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In this week’s episode of Hollywood Remixed, The Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast about inclusion and representation in entertainment, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu joins to discuss not one but two closely related themes: the martial artist trope, and how that reflects upon portrayals of Asian masculinity in pop culture.
“As an Asian man, particularly in showbiz, it almost feels like you only have value if you know martial arts,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian title hero tells host and senior editor of diversity and inclusion Rebecca Sun. “Because otherwise there’s a sense of: Why are we watching an Asian person onscreen? What value do they have if not to entertain us in that specific way?”
Liu reflects on finding the balance between that tension and the cathartic beauty of martial arts in Shang-Chi, a balance that he believes would not have been as achievable without its Asian American filmmakers behind the scenes, director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham.
Liu also dives deep on how centuries of emasculation of Asian men in Western culture are finally being countered by more recent instances of physical prowess, but that Asian men should seize this opportunity to redefine a healthier conception of masculinity. “Why not define masculinity for ourselves in a way that is body-positive for all types and inclusive for all gender norms and sexual preferences, why not celebrate male-male vulnerability, and why not talk about respecting women and uplifting our Asian American sisters and all minority groups?” he says. “If it’s just about abs and looking buff and shredded and trying to outman the men, then I don’t think that’s a conversation that I want to be a part of.”
Both Liu and this episode’s guest expert, Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow, also revisit the unrealized potential with Iron Fist, Marvel (Television)’s previous foray into adapting a martial arts character from its archives. “There was a lot of meat potentially with that storytelling of this guy, Danny Rand, who is trained in a mystical place of K’un-L’un but is an outsider there, and then comes back to the world of New York to try to take over his family business but is an outsider there,” Liu explains. “That idea of being an outsider no matter where you go is so distinctly Asian American, and there was such an opportunity that was lost to share that perspective.”
At least, Chow offers, the Asian American furor over Iron Fist‘s casting was a direct progenitor of the community organizing that forced Hollywood to regard the demographic as a viable audience and led to the relative proliferation of Asian American-centered projects in the cultural landscape today. “Iron Fist and 2015 was I think the watershed moment for us in Hollywood,” Chow says. “You had these back-to-back-to-back castings of Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, ScarJo as the Major in Ghost in the Shell. And also you had Matt Damon in The Great Wall. You had all of these castings centering white people in these Asian stories. Somehow [the outcry] penetrated in that 2015, 2016 year. Jon Chu’s told me: “That conversation you guys were having on the internet is what got me in the room for Crazy Rich Asians.” Had we just been ignored like we always are, maybe Crazy Rich doesn’t come out. And if Crazy Rich doesn’t come out, we don’t have Henry Golding and Gemma Chan and Awkwafina, and all of these movies.”
Catch up on all the episodes of Hollywood Remixed, including last week’s exploration of Black horror with Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice to be alerted when new episodes drop.
Episode 2×3: Simu Liu – “(Not) Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!”
Rebecca Sun: Welcome to Hollywood Remixed, a topical podcast about inclusion and representation in culture and entertainment. I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter. If you’re just joining us for the first time, here at Hollywood Remixed each episode is dedicated to a single theme – a trope or an identity that has been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture.
This week’s theme is a special twofer: We’re tackling the martial artist stereotype, and its close relationship to portrayals of Asian masculinity in Western pop culture. Our special guest is none other than Simu Liu, star of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, out exclusively in theaters on Sept. 3. Simu not only plays the world’s most elite and reluctant martial artist in the much-anticipated Marvel movie, he’s also someone who in real life has been quite candid and introspective about Asian gender dynamics, so I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
To kick off this episode, I’ve invited my friend Keith Chow, editor-in-chief of the pop culture blog The Nerds of Color, to talk about how the pervasive martial artist trope has affected Asians growing up in America in real life, and also to discuss how Hollywood’s martial arts projects have employed (or, as the case often was, excluded) Asian and Asian American performers from narratives inspired by their own cultures of origin. I first got to know Keith about seven years ago, when he originated the #AAIronFist campaign, a public plea for Marvel and Netflix to cast an Asian American Iron Fist (something that we will rehash during our segment). Keith’s bona fides as a connoisseur of culture and comic books are fairly impeccable: He was a co-editor on the Asian American comics anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered, and he hosts both the podcasts Hard NOC Life – that’s “N.O.C. Life” – and Southern Fried Asian.
Keith, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really excited to have you on, because this episode is about the martial arts genre and Hollywood, as well as how that’s affected Asian Americans. And we were talking earlier, before we started recording, about how a lot of us as Asian-Americans, Asian people growing up in this country, had a conflicted relationship with that. So tell me a little bit about your own evolving relationship with martial arts as a trope or as a genre.
Keith Chow: I’m so honored to be on here with you, Rebecca. Like you said, for most of us, especially the Chinese Americans growing up, it was just kind of in the air. Our families had the video, the VHS tapes or whatever, and Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee were always in the ether, but I was never an obsessive of kung-fu cinema the way that my non-Asian friends were. I had a lot of non-Asian friends who could tell you everything about this Bruce Lee movie, that Jet Li movie, or whatever. And I always shied away, at least as a young person, because I think it’s the same reason that so many actors don’t want to be pigeonholed. It’s like, that feels foreign, and I want to reject foreignness: “I am an All-American. I like apple pie and football.”
Sun: And you grew up in Virginia, which is probably relevant. [Laughs.]
Chow: That’s right, Southern-fried Asian right here. And that kind of helped to change my attitudes. But I think that was the main thing. I saw the poor dubbing and thought, “Ugh, that’s ridiculous,” and I never really appreciated it as a kid. When I got a little bit older, I started studying some martial arts and started gaining a new appreciation for it. But my brother calls me a poser because I liked Crouching Tiger. He’s like, “Crouching Tiger is kung fu for white people.” I’m like, all right. That was what first brought me around, you know?
Sun: You mentioned the dubbing, and for anybody who is really coming into this totally new, let’s talk a little bit about what you’re talking about. How did martial arts movies become a popular genre in American pop culture? Where did they come from?
Chow: There were samurai movies that would become Clint Eastwood movies back in the ’50s and ’60s, but when we think of kung fu cinema, it’s the ’70s. Blaxploitation and kung fu cinema were what they showed in inner cities. And that’s kind of where the Wu-Tang Clan comes from, right? Like, that’s the genesis. And that’s when I was born and came of age, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And so you have people like of course Bruce Lee, he was a god in the ’70s, but after him came Jackie and Jet in the ’80s and ’90s. The second renaissance I guess was the ’90s, when you had Jackie and Jet really became super popular crossing over: Rumble in the Bronx and Once Upon a Time in China and then eventually doing American movies with the Rush Hour films and –
Chow: Romeo Must Die, yeah, R.I.P. Aaliyah 20 years. So that second wave, I was cool with martial arts movies, but at the same time, they’re still foreigners. It was always about the culture clash. It was about this guy who could barely speak English interacting with, you know, “Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” That was the big joke.
Sun: That was the big catchphrase. That was the catchphrase literally from that entire franchise.
Chow: We were talking about the dubbing piece when I was a kid being a distraction for me. And not even English dubbing, because what people don’t understand is that all of those movies were dubbed in Chinese, too. Like, they weren’t speaking words. They would just move their mouth, and some other cat would come into the booth and record their dialogue because they would do a Mandarin dub and a Cantonese dub. And it was never Jet Li’s voice when he was playing Wong Fei-hung [from the Once Upon a Time in China franchise]. It was always just some other guy’s voice. And I just knew that intrinsically as a young person, and it just turned me off. And that’s another reason why I was like, “This ain’t for me. This ain’t my bag; I can’t deal with it.”
Sun: They still do that a lot in Chinese dramas and things like that because there are so many different dialects spoken across the Chinese diaspora. And sometimes you’ll just have, like, a random Korean actor in there that they’ll just dub over in Chinese, but the Korean actor’s popular and famous. So it’s a great and hilarious trend.
So let’s talk specifically about the performers, because I think that’s where you and I, our interest in martial arts as a Hollywood cultural genre really comes into play. What kinds of opportunities were given to performers of Asian descent? And particularly when we talk about the difference between people from Asia, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li – by the way, there was that recent survey that came out where like 46 percent [Editor’s note: 42 percent] of Americans said “I don’t know” when they were asked to name an Asian American. And then the next biggest grouping of people said Jackie Chan, who is not an Asian American!
Chow: And hasn’t been famous in America for like 30 years. [Laughs.]
Sun: Well, the third most-popular answer was Bruce Lee, who’s – rest in peace – literally been dead for 50 years. Half a century. So we’re doing really well. [Laughs.] But yeah, what kinds of opportunities have been available within this genre?
Chow: Going back to what I said earlier about why so many Asian American performers and actors like me as a kid run away from the idea of martial arts, is that it’s a stereotype. There was a stigma of perpetual foreignness that stigmatizes so many Asian Americans, writ large. It’s this idea that it’s this weird, exotic cultural thing, and it’s not intrinsic to what people – and when we say “people” we mean “white people” – would accept. And I think that’s part of the reason why the only American martial artists that got any kind of traction were white guys: Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme [Editor’s note: Van Damme is Belgian!]. And as an Asian American, I always wanted to say, “Why can’t an Asian American be that guy? Why can’t there be an Asian American Jean-Claude Van Damme?” That’s the 180 I made. It’s not that I disrespected Jet Li or Jackie Chan, but I knew intrinsically, like you said, they’re not even American. Why can’t a Brandon Lee – another person who’s been gone for several decades? He was probably the only one in that wave of the late ’80s, early ’90s who could have been an Asian American martial artist superstar, and we were robbed of that too soon.
But other than that, so many Asian performers are like, “I don’t even do martial arts. I’m auditioning for a romantic comedy. Why are you asking me?” It’s like the accent thing. We don’t want to do an accent because, again, there’s a stigma attached. I’ve also come around on the idea of accents. Accents are authentic to who our parents are. There’s nothing wrong with an accent, but it’s this expectation from normally white, definitely non-Asian casting directors that if you’re going to be Asian, you must speak in an accent. You must do martial arts, even if you are auditioning for a romantic comedy, you know what I mean?
Sun: Absolutely. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having an accent or knowing martial arts, but the problem is when every Asian is expected to come with those two characteristics, where it becomes stereotypical and limiting. So when you talked about that first and second wave – Bruce Lee, it’s so crazy because his legacy is enormous and has really reverberated and obviously lasted for decades, but his active period was tragically brief – I think he died in 1973 and his first movie, The Big Boss, had come out only in 1971. So this is a very small canon that the world was allowed to get from him. So after he passed in the early ’70s and Rumble in the Bronx came out, I think it was like the mid-’90s, that’s like 20 years, that’s almost 25 years of a gap. A total void of Asian leads – however, not a void in projects that were inspired by martial arts. And you mentioned, there has been and still is a rise of white stars who became martial arts practitioners but also got to become leading men.
As well as, I think we should just mention that Hollywood began remaking some of these martial arts movies as literal westerns, like cowboy movies out in the West that were remakes of Kurosawa films, like Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven or Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. So that’s all to say, whitewashing is a long and storied practice in the theme that we’re talking about today. Let’s give a little mention of Kung Fu starring David Carradine, a very stark example. I think the official story is now that that was an original Bruce Lee pitch.
Chow: Right. That was his idea. He had this idea of a story called The Warrior about a Chinese monk who comes to the American West, I think to search for his sister. The famous story is that he pitched it to I think ABC or one of the broadcast networks.
Sun: Warners, I think, but somebody, yeah.
Chow: And they were like, “Oh, this is a great idea, but we can’t have a Chinese guy as the lead in a primetime network drama, are you kidding?” Even though at that point, Bruce was fairly popular. He’d just come off of Green Hornet. He had some notoriety, especially within the Hollywood scene. He famously trained Steve McQueen and James Coburn and everybody. So it’s not like he didn’t have clout in Hollywood. It was just that the Oriental as a leading man was unheard of. So that’s what eventually prompted him to go back to Hong Kong and become a superstar. And before he came back to do Enter the Dragon, which again came out after he died. But that famous story was one of the origin points of how we look at whitewashing in Hollywood. And that’s only 40 years later being rectified by two projects – you have the reboot of Kung Fu on CW, which is taking the actual IP of the David Carradine show but reimagining with actually Chinese people this time and a Chinese woman as the protagonist, and then you have HBO Max’s Warrior starring Andrew Koji in the Old West, which takes the actual writings of Bruce’s and kind of makes the story a little bit sexier for HBO Max, but follows the story that was set forth by Bruce.
And so that kind of shows the evolution of how we view martial arts in America, right? The show that Bruce envisioned 40 years ago is now finally coming to fruition in two different ways. You have Kung Fu and Warrior, but it took 40 years, to your point. Like, it’s that long gap where it was just accepted that things would be whitewashed, including something as significantly and culturally Chinese as kung fu.
Sun: How do I say this without sounding disrespectful to David Carradine? If you put Bruce Lee and David Carradine next to each other and are like, “Who’s got more of the leading man charisma, star power wattage, and can also do martial arts?”, it seems crazy. But then again, Iron Fist is a thing and that choice happened, so maybe we’re just crazy. [Laughs.]
But I’m getting ahead of ourselves. Before we go into how things have been for the last decade, there’s one more person that I wanted to mention. There’ve been a lot of Asian martial arts practitioners over the decades who have been able to work, primarily as stunt performers, nameless bad guys, they don’t get to be the hero. Again, Bruce Lee had to leave the country that he was born in, the United States, and go to Hong Kong in order to actually become a leading man. However, there have been tons and tons of stunt performers of Asian descent, people who have done a lot of martial arts movies, one of whom, I just want to acknowledge is Sonny Chiba, who passed away on Aug. 19. When I brought up Sonny Chiba earlier before we started recording, Keith, you talked a little bit about how in the obits and the various tributes that we’ve seen in the past several weeks since his passing, people keep talking about Quentin Tarantino! Let’s talk a little bit about our pal QT, the patron saint of importing martial arts movies.
Chow: Of Asian cinema. [Laughs.]
Sun: That was my introduction to Quentin Tarantino in the ’90s. I remember people were like, “Oh, he’s so great. He’s exposed all of these Asian cinematic –
Chow: He’s graced us with his presence. As someone who in the ’90s was a pretentious college student who loved, and I still love, Wong Kar-Wai movies – you know, the stain on my VHS cassette of Chungking Express is this, like, 20-minute intro of Quentin Tarantino just slobbering all over Wong Faye, and it just doesn’t hold up 20 years, 30 years later. But yeah, the sad part to me is that Sonny Chiba, for so many on Film Twitter or whatever, he’s so tied to Tarantino and it’s so unfair, but that’s another kind of whitewashing, right? That someone whose career is as storied as Sonny Chiba’s – and Gordon Liu’s another example of someone who has a storied career in Chinese cinema, but because he was in Kill Bill, people are like, “Oh, the guy Quentin Tarantino discovered.” I fucking hate it.
And the thing too with Tarantino is – we were talking about Bruce Lee – he doubles down on his Bruce Lee disrespect. Like the whole Once Upon a Time in Hollywood thing. Part of what you were saying about Asians who have been martial artists have never been able to be the leading man. They’ve always been the cannon fodder or the villain, but never the central, complex, three-dimensional character. That’s the thing about the martial arts stereotype that has always been troublesome for Asians. So advocating for an Asian martial artist isn’t in itself wrong, if that Asian martial artist gets to be three-dimensional and romantic and funny and charismatic. Because whenever you did see an Asian face in a martial arts movie made in the west, it was either the butt of a joke, or his whole role is to be beat up by the typically good white guy.
Tarantino leans into that with the icon of Asian Americans, Bruce Lee. And it isn’t so much that Bruce Lee would never lose a fight to Brad Pitt, although Bruce Lee would never lose a fight to fuckin’ Brad Pitt. It’s that he’s treated as a joke in that scene. Yeah, he was arrogant, but the whole point of the character of Bruce Lee in that scene in Once Upon a Time is that he is a joke, and that’s what’s disrespectful.
Sun: And Tarantino has since doubled down, because he’s been making the press rounds again to promote the book, and what really strikes me is how invested he is in taking Bruce Lee down a peg. Like, bro, what’s it to you? He keeps talking about, like you said, how arrogant he was, and kind of willfully misinterpreting people’s actual firsthand accounts. He keeps citing this Bruce Lee biography, and the writer has been on Twitter saying, like, That’s not what I wrote. But it is very interesting. I think it’s a subconscious thing that I don’t believe Tarantino himself has really fully interrogated, which is: Why is it so important to him that his made-up character is able to beat up this actual real-life person, can beat him in a fight? And also that this guy was so disrespectful to the white stuntman. “He was so disrespectful.” It has that whole –
Chow: Like, “the uppity Chinese guy.” That’s what he’s saying about Bruce Lee.
Sun: Exactly. And I don’t know if Tarantino has thought about that’s what he’s actually doing, but it’s quite distressing. Okay. Enough with Tarantino. [Laughs.]
Let’s fast forward a bit and talk about the past few years. It was really Shannon Lee – Bruce Lee’s daughter – who was like, “All right, enough of this,” and getting two shows on the air. Warrior and Kung Fu really do, like you said, represent the spectrum. Because one is on The CW and the other’s on HBO Max, so fun for all ages. [Laughs.] But you’ve also got films. There are finally now Hollywood making martial arts-centric films with mostly Asian ensembles, like Mortal Kombat, like Snake Eyes. First of all, why do you think this shift has happened? What has suddenly precipitated the shift? Because Iron Fist came out in 2017, which was four years ago, and they were not willing to put an Asian in the lead back then.
Chow: The only reason I’m on this podcast right now, the only reason anyone knows what my name is, is that back in 2014 when they were announcing Iron Fist, I said, “Hey, you know what’d be cool? Maybe you get an Asian American guy to play Danny Rand.” Iron Fist also comes from that period we were talking about earlier, where kung fu cinema was so popular. Both of those characters, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, were Marvel’s exploitation of Blaxploitation and kung fu cinema. Like, “let’s get a character that’s straight out of Shaft and Enter the Dragon and make our own.” That was kind of the origin of the Heroes for Hire. And so when they announced that they were bringing them to Netflix, it was to me a perfect example of, “White-guy Danny Rand made sense maybe in the ’60s and ’70s, but come on. Right now, let’s have an Asian-American guy play it.” There’s nothing about the Danny Rand character that’s inherently white. He’s an American, but he’s not necessarily white. His biggest character trope is that he’s a fish out of water because he’s this white guy who trains to become the best kung fu fighter in the world by a bunch of Asian people. And that was the pushback I got when I did my whole campaign for Asian American Iron Fist: “Well, he’s supposed to be a fish out of water.” As if, like, if you and I were to go to China right now, we wouldn’t be fishes out of water.
That was kind of the whole impetus: I wanted to have a character who was, like I said earlier, three-dimensional, heroic, funny, sexy – all of those things that Asian martial artists never get to be. And truth be told, I didn’t give a shit about Iron Fist. He’s not my favorite character. A lot of people on Twitter would find me saying that, and be like, “See, he doesn’t care.” It’s like, yeah, I don’t give a shit about Iron Fist. No one really gives a shit about Iron Fist.
Sun: I know one person for whom it was his favorite character and is very invested in Danny Rand. [Laughs.]
Chow: I’m sure he was in your mentions for the last five years, right? But that was the opportunity that they had. And speaking of shitting on Iron Fist, talking about recent stories, there was the stunt coordinator, Brett Chan, who was like, Oh yeah, Finn Jones didn’t want to train. He had no desire. Jessica Henwick was totally invested, but Finn? Yeah, he didn’t give a shit. And that was doubly insulting.
Sun: So curious, you could not tell onscreen based on his action performances. [Laughs.]
Sun: I think that came right before Ghost in the Shell, ScarJo. That was 2015.
Chow: So yeah, the Iron Fist thing was like end of ’14, beginning of ’15. That was, I think, the watershed moment for us in Hollywood. Because you had these back-to-back-to-back castings of Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, you had Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, and you had ScarJo as, um –
Sun: MOTOKO KUSANAGI!
Chow: The Major in Ghost in the Shell. And also you had Matt Damon in The Great Wall. You had all of these castings centering white people in these Asian stories. Even the Dr. Strange character, Strange could have been an Asian American. That’s when we did our #WhitewashedOut campaign, that’s when the #StarringJohnCho campaign came out, pointing to the thing that we’ve been talking about, you and I as advocates in the Asian American space for several decades, we’ve been talking about, this was old hat for us, but somehow it penetrated in that 2015, 2016 year. Jon Chu’s told me; he’s like, “That conversation you guys were having on the internet is what got me in the room for Crazy Rich Asians.” Had we just been ignored like we always are, maybe Crazy Rich doesn’t come out. And if Crazy Rich doesn’t come out, we don’t have Henry Golding and Gemma Chan and Awkwafina, and all of these movies.
Sun: And we’re probably not sitting here today talking about Shang-Chi.
Chow: Exactly. I think there’s a direct line from not what The Nerds of Color did, but that conversation writ large. Starting with Iron Fist through The Ancient One and Ghost in the Shell.
Sun: Yeah, the momentum from that movement. It is really remarkable to think about where we were all sitting just less than 10 years – well, when I say that it sounds like a long time, but seven years ago. Reading your op-eds in Nerds of Color, writing my own pieces here at THR and really feeling like you were just shouting into a void. People were talking about it, but it somehow wasn’t penetrating the upper echelons of the people who make decisions. Until these things kind of just flopped one after the other. They just bombed in succession. [Laughs.] And then I think they were like, “Maybe the Asians have a point.”
But it’s so interesting, when you lay it out that way, that even though today – and it’s so delightful –we’re not doing an episode on the totality of Asian American representation, we’re only talking about the martial arts genre, and yet you’re absolutely right that it was sort of a successive concentration of outrages within the chronic act of whitewashing in Hollywood treatments of martial arts and other traditionally Asian cultural genres has now opened the door to this huge – I can’t even say “renaissance,” because there was no original version of it – this huge birth of finally a mainstreaming of Asian American representation in Hollywood in a way that truly has never existed. And it has transcended any specific genre, you know?
Chow: Absolutely. That’s what I mean by the throughlines. If you go: Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi, you have this opulent romantic comedy in the middle. Because it’s not about the genre; it’s about the representation.
And I think too with that conversation, and especially pushing for an Asian American Iron Fist, as I said, the pushback wasn’t just about “fish out of water.” It was also: Why would you want an Asian American? Like, if you’re all about advocating for representation, why do you want the stereotype? Why do you want the martial artist? That’s the thing we talked about earlier. That’s the stereotype. We wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. But we’ve never had an opportunity to have an Asian American martial artist. We almost just gave that up and said, “Here, Jean-Claude Van Damme. You can represent martial arts, because we don’t want it,” and that kind of thinking is what led to a Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One. Marvel was very upfront saying, “Well, we knew that the ‘mentor,’ ‘old Chinese guy,’ is such a stereotype, so to avoid the stereotype, we thought we’d go the other direction. Change the gender, change the race.” What they don’t realize is that the problem isn’t the race of the character. The problem is how that type of character has always been portrayed. What they did in giving the role to Tilda Swinton, it wasn’t just “change the race or gender.” It was, “Let’s make this character cool,” and then gave it to Tilda Swinton. Because had that been Michelle Yeoh or Chow Yun-fat doing the exact same role Tilda did, no one would have been like, “That’s a stereotype.” They would have been like, “Holy crap, that’s so cool.” When she shows up in Endgame, it’s like, “Yes! It’s the Ancient One!” That could have been really dope if that was an Asian character, but the thinking is the only way to prevent the stereotype is to erase it altogether.
And that’s the problematic aspect of the martial arts stereotype, the problematic aspect of Asians just giving up martial arts. If we just give it to white people, that doesn’t help us, because we’re just saying, “This thing that’s intrinsic to a lot of our cultures doesn’t belong to us anymore.” And I’m saying, “Let’s reclaim that and make that our own.” And that’s what we’re seeing now with Mortal Kombat, with Snake Eyes, with Shang-Chi, this embrace of this cultural aspect of a lot of our cultures, but also giving us the opportunity to play the leads, to play the complex – even the villains are complex. We don’t have to be just the beard-stroking or the sexy temptress. We can be everything. And that’s what I’ve always advocated for.
Sun: Those excuses, what underlies them is a failure of imagination. And a subconscious inability to see that any Asian face could be anything more than a stereotype. Because like you said, they don’t say that about white people. They don’t say that about white characters if they’re fully fleshed out, and what’s keeping a writer from fully fleshing out a character, just because it’s played by an Asian performer?
To briefly go back to the Iron Fist arguments that you would receive, I think that the people who don’t understand why there can be an Asian American Iron Fist, I would imagine are people who don’t realize that “white” and “American” are not the same thing. And who also don’t realize that there’s a difference between Asians and Asian Americans, a confusion that I think pop culture has traditionally exacerbated.
Chow: I had that conversation with Henry Golding about Snake Eyes. Because Snake Eyes is another character from the comics who was “white guy goes to Japan to become Best Ninja.” And that one’s written by a Japanese American guy; Larry Hama created Snake Eyes. But we talked about how that whole notion of “fish out of water” isn’t exclusive to white people. The experience of an Asian American is to be a fish out of water in both places.
Sun: Everywhere you go.
Chow: So say what you will about the quality of the movie itself, but the fact that they were willing to go there and say, “Hey, let’s cast a guy like Henry Golding to play this traditionally white character whose whole origin story is that he’s this white guy who’s out of place in this Japanese ninja clan.” But the fact that they had this Asian American guy walking around and still learning how to speak Japanese or not fitting in, that was something that was to me revelatory, despite the quality of the movie surrounding it. That aspect in itself, that’s the reason I advocated for Asian Iron Fist is that I really wanted an Asian Snake Eyes. So, mission accomplished.
Sun: Nice, you really backed your way into it very, very well. [Laughs.]
You’ve spoken about how there is a way to be able to properly represent people who are native or authentically from the culture that is being portrayed without veering into stereotype. And I think a lot of that is by putting more creative control into the hands of people who are from that culture, and that that’s a cool thing that we’ve been able to see, obviously, with Shang-Chi. I don’t know how it would have been different without Dave Callaham, who’s Chinese American, writing the script or Destin Daniel Cretton, who is hapa, directing it. But I kind of don’t want to know how that would have been different.
And I will say, to Marvel’s credit – and here’s a business note – MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movies run by Kevin Feige is different from the Marvel TV division run by Jeph Loeb that made all those Iron Fist decisions. So those are different departments, but I think that Marvel, the movie side has really listened and it feels like they’ve taken to heart some of the critiques that people have had about the Asian representation. I won’t go into spoilers for for anyone who hasn’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but I think they’re very mindful of it. And I also think Scott Derrickson, the director of Dr. Strange, several years ago after the movie came out has been very open and making comments about how he has learned from the feedback regarding the casting of the Ancient One, and I acknowledge that.
Chow: That’s the thing; I wasn’t trying to assign any malicious intent. That’s the kind of dirty little secret about racism. It’s not about the intent; it’s about the outcome. And obliviousness isn’t an excuse for it. But I’m not assigning blame. They were oblivious. They did think they were doing something good, like, “We don’t want to have the ancient Chinese master, so let’s get this really cool actress to play what would be a stereotypical role otherwise.” And what they didn’t realize is that erasure does not absolve the racism; in fact, it exacerbates it. Even Kevin Feige I believe has come out recently saying, “Yeah, it was a mistake to change the Ancient One to be a non-Asian person.” Again, I think that was just an obliviousness. They didn’t realize the secret is just to write a fully-fledged character and then cast a person of color. That’s mind-blowing: “We didn’t know people of color could be fully fleshed out, three-dimensional.”
Sun: Because they had not seen it.
Chow: They had never seen it. And that’s the thing I’ve always said: You know how you get better representation? Just write people. Write human beings, don’t write tropes, and that’s ultimately what any actor wants, is to be able to play a complex human being.
Sun: And if you really are having trouble with that, then that’s probably a experiential issue and that’s a good opportunity for you to be like, “Do I have deep relationships with people of different backgrounds? If I’m having trouble picturing this, this is probably because my circle is too small.” So you need to just go out and live more. And I don’t say that with malice or judgment, but just literally go out and live more, get experience, or – here’s another really important strategy: Give it to somebody who does have that lived experience.
So before we get to our final two questions, I know you haven’t seen the movie yet, so what are you looking forward to with Shang-Chi?
Chow: I alluded to it earlier: I was a big Wong Kar-wai fan growing up, and I love, passionately, Tony Leung in anything. Chungking is one of my favorite movies, Mood for Love is one of my favorite movies, Infernal Affairs, love him. That’s another example of having to whitewash for American audiences, right? Like, just watch Infernal Affairs. Who needs to watch Departed? He’s the one thing I’m looking forward to. Apologies to Simu, apologies to Nora, apologies to everyone else, Michelle Yeoh even – I want to see Tony Leung in a Marvel movie. I had to buy the action figure as soon as it came out just because Tony Leung, come on. He’s the greatest actor of all time.
Sun: People are now beginning to have seen this movie with the premieres and things like that, and seeing the love that Tony Leung is getting on Twitter, I’m starting to feel kind of like a hipster about it. I’m like: Guys, where have you been? He is the legend. Like, Leonardo DiCaprio literally played him in The Departed. So that’s the caliber, that’s the level that we’re talking about.
I haven’t really looked at the Chinese-language press, but I haven’t seen him do any interviews about Shang-Chi [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the publication of Alexander Chee’s profile of Leung in GQ]. And so if I had a chance to ask him something, I would ask: Why this film? I’m assuming he’s been approached by Hollywood in the past. I’m also assuming those opportunities were not very meaty. It was probably going to be like the one-off “hua ping” cameos that, like, Fan Bingbing and other people got just five years ago, but why did he pick this film? I mean, his filmography is really diverse and extensive. He’s done every genre, but his international, global reputation is as a prestige actor. And so why do a Hollywood superhero tentpole? I’m very curious about it, but I can’t wait for you to see him in it. I’m not gonna reveal any spoilers, but I think that the reaction on Twitter has been euphoric.
So we always wrap our interviews with two questions and one we’ve kind of gone into: The Hollywood Remixed, which is, what is a cinematic sin that has been committed against this theme that you would order a do-over for? And I feel like you’ve literally been writing about your answer since 2014. You can just Google “Keith Chow Iron Fist.” [Laughs.]
Chow: Or just look at my mentions on Twitter, that’s kind of the remix I had been envisioning for a long time: Just make Danny Rand Asian. But to Marvel TV’s credit, I think what people [miss] – first of all, no one watched it, so that’s one thing – but the cool thing about the Iron Fist show on Netflix is that even though it got canceled, it ended with essentially the mantle of the Iron Fist being passed down to Jessica Henwick’s character. Like, she ends the series with her fist and her sword glowing white, and she becomes essentially the Iron Fist. So I bought the action figures and I have a Luke cage and a Daredevil and a Jessica Jones and a Colleen Wing action figure. And I’m like, “I have The Defenders,” and people are like, “You’re missing one.” I’m like, “Who am I missing? I have all four. I’m not missing anyone.” So credit where credit’s due, Jessica Henwick kind of ends the show as Iron Fist. So in my headcanon, if Iron Fist were to ever emerge in the MCU, if it’s Jessica Henwick, I’m all for it. So give us a Colleen Wing Iron Fist series or movie, then I’m down. I think the Hollywood Remix I’ve been advocating for for forever is already there.
Sun: The second question is the Hidden Gem: What is a project or resource or some sort of piece of art that exists that is emblematic of the heights of what this genre could do?
Chow: There was a show that came out in that in-between time between the Iron Fist controversy and this new wave of Asian American martial arts blockbusters. It was a show that was on AMC for three seasons called Into the Badlands, and it was led by Daniel Wu, who has so many connections to what we’ve been talking about. Daniel Wu, like Bruce Lee, Asian American born in the Bay but went to Hong Kong to become a star. He couldn’t become a star in America, so he had to go to Hong Kong and then came back to America in his late 30s to lead this TV show. Now he’s in like a, you know, a big Warner Brothers movie, Reminiscence.
Sun: By Lisa Joy, with Hugh Jackman.
Chow: So he was the lead, he played a guy named Sonny, very loosely based on the Monkey King. It’s this post-apocalyptic martial arts fantasy world created by two white guys who created Smallville, Al Gough and Miles Millar. To their credit, they were able to imbue the show with a cast of people of color. In the first season, it was the Asian lead with a Black romantic love interest. Just kind of breaking all of the molds. Their “Ancient One” character was half Black, half Asian. So it was this really cool show. The martial arts I think are still unparalleled on TV right now. So I give them the credit: They were willing to take the leap and cast an Asian American in a martial arts series. Had a cult following. I think it’s still on Netflix. So to me, that’s the hidden gem and that’s the kind of real lodestone that started this whole kind of wave. Lewis Tan also appeared on the show in the second season. And he went on to lead the Mortal Kombat movie. Also famously passed over for Iron Fist. He’s another throughline through our conversation, but yeah. Check out Into the Badlands if you can. I think it’s worth a watch at least.
Sun: That’s a really great recommendation. Hats off for them having greenlit that show just before it became – and I’m using this word ironically – a “woke” and money-making thing to do. But it served as a proof of concept because it showed that such a story was completely viable. These characters were completely believable as the leading man, as somebody who could have a love interest, as somebody who could carry the whole show. And yeah, kind of chronically underappreciated. I do remember every year during award season Daniel Wu would really try to campaign for his stunt team to get some recognition, and I don’t know if they ever did, unfortunately.
Chow: I think it was only until this year that the Emmys even added a stunt category. [Editor’s note: The Emmys added a new category for stunt performers in 2021. It has recognized stunt coordination since 2002.]
Sun: Maybe for the Emmys, but certainly there’s other awards bodies that recognize that sort of thing, and I just don’t know if they ever got their due. That’s a really good one.
Everything we’ve said as a Hidden Gem is from like the last three years, so I’ll do a throwback and I will say Vanishing Son from the ’90s. I feel like Asian Americans of a certain generation remember this. This was the one thing we had. I cannot believe it exists, but Russell Wong was briefly a leading man on network television. He had a beautiful girlfriend, Rebecca Gayheart. Vanishing Son was one of the last performances of Haing S. Ngor, the Oscar winner who was horrifically murdered shortly after. It’s like every trope in one because Russell Wong played a master violinist who also knew martial arts. I don’t remember the storyline very well. I think he came to America in search of his wayward brother, played by the actor/director Chi Muoi Lo, and I don’t remember anything else about it, honestly. But it was a hot Asian man on network TV who speaks flawless English.
Chow: I just remember so many people had crushes on Russell.
Sun: Dude, Keith, let me tell you when Russell Wong was in Joy Luck Club, that watermelon scene, I did not understand what that scene meant, but I just knew that it was something I was not supposed to be watching.
Chow: You’re not supposed to feel a certain type of way when you’re watching that. [Laughs.]
Sun: Shout out to our ’90s pioneer Russell Wong and Vanishing Son. I have no idea if that show is available at all, but people should know about it. It actually happened for a brief moment. It was kind of like with like Joy Luck Club, Vanishing Son, those things existed in the ’90s. Unfortunately there was no momentum after that, but I think times have now changed.
Chow: They needed a hashtag. That was the problem.
Sun: Yes, Twitter was invented just to keep these things sustainable. [Laughs.] This is so much fun, Keith. I always love talking to you. I hope I don’t get in trouble for how off the cuff I was in this episode.
Chow: Sorry. I know what I bring out of you sometimes, Rebecca.
Sun: A pleasure. You can check out Keith on Nerds of Color, where he has a whole portfolio of podcasts to choose from. Thank you again, Keith, I appreciate your time.
Chow: It was a pleasure. I appreciate it as well.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Prior to becoming the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s very first Asian lead, Simu Liu was best known to Asian Americans and Canadians as Jung, the estranged son on the Canadian family sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Born in Harbin, China, and raised in Canada, Simu earned a business degree from the University of Western Ontario and worked as an accountant at Deloitte before a fortuitous-in-retrospect layoff caused him to pivot to an acting career. In less than a decade, he’s gone from serving as an extra on Pacific Rim to a series regular role on Kim’s Convenience and now to Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the reason we’re sitting down here today.
Simu, it’s definitely a pleasure to finally be able to speak to you one-on-one. Thank you so much for making the time. I know that your schedule is pretty packed this month.
Simu Liu: No, thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Rebecca. It’s so great to finally sort of meet you because we’re not in a studio or anything, but I’m really excited.
Sun: I wanted to start out by shouting out an interview you recently did with our mutual friend Phil Yu for EW’s July cover story, where one of the things you guys talked about was the complicated relationship that Asian Americans, and specifically Asian American men, have to the martial arts trope. Can you talk a little bit more about what you put as two conflicting paradigms?
Liu: Yes, these two conflicting paradigms. The first of which is, I think I said before: Martial arts is objectively really effing cool. And some of my favorite movies of all time are incredible martial arts movies, whether they’re Jackie Chan in the way that he choreographs has action, which is so creative and different, or it’s Jet Li, who’s so frenetic and so incredibly athletic or it’s the wuxia films that come out of China, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, House of Flying Daggers, all of those incredible pieces, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Such a big fan of the genre. And then of course, the other part of it that I talked about with Phil that I’m sure we’re gonna get into today, is how has martial arts become a limiting factor for Asian people in America? And like you mentioned, Rebecca, specifically Asian men. Well, I’ll start by asking this: Have you read an incredible book called Interior Chinatown?
Sun: Not yet. That’s the Charles Yu, right?
Liu: You must read it because it so perfectly encapsulates what this issue is, which really boils down to: As an Asian man, particularly in showbiz, it almost feels like you only have value if you know martial arts. Including ours, including Shang-Chi, let’s look at the last three movies that have featured a predominantly Asian cast: You have Snake Eyes. You have Mortal Kombat. What do these things all have in common? They have Asian men performing martial arts. And there is almost an expectation that if you are an Asian male actor, you must at some point have known or must be prepared to do martial arts. Because otherwise, there’s a sense of: Why are we watching an Asian person onscreen? What value do they have if not to entertain us in that specific way?
And what I think we really do well in our movie is trying to strike the balance between those two paradigms. Trying to say, “Look, we are going to make a movie about a superhero or about a character that is an incredible hand-to-hand fighter. And that’s going to allow us to explore really amazing, kinetic, high-octane action sequences that maybe we haven’t seen before in the MCU. But we’re also going to dive deep into the character in a way that you may not have gotten from Rush Hour or Shanghai Noon.” First of all, a lot of these projects that we’re talking about are not directed by Asian people or Asian American people. And I found that they don’t really speak to the discourse of our lived experiences.
And I’m going to plug Destin Daniel Cretton here: He’s an incredible filmmaker, directed our movie, directed Just Mercy, directed Short Term 12. You have Dave Callaham, our incredible Asian American screenwriter. It just feels like at every step of the creative process, the Asian lens has been baked into the DNA of this film. And I think that’s really important when you’re tackling this kind of martial arts stuff, which is in danger of falling into the territory of stereotype and trope. It’s so important that we, we approached it with a degree of sensitivity and nuance.
Sun: I was going to ask you this question later, but since we’re talking about Shang-Chi, and I haven’t seen the film yet, but just going off of the trailers –
Liu: Oh, you must.
Sun: Well, yes, I definitely intend to. [Laughs.] One thing that struck me is that, from the trailers, yes, you do see Shang-Chi’s backstory and the fantastical world that he comes from, but there’s also a significant amount of time dedicated to showing him as, like, a regular dude in America, with a regular wage-paying job, goofing off with Awkwafina’s character, Katy. Talk to me a little bit about the significance of being able to see this guy who possesses incredible martial arts skills but has a sort of more universally relatable backstory and experience. Because that to me has been new. A lot of our Asian martial arts icons, the way that they’ve been portrayed is a little bit inaccessible. They kind of are literally mythological.
Liu: Mythological, I want to say exotic. Eastern, wise kung fu masters that speak in parables and metaphors and don’t understand American customs and humor and talk about things like honor. [Laughs.] We’ve been there. We’ve seen it onscreen. And if I had a nickel for every time I spoke about honor with my parents or friends, I would have no money at all. Yeah, I think it was important. Like I said, there’s a real danger when Asian culture is approached from a white lens. I feel like there’s the tendency to exoticize and to polarize us. So when I watch a movie about Asian people that is not made by Asian people, the Asian people inside this movie are kind of like weird, two-dimensional caricatures of what a white person – I stopped myself from saying “white man,” but let’s be real, it’s probably a white man – what a white man thinks that Asian people behave like. And if it’s a man, generally they tend to be a certain way. And if you’re depicting an Asian female character, as you and I both know, Rebecca, they’re depicted in a whole other way, sometimes fetishized, sometimes hypersexualized. Both sides have their problems.
But what you see what you see in our movie, it really didn’t take a lot of effort. It was just a bunch of Asian Americans getting together and being like, “Well, what do we do? We hang out like normal people. And maybe we have a predisposition to sing more karaoke and drink more bubble tea than the average person, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do all those things with our friends and goof off and shoot shit and just kind of pass the time.”
Sun: I’m glad that you shouted out both Destin and Dave, because I think it is really important. I think that there’s an emerging awareness in the industry that diversity starts behind the camera and it starts before you even get to the screen, that true inclusion has gotta be baked into the beginning of the creative process.
Liu: Yes. I’ve been a vocal proponent of that. And I’ve also I think been a part of the problem, I’ve worked before in environments where that Asian representation wasn’t necessarily apparent behind the scenes in the writers room, in the producers rooms. And it really does make a difference because despite people’s best efforts, you’re never going to 100 percent be able to encapsulate the lived experiences of someone whose shoes you have just not walked in. I think it takes a degree of humility and deference to be able to have the wherewithal to kind of democratize the power that you have in order to make the best possible product.
I’ll use Marvel as a case study of how we’ve succeeded, but obviously Kevin Feige, who is our fearless leader, architect of the MCU, not Asian, Jonathan Schwartz, who is our overseeing creative producer, also not Asian, but where I think they really made the right choice and decision was in understanding the limits of their own perceptions and knowing when to step back and let us tell our story. That was evident to me from day one. It actually came as a pretty big surprise, because when you join something as big and as well-oiled as a Marvel franchise, as the new actor, as the new kid on the block, you just kind of expect to be inserted into the machine and just to be a cog and to be told what to do. But I was very, very pleasantly surprised at how collaborative the environment was at all stages. And I was invited to give creative notes on my character, on the story at large and to talk about the ways in which I felt like Asian Americans would do something different or where we may not feel a certain way about something. And I would say it definitely led us to create a better script.
Sun: Without sounding the alarms for the Marvel spoiler security team, are there any more benign examples that you can share about what some of those things might be?
Liu: When the script was first written, there was a lot more attention paid to this idea of Shang-Chi versus Shaun. And Shaun is Shang-Chi’s – you can call it an alias if you want, I just think of it as his English name that he chose for himself. But I think I was able to shed a little bit of light into the duality of those names and what they mean to a person. For us, we all have our name that our parents gave us and then our name that we Americanize and show to the world. Even a name like Simu, which doesn’t feel like an American name, is an anglicized version of what my Chinese name is, which is 思慕 (Sīmù), which most people can’t pronounce because Mandarin is a very tonal language, and people who grew up here are just gonna have a rough time trying to get that. But I have a very specific relationship with both of my names, and I accept them both as parts of myself. And that was something that I gave a note on very early on, and it ended up kind of affecting some of the pieces of the story. I can say I felt very listened to, and I felt like the attitude was not defensive at all because it wasn’t like I was speaking to a room full of white people and trying to make them understand. It was like, they get it. And it just became a lot easier to have those conversations.
Sun: That’s awesome. You have demonstrated a very refreshing willingness to be candid about your experiences in this industry, and I think that there’s a tendency for people outside of it to put a lot of responsibility on actors for the projects because you are the literal faces of all of the decisions that were made by a variety of people. And I also realize that an actor’s agency and power grows with their career. And so I’m curious about where you feel you are right now in both your ability and your own willingness or desire to speak up about these things, or even just how much agency do you feel now in your career to say no to projects completely or to say no to certain aspects of a character or a storyline. And has that changed?
Liu: It absolutely has changed. I remember a time, honestly not that long ago, where I would have auditioned for anything and everything. And it’s not that I hated myself. It’s not that I was a race traitor or whatever you want to call it. It was just the reality of the situation was, that was the work that was available. And if you don’t want to put on an Asian accent and you don’t want to play a slightly caricatured version of a real person, then you just didn’t work. And there is a negotiation that I think every actor of color has to go through when they’re starting out. And depending on what time period you happen to start out in, some of those negotiations are pretty tough, but for me, it definitely didn’t feel like I had that agency until very, very recently, but now, I’m fortunate enough. I’ve got a great team with me at CAA as well where we’re able to go after scripts that we love, regardless of whether the character is written Asian or not, and to really have the ability to break down a door and say, “Hey, why not? Why haven’t you thought of a character that way?” And, “This is the thought that I’ve put in after reading the script. Let me do the work for you. Let me show you how this character can have an authentic Asian American experience.”
And then the other part of that too is so few people in Hollywood get to be in a position where they can greenlight their own projects. And so hopefully, when the movie comes out and hopefully it does the numbers that we all want it to do, I’ll be in a position where I can choose the stories that I want to tell. So, I can say it’s an incredibly empowering moment for me, but I can say too, if I am the only Asian American person who gets that power, that should be considered a failure for all of us, because I can’t be the only one. There’s a real danger in that. It’s going to become an increasing priority of mine to make sure that I’m uplifting other voices as well. And just filling up the space, taking up space with our stories, with our culture, with our unapologetic energy is what I think is so critical. And what I think is a real opportunity with this moment.
Sun: That makes a lot of sense. I think this is happening and this is true of pretty much every marginalized community of people, but I think we’re certainly in a stage now where there’s a tension between the fact that there is an extremely varied array of backgrounds and perspectives and experiences among Asian Americans. And they’re kind of finding a platform for their individual voices to be heard, but there still isn’t enough representation for everybody in mainstream culture. So do you feel a burden, which is I think a self-imposed thing, or an expectation, which is imposed by other people, to be able to represent the entire quote-unquote “community”?
Liu: I could definitely see how it could be interpreted as a burden and, let’s just be honest, some days I don’t want to answer 20,000 questions about diversity. But the thing that I’ve come to realize as I look back on my career is that every major break that I personally have had has been because of an Asian creative or an Asian-centric project that has come forth and has given me that opportunity. You talk about Kim’s Convenience, which was based on a play written by Ins Choi and was hailed as the first Asian family sitcom in Canada and then became such a hit on Netflix. I am a walking testament of what could happen when you open up the gates, when you allow projects like Kim’s Convenience to be made. And even my first onscreen role in the States was Fresh Off the Boat. And so if it weren’t for these projects, very culturally specific projects, I would have no career. And I’m very, very aware of that. So in that way, I feel it’s not a burden, but it’s I guess a responsibility? It’s something that I feel like is a relationship that I’ve established with my fans, that there’s an understanding that I am in a lot of ways going to be their representative, and I want to continue to speak out and to do projects and to greenlight and put my name on things that will further our collective cause.
Sun: As you’ve come up, within the Asian American entertainment community people have known you for a long time – there was Kim’s Convenience, there are Wong Fu videos – so you’ve kind of been our community person and now you’re on a global stage. You’ve always been known as somebody who’s candid about your opinions and also very active in terms of engaging with other people on social media. And as your profile rises, that comes with more critics, that comes with greater scrutiny, both among the general public as well as with, shall we say, industry overseers. I’m just curious about what your relationship is to the feedback. And it’s perfectly valid to be like, “Well, I don’t even have time to read that stuff,” or, “For my own self-care, I don’t take that in.”
Liu: I wish I could honestly say that to you. I wish I were that cool, honestly. And I read interviews all the time about these actors who say that, and I’m stuck between a place of disbelief and envy. Because if that’s true, teach me how you do it, because I don’t know how to shut it off. As a child born of the 21st century and in the age of social media, it’s something that I’m still learning how to navigate. And to your point, Rebecca, about where that quote-unquote “backlash” comes from, you mentioned the general public, industry overseers. I’m noticing too now more an increasing backlash coming from within the Asian American community as well.
When you see an Asian American or Asian Canadian star on the rise, if you’re watching it happen, everybody is gonna project their vision of what that person should be and what that person should stand for. And if I’m lucky then I fit that mold, but if I’m not and I’m too outspoken on certain things and not outspoken enough on other things, then there’s kind of a vitriol that sometimes comes out, which is tough because I was always mentally prepared for the arrows to come from in front of me. But it hurts the most when it comes from behind. You feel like you’re doing your best, and you’re genuinely trying to do the work of representing these minority voices and investing in a community that I care deeply about, but then at the same time realizing that there are people that are not satisfied with the manner in which I do it. And I think it’s a constant negotiation of: Am I doing the right thing? Are they right? Should I stop listening to them? Do they have a point? To be honest with you, my life changes so fast these days that I don’t always have the right answer. What I do know is that as long as I can act in a way that I can go to sleep in my bed at the end of the night and be okay with myself, then I’ve done the right thing.
Sun: That makes sense. We saw some of that play out with Latinos with In the Heights and a lot of internal community dissent, which in my opinion again comes from that gap between the fact that none of our communities are monoliths and there’s not enough representation. And so that’s where a lot of the heightened frustration comes from.
Let’s talk about masculinity: I think that Asian American masculinity has had a very limited portrayal in pop culture. And also on top of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that probably the most emasculated group of men that we’ve seen in Western pop culture are Asian men. That’s a major trope.
Liu: Day one, when you from early adulthood learn that there’s a stereotype that exists about the size of your manhood and all that, it’s definitely gonna do a number on your self-esteem, because you just go through life feeling the burden of that stereotype, whether or not it’s true. Which it isn’t.
Sun: It’s not.
Liu: But at the same time, everybody thinks it and you can kind of feel it and it just changes the way that you carry yourself in a room, because all of a sudden, without people knowing anything about you, you’ve got your self-confidence kind of robbed from you. And speaking to many of the Asian men that I consider my best friends growing up, they went through very, very similar struggles. We just didn’t see a lot of self-assured Asian men. It was just hard to find. And it wasn’t because we’re not confident as a people. It’s because of the Western stereotyping, the narratives, everything that’s kind of been built up over time. I mean, Rebecca, we could go back to the days of yellow peril and the Chinese Exclusion Act to really chase down the roots of that anti-Asian sentiment, but how it’s manifested today is we’re still struggling to be seen as equals, Asian men, in a certain way.
And I always make a point of saying this, but Asian women in a different way as well. There’s very dangerous rhetoric that sometimes circulates around our community where you see Asian men attacking Asian women and saying, “Well, you’ve got all this privilege as an Asian woman because Asian women are seen as more desirable. They’re seen as higher on the social hierarchy.” First of all, I detest hearing about that kind of infighting within a community. I mean, we should be uplifting each other and sticking together, but more than that, it’s not difficult to see that that Asian men and Asian women both suffer from the same problem, which is that our experiences have been defined by a predominantly white gaze. And so we’ve each experienced the consequences of that and they’re different, but there shouldn’t be any animosity amongst ourselves, and we should be working together to dismantle that gaze, rather than trying to point fingers and say, “Well, you don’t understand.”
Sun: I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate that. You nailed it. It’s a white supremacist gaze that flattens Asian American men and Asian American women in different ways. And not just in fictional culture. Like you mentioned, the Chinese Exclusion Act. There are historical real-world roots to this, where Chinese American women were literally prostitutes and Chinese American men were not allowed to marry outside the race by law. And that was in order to keep them from owning land and gain a foothold in this country. But then it has current-world ramifications. I mean, there was – gosh, that study must be at least probably a decade old now – but there was a famous OkCupid survey, I don’t know if you remember this –
Liu: I do.
Sun: – that said the least desirable demographic for men and women were Asian men and Black women. And I do believe that has direct causality ties to how they are portrayed. That said, I appreciate that you brought up that because of the origins of these portrayals, they have created strains of animosity from Asian men to Asian women. And, I have also seen, vice versa.
Here’s what’s interesting: Just by what you just shared and what we’re talking about now, I think maybe people outside of Asian American circles are realizing that this is a much more nuanced and really, really complicated dynamic. But what I’ve seen in general discourse is that there is now sort of a corrective to the nerd stereotype, which is sort of this celebration of, like, “Asian guys can be sexy too. They can be buff heartthrobs,” and you’ll see magazine listicles of “Best Asian Abs” or Twitter threads where people – and not just Asian people, but people of all races – will openly thirst after Asian dudes, and that is a clear corrective in many ways to what we’ve seen for decades and decades and decades or centuries in pop culture.
But at the same time, I think within the Asian American – I’m trying to not use the word “community” because it feels so monolithic – but among Asian Americans, there is – I think you alluded to it – a little bit of emerging backlash, which is like: Hmm, is this emphasis on buff, Asian guys playing into toxic masculinity? Is it creating a different type of limiting trope? And as a buff Asian man –
Liu: Oh my God.
Sun: Come on. Come on, Simu, nobody can lie. You’re ripped. So as a member of the shredded Asian contingent, how do you reckon with that? You are who you are, you look like what you look like, how do you sort of balance that?
Liu: This is, first of all, a very, very good question. And I’m so happy to be sitting here with you answering it. There has to be a lot of nuance in my response. I will start by saying that there are Asians out there that are far more shredded than I, and far more handsome than I, so I don’t want to be held as a representative for any anybody else other than myself when I’m speaking. But I feel like this idea that by overcorrecting our emasculation we are actively celebrating toxic masculinity at its most kind of stereotypical core, which is like these buff tough people who maybe don’t talk about their feelings or act a certain way towards women, I feel like that’s very, very valid. My hope is that as Asian men begin to talk about masculinity, the ways that they’ve been emasculated and our goals for how we want to develop the discourse, that we can redefine what “masculinity,” quote-unquote, really even means, because Asian American masculinity as a term really hadn’t been around for all that long. And so why use it to describe all of the flaws of traditional masculinity?
Why not define masculinity for ourselves in a way that is body-positive, but body-positive for all types and inclusive for all gender norms and sexual preferences, and why not celebrate male-male vulnerability and being able to communicate feelings with your male friends and circles, and why not talk about respecting women and uplifting our Asian American sisters, and uplifting all minority groups and being a better ally? Why not talk about those things as well? That’s something that I very much believe in, because if it’s just about abs and it’s just about looking buff and shredded and trying to outman the men, then I don’t think that’s a conversation that I want to be a part of.
Sun: It kind of feels like you’re just jumping from one box into a different box.
Liu: Yeah, and we don’t like that box. That box is like the reason for a lot of what’s wrong in the world. So maybe we shouldn’t be jumping into that box.
Sun: So we come full circle and revisit the idea of Asian martial arts portrayals in pop culture. A lot of that goes hand in hand with what we talked about at the beginning of this conversation. Traditionally, the Asian martial artist portrayals in Western media have been stoic. They are very physical-forward – again, I’m only talking about Western portrayals – very much focused on the physique, not much focus on interpersonal relationship dynamics at all, that sort of thing. You’ve talked about reclaiming that trope with Shang-Chi. What does reclaiming that specifically look like to you? In other words, you can use this project as an example, or even speak generally: If somebody is developing a character right now who’s both Asian and a martial artist, what should people be looking for?
Liu: I think people should be looking beyond the fighting to look at who this character is, what motivates him, where his insecurities are. Those are the pillars of good character and good storytelling, not how well can this guy punch, how many different martial arts moves does he know? Like we mentioned before with the Western gaze, when you have non-Asian filmmakers crafting Asian characters, they will tend to lead with those qualities. And I can say this: Going into the audition process for Shang-Chi, I was very not bullish on the idea that I would ever have a chance to book the role. And part of it was because I too bought into that gaze. I was like, “I am not the world’s best martial artist. I am not the master of kung fu in the way that Shang-Chi is the master of kung fu. I am not the tallest, nor am I the buffest, nor do I have the most chiseled jaw line, nor do I have the best abs.” So what about me is worthy of taking on this momentous historic role of the first Asian superhero in the MCU to get a title movie?
And thank God that I got a chance to work with Destin and to meet him in person before I went to the screentest process, because the moment that I met him and started to work with him, something clicked in for me, which is that who I am underneath all of that – all of the walls that I tried to put up in order to deal with the insecurities, the muscles, the outward image – who I was on the inside, the sensitivity, the humor, the quirkiness, that was what was going to win me the role. And once I made that mental shift, I really started to believe that I could book it.
And that journey of an artist, whether you’re Asian or not, when you haven’t made it yet, you’re not where you want to be. You want so badly to project an image of what you think other people want to see. And I feel like for so many Asian men, because they come from such a place of insecurity, they want to project: I want to be perfect. I want to be unfazeable. I want to be so tough, so jacked, so good at martial arts. That’s what people want to see. And, frankly, having watched a lot of those versions of that movie, it’s not very interesting. And those characters aren’t very accessible because they don’t allow us to see the vulnerability and the humanity in a character. And so I hope that when people watch Shang-Chi, that vulnerability is going to be front and center. And that is what’s going to make this character iconic, what’s going to make this character watchable, compelling, and what is going to make this story different than the rest, and what is going to make our movie a reclamation of martial arts rather than something that is reductive.
Sun: Right. Rather than, again, an outsider’s perspective of what martial arts is and the role that plays. So we always end every interview with two questions. The first one is called the Hollywood Remixed, which is: Is there a project or a character from the past that if you could ask a do-over for – I’m sorry, not your past, but in the history of Hollywood – again, we’re thinking thematically here. So Hollywood martial arts character, is there one that if you were a studio head that you could do over, and how would you do it over?
Liu: Gosh, there’s so many. This might be controversial, but if it were up to me, I probably would’ve made Iron Fist Asian American. I think there was a lot of meat potentially with that storytelling of this guy, Danny Rand, who is trained in a mystical place of K’un-L’un but is an outsider there, and then comes back to the world of New York to try to take over his family business but is an outsider there. That idea of being an outsider no matter where you go, that is so distinctly Asian American and I just feel like there was such an opportunity that was lost to share that perspective when they made him just another white guy. And so I’ll start there. I’ll go on by saying, I really wish that Breakfast at Tiffany’s never had that, uh, I’ll say “Asian character” in the loosest of terms. And if you could see me and if you can just picture me doing massive air quotes…
Sun: Not recognizably Asian as a human being, but like a living political cartoon.
Liu: Exactly. And just the fact that it was played by Mickey Rooney was just that much more hurtful. You’ve thought about this. What are your tops? I’m actually very curious to know.
Sun: My top was also Iron Fist. And I think that every Asian American, like, warned – there were entire treatises written like, “Guys, this is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea. You’re missing out on a lot of story potential here.” But, you know, sometimes people have to learn things the hard way. The other one I was going to say was David Carradine in Kung Fu.
Liu: I mean, for God’s sake, Bruce Lee pitched the project!
Sun: Precisely. In hindsight, it seems just absurd to pass on somebody with the charisma of Bruce Lee. Not just his actual martial arts prowess as one of the greatest martial arts practitioners working in the generation, but also his genuine charisma. And I don’t think I myself appreciated that growing up. Because I grew up in the States. We grow up in Western culture. And so I knew about Bruce Lee as a trope before I actually learned anything about him as a performer, as an artist.
Sun: And I remember seeing as an adult on YouTube that black-and-white TV interview that he did where he’s like showing moves –
Liu: I’ve seen it.
Sun: You know what I’m talking about.
Liu: It’s a screen test when he’s 24 years old and he’s punching the air right in front of the studio executive. And he’s just working the room and he’s so charismatic for a five-foot-five Asian guy who speaks English with a Chinese accent to have the presence that he did. It was truly phenomenal. And, I would say, a greater feat of mastery than any martial arts he ever did. That was the true genius and superpower of Bruce Lee, and it’s obviously a testament to him that his shadow is just so looming and so large that literally he created a stereotype single-handedly.
Like before Bruce Lee, there was no, “Oh, Chinese people do kung fu.” There was none of that, and he single-handedly, for better or for worse, created it. And for a while, it was better because at least we were being seen and at least we were being celebrated in some way. And when I saw people like Bruce and Jackie and Jet just kicking ass on screen, kicking the crap out of white people, I mean, there is a part of me that was like, “Hell yeah!”
The question is, as we move forward into our next ten, 20, 30 years of discourse, can we find a way to evolve past this conversation of martial arts? And that’s something that I’m very curious to know the answer of. I don’t want to do martial arts films my entire career. I don’t want to be known as a kung fu actor. I feel like it would be a disservice to Bruce and a disservice to his spirit of building bridges, of going where it’s unexpected, of traversing the path that’s less traveled. I feel like that is the spirit of Bruce that should be taken and evolved and moved forward, not just the martial arts itself. So I’m really curious. And that’s something that I want for my future: to continue to go places where we haven’t seen Asian men and to show the world that we deserve to be there too, whether that be romantic comedy or action adventure, but not in a martial arts capacity. The possibilities are literally endless. And it seems like the only wrong move for me is to just continue doing the same thing.
Sun: Yeah, it becomes redundant. And what you said about how Bruce Lee sort of originated a possibility, he created a new possible opportunity for Asian men to be seen in this culture that didn’t exist before. And then what happened was because nobody gave any opportunities around that and because, quite honestly, the gatekeepers didn’t understand Asian culture, it got turned into a stereotype and reduced.
So the second question is called the Hidden Gem, which is: Is there a recommendation? It could be a movie, TV show, a book, a blog, a podcast, whatever it is. Something that you would recommend to people who really want to experience what an authentic and fully dimensional portrayal of an Asian martial artist, character or storyline looks like. What would you recommend for our listeners?
Liu: A fully recognized Asian martial arts – ?
Sun: And I’m going to say, because Hollywood’s history of this is not great, you can feel free to expand to something that comes from Asia if you want to. We don’t have to keep it Asian American.
Liu: This is so glaringly obvious – it’s basically like me saying Star Wars is my favorite movie, which it is – but I’ll say Hero by Zhang Yimou. That is a story about love and sacrifice and tragedy with the backdrop of martial arts, where martial arts is used to accentuate create the drama and certainly to help move the narrative sometimes, but never as the centerpiece. Never was Hero just going to be a cool action movie where people fought a lot. The way that Tony Leung plays his character, the chemistry between him and Maggie Cheung, the scene where we’re he and Jet Li are fighting and they’re dipping in and out of the pond and a single drop of water lands on Maggie Cheung’s face. Just how beautifully romantic that movie was. I would say, if you’re looking for true Chinese martial arts drama, cinema, that’s where you have to go, for sure. Hero is the gold standard.
Sun: It’s an art film. It was like a trio of films – Crouching Tiger, Hero and Flying Daggers – that came out [in succession], and Hero was my favorite. It’s breathtaking in its artistry and visually, and someday – it’s on my bucket list – I want to go to Jiuzhaigou, which is where I think that scene you’re talking about, that showdown between Jet Li and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, [was filmed]. It looks like the most beautiful place on this planet, like it’s almost not even on this planet.
Liu: And so serene, like seeing the way that a single foot dipping into the pond creates the ripples and the water is so still – oh my gosh.
Sun: That’s a really good one. And I’ll also add for you, because you mentioned it earlier, Charles Yu’s book Interior Chinatown.
Liu: I’m just going to take two minutes and rave about it. I just love the way that he writes. It’s written loosely in the form of a screenplay where it’s not first person or third person, but it’s second person and it’s like giving you stage direction. So it’s almost as if you’re reading a movie, but there’s something in that story that really spoke to me, this idea that martial arts can be a source of empowerment, but being the kung fu guy can also be a system of control for Asian men. And it really made me think about all of the ways that I’ve allowed myself to be limited by this martial arts stereotype. And I think about when I first got started in this industry – and you’ll see that when you read the book, there’s a very real parallel between the main character in the book too – but when I first got started and I was working background making minimum wage and I was on set, I’d be looking at the other Asian guys in the industry and they’d all be stuntmen. And I remember being like, “Oh my God, that would be the pinnacle of success for me. If I could one day be a stuntman and get beaten up by a white guy and make a living doing that, how incredible would that be?”
I couldn’t even fathom being a lead character. I couldn’t even fathom leading a blockbuster franchise. It was just not even possible to me because of what I had seen, and the system that I believe that I existed in was one in which my value was dictated [by] my ability to do kung fu. It really opened my eyes to that system, that invisible – whether you want to call it “ceiling” or you want to call it the invisible prison that sometimes we put ourselves in and why it’s so important to break free of that.
Sun: Yeah, that mentality of just being thankful to be there and believing that there could be more. Simu, this was a fantastic conversation. I really, really super enjoyed speaking with you. And the intentionality with which you think about these things is much appreciated.
Liu: Thank you so much. Likewise for me, I always really appreciate sitting down and having a real conversation about this because when I’m on the red carpet and people ask me, WWhat does it mean to be the first Asian superhero in the MCU with the title movie?” or when they ask questions like that, what they’re really looking for is a soundbite. It’s very well-intentioned and I really appreciate the opportunity to give that soundbite, but at the same time, how can you possibly communicate the importance of this moment in 30 seconds? So I really appreciate being able to just drill deep and have that conversation with you.
Sun: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes out on Sept. 3. Simu, thank you so much for your time.
Liu: Thank you, Rebecca.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Thanks again to Simu Liu and Keith Chow for joining us on Hollywood Remixed. You can read Keith’s work and listen to his podcasts at thenerdsofcolor.org, and Simu, obviously, can be seen lighting up the big screen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in theaters Sept. 3. Please stay tuned next week, when Billions star Asia Kate Dillon stops by to educate us on non-binary identity and representation in Hollywood, and please subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice so that you don’t miss an episode.
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