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Simu Liu’s Journey from Failed Accountant to Marvel’s Shang-Chi

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Celebrity Spotlight is a monthly column where we introduce a famous individual from China (or of Chinese heritage) that you should know more about.

Simu Liu is about to make history. In September, he will become the first actor of Asian descent to lead a film for Marvel Studios, as he plays the titular role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The Chinese-Canadian actor may already be familiar to Netflix users, having starred in the highly successful sitcom Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean immigrant family that runs a corner store in Canada.

Aside from his impressive acting chops, Liu is an outspoken advocate for Asian representation in the entertainment industry. With Liu at the helm of Marvel’s new film, he puts a spotlight on the Asian community. He also provides representation in a time of tension amid the recent spike in hate crimes and discrimination against Asian people.

So, without further ado, let us introduce you to real-life superhero Simu Liu.

From Accounting to Acting

Born in Harbin in China’s frigidly cold Northeast in 1989, Liu was raised by his grandparents for the first few years of his life before emigrating to Canada when he was 5 years old to be with his parents.

He graduated with a business degree from the University of Western Ontario and landed an accounting job at Deloitte. The job, however, didn’t prove to be exciting or enjoyable for Liu, who later said that “it could not have been a worse fit” for him. His bosses eventually caught on, and after eight months, he was laid off.

Determined to find a career path that would make him happy, Liu began searching everywhere he could, stating, “I basically had nothing left to lose.” By chance, he stumbled across a Craigslist ad looking for extras on Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. It was then that his passion for acting and movies was born.

After that, Liu began applying for every role he could find — starting in television ads and as a stock image model, before gradually moving on to roles in movies and TV shows. 

One of his early breakthrough roles came in Blood and Water. This Canadian show was made specifically with a Chinese-Canadian audience in mind, featuring dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. He nabbed nominations at Canadian award shows and marked himself as a local talent to watch. 

These appearances led to Liu landing the role of Jung, the estranged son of the titular character in another Canadian TV show, Kim’s Convenience. 

Success and Kim’s Convenience Controversy

Kim’s Convenience ran for five seasons and established itself as a fan favorite after premiering in 2016. Picked up by Netflix in 2018, Liu and his castmates were thrown into the global spotlight.

Liu’s performance, in particular, garnered considerable attention and landed him an ACTRA award in 2017, less than a year after the show premiered.

Controversially, it was announced in March 2021 that the TV program would not be renewed for another season despite its popularity. Liu expressed his disappointment about the sudden wrapping of the show in a Facebook post, writing, “it was not ‘cancelled’ in a traditional manner, i.e., by a network after poor ratings. Our producers are the ones who chose not to continue.”

Kim's Convenience

Simu Liu and Andrea Bang in the episode “Happy Ummaversary” of Kim’s Convenience. Image via IMDb

Liu and other castmates began to speak out about the toxicity that permeated the working environment on the show, with Liu revealing that Kim’s Convenience’s mostly white writers allegedly didn’t accept any creative input from the Asian cast members.

In a statement to Vanity Fair, Liu clarified his passionate position, stating, “the immigrant experience is rarely depicted in mainstream media in a positive light… and for that reason, Kim’s Convenience has a very special place in the hearts of countless fans globally — including mine.”

He then went on to say he was not trying to “call anyone out specifically” and that “these were a string of thoughts that came from a deep and personal perspective that is incredibly nuanced.”

A Marvel Hero for the Modern Age

Liu has always been outspoken on social media, especially when it comes to Asian representation in the film industry.

Even before there were talks of Marvel launching a film fronted by an Asian superhero, Liu was on the ball, tweeting back in 2014, “Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?”

When news broke that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would be made, Liu sent a follow-up tweet, writing, “Okay, Marvel. Shall we talk or what?”

The tweet was a good sign of things to come. Liu was cast at lightning speed, having gone to New York to screen test on a Sunday and finding out he got the role on Tuesday. He described landing the part as “the craziest, craziest dream.”

Related: 

The “Shang-Chi” Trailer is Finally Here

While Asian communities worldwide celebrated the announcement of a Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, the reception in the country where Liu was born was not quite as stellar. 

On the one hand, Chinese commentators were concerned about the possible appearance of Fu Manchu, a character created by English writer Sax Rohmer in the early 20th century that is deeply ingrained with racist Chinese stereotypes. In the early comic books, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu, but Marvel subsequently renamed the character Wenwu.

Marvel claims that Wenwu, played by legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, is a loving, well-rounded character with flaws.

Awkwafina and Simu Liu

Awkwafina and Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Image via IMDb

Chinese netizens were also upset about certain casting decisions, including that of Simu Liu as the movie’s protagonist and Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s friend, Katy. Online commentators called both actors ugly and claimed that Disney didn’t understand Chinese beauty, a refrain similar to that which accompanied the announcement that Liu Yifei would star in the 2020 blockbuster remake of Mulan.

Related:

Why are Netizens Hating on Marvel’s Chinese Superhero Movie “Shang-Chi”?

While the movie does have an official Chinese title, it has yet to secure a cinema release date in the country. 

A Real-Life Hero

Liu’s starring role in the movie has allowed the actor to use his newfound celebrity status for real change. He has been consistently vocal online, using his platform to raise awareness about anti-Asian racism and violence — he even penned an article for Variety on these issues.

In the wake of a deadly shooting spree earlier this year in Atlanta, Georgia, where a 22-year-old man targeted spas staffed predominantly by Asian women, Liu shared his grief on Twitter. He also shared links to fundraisers and organizations committed to helping the victims’ families and pledged to donate $25,000 of his own money.

He has placed significant emphasis on his impact as a role model for kids, especially the younger generation of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islanders) community. He told E! Online, “it’s really in this time that I’ve really started to realize the impact that this can have (…) it’s all just feeding this incredible moment, this groundswell moment for the whole community.”

Liu has also partnered with the California Milk Processor Board and No Kid Hungry to provide a million meals to hungry children across California. He told E! News, “helping children has been one of the things I’m most looking forward to as I step into this platform.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the story of a kung fu master who turns against his father’s assassin ways and becomes a hero, is set to be released in North American theaters on September 3, 2021.

Cover image via Wikimedia

Chloe Yorke
    Chloe was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Shanghai and San Francisco. She is currently studying Chinese at Durham University in the UK and is passionate about Chinese art and culture.