of compliance and invisibility: exploitation, exclusion, internment. We’re seeing them again today in the time of Covid, as the pandemic has underscored our country’s xenophobic hostility, and unleashed a wave of violence against the most vulnerable in our communities.
A scene from Shang-Chi perfectly captures why this film is so important and timely. Ambushed by thugs on a San Francisco bus, Shang-Chi suddenly unleashes a flurry of eye-popping combat moves. His longtime friend Katy does a hard double take.
“Who are you?” she demands. For her, this is a brand-new Shaun. For the rest of the riders on the bus, cheering him on and snapping selfies, this is a brand-new hero. All of them are simply seeing him as who he really is. Don’t we all deserve as much?
Jeff Yang (@originalspin) edited the Asian American superhero anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered,” and is co-author of the forthcoming book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.”
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