When it comes to interviewing Asians in a Hollywood film out of the gate, the first few questions invariably would be about Asian representation. Like a shopping cart with one janky wheel, the conversation will veer towards an off-road of cliché talking points: Are there more visibility on-screen for Asian-Americans? When did you first feel like an ‘other’? Tell us about a time you were slighted for your race on set.
Not to say that these are unimportant topics to talk about (we’ll get to those later). But let’s ease our way into it. An amuse-bouche before that main course of discourse.
Instead, we begin with Simu Liu side-lounging on a couch. (Or was it a sofa? The details of it are diminished by the Google Meet screen.) The image of the Cosmo centrefold of Burt Reynolds comes to mind.
For someone who is about to be in the hot seat, Liu looks relaxed. Too relaxed. He grins, briefly runs his fingers through his hair, and it looks as if he’s slowly being absorbed into the black felt of the couch.
“We have this house for the week,” Liu says. “The place is very nice and it has the most comfortable couch of all time.” He strokes it like he would a pet, holds his pose and lets that silence hang before he comes in for the kill. “But I’ll sit up a bit.”
That was a very complicated chapter of my life. On one hand, the show has given me so much but on the other hand, when I wasn’t allowed to offer my input on my character’s development, I knew that if I was to stay on, my career would end when the show did.
Liu’s early dalliance with the movies was as an extra or a stunt double. After answering a Craig’s List ad that led him to be an extra in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, Liu will do bit parts in TV shows and shorts before becoming a series regular on the crime drama, Blood and Water, for which he was nominated for an ACTRA (Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists) Award and a Canadian Screen Award in 2017.
Not too shabby for someone who was never formally trained as an actor. Liu was actually a business graduate from the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario. He’d later work as an accountant at Deloitte before he was let go.
“I was barely 25 years old at the time,” Liu reminisces. “I was struggling down to my last dollar, I had credit card debt… I was trying to see where my acting career was going when I was asked to audition for Blood and Water.” When his character exited the first season, Diane Boehme, the creator of Blood and Water, offered Liu a spot in the writers’ room. “I had shown her drafts of short films that I wrote and produced and she must have seen something in me.”
Liu would write the second episode of season two and point to Boehme as someone who actively lifts the voices of people of colour. “I can’t thank her enough. It was such a critical opportunity for me not only to act but to learn the ins and outs of the industry. I became such a better artist because [Boehme] reached out.”
His next break would be Kim’s Convenience. Adapted from Ins Choi’s stage play of the same name, Kim’s Convenience follows the lives of the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family who operates the titular convenience store. Liu’s role is as Jung, the estranged son of Appa, who left home to find his place in the world. Affable and charming, Jung became a quick favourite with viewers.
Critically acclaimed, Kim’s Convenience consistently aced the ratings in Canada. It won awards; the sitcom was the tentpole show on the nights it was broadcast on CBC Television. And yet, with that it has going for it, the show would see the departure of its co-creators, Ins Choi and Kevin White, and ultimately the show’s producers, Thunderbird Films, decided not to go ahead with a sixth season.
But when you start to peel back the layers, the rot was already present as attest in Liu’s lengthy Facebook post. In it, he cited production issues, particularly criticising a lack of diversity among the writers and producers and that the cast was not allowed to offer any creative input.
“That was a very complicated chapter of my life,” Liu tells Esquire. “On one hand, the show has given me so much but on the other hand, when I wasn’t allowed to offer my input on my character’s development, I knew that if I was to stay on, my career would end when the show did.”
It would be a good hard kick to the backside as Liu vigorously pursued a career in Los Angeles. Being the guy that was on Kim’s Convenience every year and stayed in Toronto, that wasn’t going to be enough. According to Liu, as an actor in Canada you’re beholden to a system that sees you as expendable and replaceable. That’s why he couldn’t speak out before. It was only when he had gotten the Shang-Chi gig that he decided to give his account.
In a different universe, if Kim’s Convenience had continued for one more season, Liu would stay on. “If I had been told that the producers want to make a finale that does right by every single one of the characters, sign me up. I’d probably try to fit it around my schedule.”
In this new season, Liu would have Jung return to school. The first few seasons saw Jung trying to better himself. “But after that, we kinda lost that with him,” Liu says. He wants to see his character pursue a postsecondary education and just before he leaves town he drops by the store and has that one last conversation with Appa. They will delve into why Jung left all those years ago and the two men will finally reconcile.
With regards to that ‘farewell letter’ that was posted on Liu’s personal Facebook account, which meant that it was only intended for people within his network—but because it’s the same account that posts in Subtle Asian Traits (a group that he’s a member of ), that privacy circle widens. “I know many people had seen it but I didn’t think in a million years that multiple news outlets would pick it up and it would become this ginormous story.”
Liu is still getting the hang of this aspect of ‘being famous’. He’s still the same goofy, self-deprecating dude you’d want to hang out with, but now he can’t be too cavalier with his thoughts. As someone who ‘built a brand and a career on being outspoken’, he has to rein it in. Maybe be a little diplomatic but it’s all part of the learning curve of becoming famous.
There are perks that come with fame though. According to Liu, the only time he was able to capitalise on it was surprising his friends—among them is his Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings co-star, Zhang Meng’er—with a day out at Disney California Adventure Park. Accompanied by a tour guide named Nataly, they visited the Avengers Campus, became one of the first few to try out the Web Slingers ride, built lightsabers at Galaxy’s Edge… for a day when one could regress into children, it was an amazing privilege for someone who grew up with nothing.
Liu is, after all, an immigrant; a son of immigrant parents who hammered into their only offspring the virtues of frugality. Save what you can. Don’t spend frivolously. Never take anything for granted. If he had a coat of arms, it would be filigreed with discount bins, second-hand clothes and junk food. “This is the only way that I know how to live. I don’t know how to be this guy who goes yachting and plays golf 17 times a week or what have you. I love pizza and instant ramen and that’s not going to change anytime soon.”
The capital city of Heilongjiang, Harbin is where we lay our scene. Liu was born in 1989 and his parents would leave to pursue their graduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada while leaving him in his grandparents’ care. Once they have settled, they would send for him. Liu would live with his grandparents in a small flat on the sixth floor of a building without an elevator. “I still remember it’s off of a road called Hé Xìng Lù. Near Hā’ěrbīn Shīfàn Dàxué, which, in English, is Harbin Normal University, which is tough because that isn’t even the proper translation.”
Life back then was a challenge. But to a toddler, not having known the modern conveniences that we cosmopolitans are used to, this was normal. This was a life, one that was filled with long strolls around Hé Xìng Lù; watching films on a laptop his father left behind. One that was filled with the love of his grandparents, who would sleep with him in their bed; sandwiching him to warm him from the chill.
At five, Liu would immigrate to Canada to live with this parents in a government-subsidised flat; his parents subsisted off of their scholarships (“which were next to nothing”). Money was tight and tensions were heightened.
In an article for Maclean’s, Liu would write about being raised by his parents: “I often felt like you regarded me as a defective product: you had not been present for my early years, and so my idiosyncrasies left you confused and worried. Perhaps, in the same way that you were strangers to me, your son also felt like a foreigner to you. That rift would only widen as I adopted the values and norms of a culture that you were unfamiliar with.” The article further paints the usual tropes of disillusionment with the expectations of immigrant parents before branching off into Liu’s trajectory that leads him to an acting career and circling back to reconciliation with his parents.
You can’t help but see his parents’ journey echoed in Liu’s. They were 30 when they moved to Canada; Liu was around the same age when he decided to leave for LA to work in Hollywood.
“It was the first time that I truly understood the risk my parents took in moving. It made me appreciate everything that they went through. It was easier for me than it was for them, of course, but I tell my parents all the time that one of my favourite reasons for moving is that it brought me so much closer to [them], and it brought me so much closer to what that journey was.”
His parents have made peace with his profession. As long as he’s able to earn a living, that’s the least any parent can hope for their kid. But they don’t have an inkling as to how much standing Liu has as a Marvel superhero, let alone an Asian Marvel superhero. Like the rest of us, they found out about his casting from the news; they got their information from the wires in Canada. Then they read about him on American news outlets and Chinese social channels. No matter where they went, they can’t escape his name and beaming mug in the lights. Liu was everywhere.
Liu finds the whole procedural interesting. “Watching them react to the marketing, I mean, was just the ride of a lifetime for me,” he says. “These two aerospace engineers trying to come to terms that their son is now a superhero… that is very funny.”
The Maclean’s article was composed around the time of his mother’s birthday. Liu had struggled with writing her birthday card because many of their interactions up until that point had been superficial. “There wasn’t a lot of depth to our relationship,” he says, “and I was frustrated by that. I just wanted to write something that was from the heart.”
So he wrote about their complicated relationship, which turned into the article you see on Maclean’s. Then, Jackie Kaiser, the president of Westwood Creative Artists, contacted him, saying that she loved the Maclean’s piece and whether he’d be interested to write a memoir. Thinking it was rather disingenuous for a 29-year-old to write a memoir, Liu turned her down. But a year later, he decided to write about his parents’ journey instead and how that is reflected in his journey in becoming an actor. He pitched the idea to Kaiser, who thought it was a good idea and sold the book to HarperCollins Canada and then to the HarperCollins affiliate in America. (Titled We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story, it’s expected to hit stands in May 2022.)
His parents didn’t think much of a book being written about them. Their common refrain: Why are you trying to air out all of our dirty laundry? These were people who struggled with stability; who are trying to provide for the family. There was no time to be outspoken about your struggles. “It’s about putting your head down, do work, put food on the table, survive. Talking about it was a foreign concept,” he says.
But Liu presses on, insisting that if his parents’ story wasn’t told, it would be lost. “They still have trouble wrapping their head around it,” he says, “but hopefully they will be happy when the book comes out and people can appreciate what they did.”
I spent weeks in a harness, suspended in the air and it gets to a point where you lose all feeling in your legs.
Racist attacks on the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community skyrocketed since COVID-19 bolted into our lives. Non-profit organisation Stop AAPI Hate was created in response to that. The group’s approach is to focus on ending all forms of structural racism that plagued communities of colour to effectively address anti-Asian racism.
Liu was drawn towards Stop AAPI Hate’s work. The news of attacks on elderly Asians… they could be his parents, they could be his friends. All of a sudden, when punches and kicks land on someone who looks similar to you, you can’t help but feel the hurt. Although Liu is Canadian Asian, his activism with the California-based coalition (Stop AAPI Hate) shows that xenophobia is a worldwide plague.
“I know how it feels growing up and having people kinda look through you, instead of at you,” Liu says. “I’ve seen how people treated my parents just because their English wasn’t perfect or was slightly accented. Our people, our elders, our mothers… they were attacked. There are attacks in Atlanta, in New York… there are attacks in Toronto and Vancouver. That kind of systemic discrimination exists everywhere.
“AAPI is one of a well-known label but when we talk about diaspora occasions we talk about all of the millions of people that comprise our lived experiences all around the world.”
While Liu can appeal to the better nature of humanity or spread awareness about the plight an AAPI will experience, there are other avenues where he can push the AAPI agenda and that’s the continual push for more Asian representation in film and TV (toldja that we’d get to it).
“I’ve been asked about for at least the last five years of my life,” he says, “but am I tired of being asked about it? No. The conversation of representation needs to evolve though.”
Liu was reluctant about being that guy who pushes for more representation in Hollywood but he has learned to warm up to it and sees this as a duty. He is in the middle of a very long marathon, where there’s no room to falter because there’s too much to cover, too much at stake. Every event—the Gold Rush, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese Internment camp, the appearance of Bruce Lee on screen, Vincent Chin’s murder—in America’s history is a milestone.
Like Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi is another milestone in that long run. It’s the first Asian superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “It’s great,” Liu adds, “but I don’t think that’s anywhere near where we should be in terms of on-screen representation or anything like that.”
But he knows there’s a clout that comes with being the lead in a Marvel movie. Given his platform, Liu can use it to tell Asian stories. “I don’t mind taking on a producer or creative role in general,” he says. “If there ever comes an opportunity where I have to write it myself, it’ll be a challenge but one I’m more than happy to undertake.” The road to making Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wasn’t a walk in the park, especially during a pandemic. Shang-Chi shoulders a convoluted past, a roiling mess that was borne in a less enlightened time. To know our history, lest it be repeated, we have to begin with Kung Fu.
The premise for the 1972 TV series follows Caine, a Shaolin monk who is on the run after taking revenge on his master’s killer. Although Kung Fu will carry the stigma of passing over Bruce Lee and casting David Carradine as the lead instead, it would prove to be popular to viewers and would spawn a second related series also starring Carradine as Caine’s grandson.
Back then, Marvel wanted to acquire the rights to Kung Fu but they were denied permission by the show’s owner, Warner Communications. Fast forward to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the 25th film in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Touted as the first Asian-led Marvel film, the plot reads like any Asian kid’s upbringing: as the heir to a criminal empire, Shang-Chi escapes his father’s clutches to forge his own path in life. His father is Wenwu, played by veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung.
Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton acknowledged the problematic aspects of the comic book portrayal of the Mandarin and felt Leung’s take of Wenwu “avoided Asian stereotypes and a one-dimensional portrayal”.
Most of the pushback for the movie came from Chinese netizens who are not entirely sold that Shang-Chi will be respectful towards Asians. Liu emphasised that “great care has been taken when it comes to the narrative”. The crew were sensitive to what their potential blind spots are that they would defer to Liu and other cast members to fill in those gaps, a consideration that was absent in Kim’s Convenience production.
No one is taking any chances with Shang-Chi, not even the kung fu was spared from scrutiny. Liu is no stranger to being fit—he worked as a stuntman, has a background in taekwondo and Wing Chun, breakdanced and is sporty—but he needed to move like the Master of Kung Fu. “And I am not a master of kung fu,” Liu opines. “I’m just a guy who has to pretend to be one.”
So when he was cast in July 2019, Liu was started on almost a year’s worth of training. He’d practise backflips in his backyard (“I fell on my face a bunch of times”); he had to learn how to parkour. There was strength conditioning; he had to work on his flexibility; he had to be comfortable with wirework. “Yeah, tons and tons of wirework. I spent weeks in a harness, suspended in the air and it gets to a point where you lose all feeling in your legs.”
There is another brickbat from Chinese netizens and this critique was that Simu Liu isn’t handsome enough to play Shang-Chi. Liu doesn’t quite understand the hullabaloo about it. He’s not naive to assume that he’s universally good-looking. “Not that I thought I was,” Liu is quick to add, “but it’s interesting to see my looks being brought up time and time again.” There’s not much that Liu can do about his face but the man is happy with what he was given. If anything, Liu looks relatable. He’s that face that you’ll see on the big screen and, perhaps, you think to yourself, wow, there’s a space for someone like me.
For a man leading a tentpole film of the summer, he’s rather reposed about how Shang-Chi would do. Sure, there’s that lingering fear that the movie won’t do well but Liu’s not going to let that cripple him. “You can only control so much of how the world responds to your art. And at some point, you’ll just have to release it and hope for the best.”
You can’t dwell on the last thing that you did or else you’re anchored to past success or failure while the rest of the world passes you by. Liu is focused on what’s to come. He’s slated to act opposite Phillipa Soo (who played Eliza in the original run of the musical Hamilton) in an indie romance called One True Loves. Adapted from Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel of the same name, the story follows a woman who has to choose between her husband she has long thought dead and her new fiancé. Liu is giddy about working with Soo. “I’ve never sung in front of a trained Broadway singer,” Liu, who is not too shabby at singing, says. “I feel I’d be very embarrassed but, maybe, during one of our off-hours, I’ll break into song and we’ll see what happens.”
In my conversation with friends over drinks, when the evening draws out into a maudlin moment of clarity about the migratory tales of our forebears. We toast to our ancestors; strangers in a strange land, the only way of survival was to establish a support network, to find your tribe. So, you train your ears for the recognisable vernacular of the Old Country; the beckoning scents of the food of your youth cooking over an open fire.
Tongue firmly in cheek, I ask Liu—beatific, calm; the image of the reclining Buddha pops into my mind—if he was part of a secret cabal of Asian actors in Hollywood.
“We all know each other and I think we’re all fans and are supportive of one another. It’s a necessity, given how there are so few of us,” Liu says. “There’s a recognition of the hurdles that we’ve individually been through; the systemic racism and discrimination we’d to overcome. That recognition means we’re supportive of one another’s career.”
It takes half a beat before Liu caves to that old familiar cheek.
“So to answer your question, yes, I am part of a secret cabal Asian Illuminati and we are secretly trying to take over the world.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now showing in theatres.
Digital techMaxfield Hegedus
Photographer assistantsMichael Clifford and Brian Stevens
Stylist assistantChloe Takayanagi