For Asian movie fans, Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' stirs pride and controversy

·7 min read

In a scene from the recently released Marvel film "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," the character Jon Jon welcomes Katy to a fight club by speaking in Mandarin Chinese.

Katy is internet famous after a video of her driving prowess went viral, but the American is unable to understand the greeting. Jon Jon, played by Ronny Chieng, laughs it off.

"Don't worry," he tells Katy, played by Awkwafina. "I speak ABC."

That comment likely flew over the heads of most movie goers. But for Asian Americans, it was an inside joke we can all relate to. We know that "ABC" stands for "American-born Chinese," and that speaking ABC is akin to speaking Chinglish – a mixture of Chinese and English.

It was a subtle signal to Asian Americans that "Shang-Chi" is a film that really gets what we're all about. The groundbreaking flick features Marvel's first Chinese superhero and an all-Asian-led cast from America and Asia, and it was was directed by Japanese American Destin Daniel Cretton.

Asian Americans have long been painted with a broad stroke. We're the "model minority" who are often asked, "Where are you really from?" Far from a monolithic mass, we're diverse in many ways, from nationality to ideology to just how Westernized we are.

Simu Liu stars as the debuting title superhero of Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
Simu Liu stars as the debuting title superhero of Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

What "Shang-Chi" does so well is illustrate the different levels of Asianness, says Michael Tow, a New York City-based Chinese American actor. A fifth-generation ABC, he welcomes the inclusiveness of the movie.

"I love that it had a voice I can relate to," says Tow, who watched the film twice with his two daughters.

There are many facets to being Asian, and yet we are all Asian Americans, Tow explains. Take language: You can be ABC and not speak a word of Chinese, you can get by with just a little Chinese being able to order off a menu, you can be illiterate and speak Mandarin, or you can speak Mandarin or Cantonese with a heavy American accent.

Generation 1.5

I'm a 1.5er, an immigrant considered somewhere between a first- and second-generation American. I emigrated to the USA at a young age with my parents and straddled two cultures. English is not my first language, and because my parents cannot speak it, I remain fluent in Mandarin. Simu Liu, the Chinese Canadian actor in the starring role of "Shang-Chi," is also a member of the 1.5 generation. Onscreen, he speaks flawless Mandarin.

The story centers around Liu as Shaun – a parking lot attendant who's really superhero Shang-Chi (pronounced "Shong-chi," similar to "Shaun"). Awkwafina, the New York-born Asian American actor, is Katy, his friend and driver.

Shaun and Katy start as valets in San Francisco, but they eventually travel to Macau to warn Shang-Chi's sister, Xu Xialing, played by Chinese actress Meng’er Zhang, about a plot concocted by their father, the movie's villain. The three are connected to the family's past, where Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung plays the father, Wenwu, and Chinese American actress Fala Chen plays mother Ying Li.

Asians in Hollywood: Oscars a turning point for Asians in Hollywood as Chloe Zhao, 'Nomadland' win big | Mary Chao

Asian names: What's in a name? For Asian immigrants, a chance to 'assimilate or vanish' | Mary Chao

It's a profoundly Chinese film touching on the issue of filial piety and the failure of Westerners to accept Asian culture. As the thousand-year-old Wenwu sits down to talk to his son Shang-Chi, he notes that he has been called many names as a supervillain – The Mandarin, The Most Dangerous Man on Earth – when his name is Xu Wenwu.

Another sign the movie understands the Asian experience: Xu Wenwu asks Katy for her Chinese name rather than the Americanized version she's gone by. Chinese names are deeply telling: Shang-Chi means "uplifting energy," and Wenwu means "scholarly warrior."

"It was empowering to see this type of representation on the big screen," says resident Danielle Iwata, 28, who is a Japanese Filipina. "That type of nuance is not something we see."

Danielle Iwata of Montclair, N.J., says it was empowering to see representation in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
Danielle Iwata of Montclair, N.J., says it was empowering to see representation in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

"Shang-Chi" is proving to be a box office success, earning $90 million on its opening three-day Labor Day weekend. That's when Lisa Bull saw the film. Working in entertainment marketing, she knew it was important to support the movie during its make-or-break opening weekend.

Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, in a mostly white area, Bull, 46, who is an adopted Korean American, did not see any positive Asian American role models. People automatically assumed she's Chinese. She's glad that Asian diversity is addressed in the film.

"I'm really inspired by it, working in the entertainment industry seeing this strong lead character," Bull says. "It just made me really proud. I'm so proud we've come into this place of inclusivity."

Asian opinions vary on 'Shang-Chi'

Asians' opinions vary on "Shang-Chi," depending on where the viewer is from. Asian Americans have lauded the film. But online, some movie fans from China expressed concerns with the casting of Liu and Awkwafina as the film's leads.

"I am not saying they are not beautiful or handsome," wrote a commenter on Quora, Cheng Yu. "However, their looks are exactly the same as how Americans think Asian people 'should' look – the stereotypical ideology."

"They have smaller eyes, darker skin tones, and the shape of their faces – all these features these actors have are matched with how Americans think what Asian people look like."

Beauty standards are different in Asia than in America. In Asia, large eyes, lighter skin and a pencil-thin build for women are considered attractive.

It's not a new debate. In 2000, when actress Lucy Liu starred in a rebooted "Charlie's Angels," older, immigrant Chinese I knew would comment on how average-looking she was for a Chinese woman. I disagreed with my brother-in-law, who is two decades older and grew up in Hong Kong, arguing that Liu is indeed beautiful. He shook his head and insisted, "Bu hao kan" – not good looking.

Lucy Liu arrives at the Emmy Awards in 2014.
Lucy Liu arrives at the Emmy Awards in 2014.

The Chinese standard of beauty upsets Tony Shiao, 43, an ABC in Montclair. He rebuked a comment on social media from an Asian high school friend who thought Simu Liu was miscast as the hero of "Shang-Chi."

"You're basically describing a white person," Shiao says of the East Asian ideal of large eyes with double eyelids and light skin tones. "I look more Asian as opposed to Western Asian," he adds, noting that he resembles Liu more than the film stars of East Asia.

This kind of argument isn't limited to the Asian community, of course. Lin-Manuel Miranda's movie musical "In the Heights" stirred a backlash this spring for putting more lightly complected Latino actors front and center and seeming to shortchange darker-skinned Afro-Latino performers.

Similarly, African Americans have long complained of a bias toward lighter-skinned Black characters in Hollywood.

Pushing boundaries

Casting is a no-win situation, says Tow, the Chinese American actor. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may appease some fans by adapting to Asian American standards, while the reverse would be true if East Asian standards were cast.

As an Asian American actor, "I was very proud of him," Tow says of Liu's performance.

"He pushes the boundaries," Tow continues. "Sometimes you need someone like that and take risks. He had that kind of confidence."

Tow's only quibble with the film was a minor one: Superheroes are typically portrayed as romantic leads, but Shang-Chi's relationship with Katy in the film is one of deep friendship; it's platonic – Shang-Chi was not portrayed as desirable.

Asian American males have often been desexualized in American society, with a long history of stereotypes presented throughout Western media and popular culture.

"It's a different kind of love story," says Roslyne Shiao, 41, who is married to Tony. Roslyne, who is ABC, says it was strange the hero didn't have a love interest, but accepted the deeper friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy.

Roslyne grew up in Orange County, California, watching media portrayals that confined Asians to stereotypes like restaurant workers or people who didn't speak much.

The Shiaos took their sons Calvin, 10, and Carter, 8, to the film and talked about why it was a big deal for Asian representation. The new generation of Marvel fans gave "Shang-Chi" two thumbs up.

"It was awesome," says Calvin.

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 is columnist and reporter who covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com, where this originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @marychaostyle

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Shang-Chi movie: Marvel delves deep into Asian diversity

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting