Almost exactly 10 years ago, Simu Liu was called into an office at Deloitte where he worked, and was laid off. “One of those moments that are seared into your life for ever – we all have them,” he says, remembering walking back to his desk in the open-plan office to collect his things, trailed by someone from HR and security, “like I was some sort of criminal”. The absolute silence as his colleagues, eyes glued to their screens of numbers, pretended not to notice.
Despite the fact he was in his 20s, he didn’t have the courage to tell his parents, and for a while afterwards kept up the pretence that he still had a job as an accountant. His working life had felt like the culmination of his mother and father’s extraordinary drive and determination to leave China for Canada, the relentless hard work they had put in to pay for his private school education and the at times unbearable pressure they had put on him to succeed. “I felt very guilty and very worthless.” But also, he says with a laugh, he woke up the next morning, realised he didn’t have to go to work, “and that made me really happy”.
Being sacked was one of the best things that could have happened to him. Since then, Liu has become an actor, making his way from work as an extra and taking bit parts to roles on Canadian TV, including the sitcom Kim’s Convenience, to the life-changing lead in the 2021 Marvel superhero movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He has just written a memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story, which is why we have met during a break in his schedule; he’s currently filming Barbie, the film based on the doll (which may sound slightly awful but is directed by Greta Gerwig, so should be interesting).
Liu’s book begins with the call from Marvel to say that he has got the job as Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian superhero. When he calls his parents, hoping they might share his excitement, that they might finally think all their sacrifices were worth it, his father’s reaction to the news, he writes, “sounds like someone’s just told him his dry cleaning would be ready on time”. They were just happy he had a job. His book is both funny and wry: “My parents didn’t have much to offer on the subject of coolness or puberty, other than that it was a totally meaningless diversion from the true purpose of childhood: getting into Harvard,” he writes. But it is also unflinching. The abuse, both physical and verbal, he suffers from his parents as a teenager is brutal – they beat and belittle him.
It has “affected me on a subconscious level to this day”, he says. “I generally think it’s better to bring these moments into the light and talk about them. It wasn’t to make my parents look bad but it was to say: ‘We were an imperfect family and this is what happened to us. And we’re telling our story in the hope that other families will not make the same mistakes.’”
Writing the book – which involved long, detailed weekly conversations with his parents, with whom he now has a good relationship – allowed him to see how their own experiences of life had informed the way in which they treated him. “It made sense, in a way that doesn’t necessarily excuse or justify their actions,” he says. “Without that context, I just felt like they were out to rid my life of any sort of joy or happiness.”
The cultural gap between Liu and his parents is huge. Whereas his teenage years were spent worrying about girls and whether he would ever be in an ‘NSync-style boy band, his parents had grown up during China’s Cultural Revolution. His mother, as the eldest child, had been a brilliant student but was sent away to work in rural camps for two years along with millions of other “intellectual” urban teenagers. When the universities reopened, Liu’s parents both took the entrance exams – his father cramming for a few weeks, his mother studying by torchlight after a day working in the fields – and against huge competition, both passed. They met at university in Beijing, where they both studied engineering.
Eventually, they would both become successful aerospace engineers in Canada, but it took huge sacrifices and risks. In his early years, Liu was brought up by his grandparents in Harbin, a city in north-east China; his mother worked in Beijing, and his father had already gone first to the US, then to Canada to do a PhD. His mother would soon join him, supplementing their scholarship money with dish-washing jobs.
For Liu, life was by no means easy – he and his grandparents lived in a small apartment, without running water for much of the day, and had to use a kettle to heat it – but he remembers a life “that was, to me, quite idyllic and happy. My grandparents modelled what a family environment ought to be like very early on.” When Liu was four, his father arrived to take him back to Toronto. “I was excited to see him but when I opened the door and looked up at him, the reality hit me that I was meeting a complete stranger. It was almost as if I was adopted by my own parents.”
The chapters about his parents’ lives were his most enjoyable to write, says Liu, “because it felt like a love letter to not only my parents, but acknowledging the struggles of every immigrant family that has overcome so much to be able to come to a new country and survive in a new environment”. Of course, Liu’s parents wanted him not to have to struggle. But he embarked on a different kind of struggle as they hothoused him in maths at the age of five and set “homework” that included reading biographies of scientists and studying algebra. Their discipline was harsh, eventually becoming abusive.
Looking back, Liu can pinpoint his growing awareness of his parents’ expectations. As a young boy, he had just wanted to please them and was excited to be identified by his school, at the age of seven, as gifted. “It made my parents really happy and I liked the idea of being special,” he recalls. “Then all of a sudden, puberty hit and we started to disagree about things, and I started to not be as excited about doing my homework as I used to be. It was when I really started to see the dark side of that expectation, of the consequences of what happens when you fall short.”
Films offered an escape as well as a place to escape to: going to the cinema would get him out of the house, which didn’t feel like a safe place. He loved Star Wars and Harry Potter films where there was “always a kid who didn’t come from the best family environment, but was told he was meant for great things and had to embrace his destiny”.
At university, he studied business and in his spare time joined a hip-hop dance team – “When I look back, I wanted to do everything that I felt girls liked,” he says with a laugh – which sparked a love of performance. “I think maybe part of it was growing up feeling so repressed,” he says, as well as feeling invisible as an Asian-Canadian teenager. “It felt so different to be seen, I found that very intoxicating.” Even so, he says, it was unthinkable that becoming a dancer or actor could be a career. And so he became an accountant. “I couldn’t quite free myself of my parents’ expectations.”
By the time he was sacked, he had already been an extra on Guillermo del Toro’s film Pacific Rim and loved being on set. “I remember totally getting swept up in the energy of it all. I never thought that I could be the lead actor, but I was looking at the stunt people and I was like, I can be one of those guys.” The small acting roles and other jobs, such as modelling for stock photos, kept mounting up “like a series of accidents”. His parents weren’t exactly thrilled, but they could see him gaining success. If he took on a Mandarin-speaking part he would go to them for help with the language, and this started to repair their relationship. When it came to roles, Liu would take anything and everything – the influence of his parents’ work ethic was finally kicking in. “I felt like I was making up for lost time. My perception was that everybody was further ahead than me, so if I stood any chance, I had to catch up.”
He also found that roles for actors with Asian heritage were limited, and some of those he was getting reinforced racist typecasting. People weren’t “having those political conversations” in the way they are now. “In the beginning, if I was a stunt guy who got beaten up by one of the white male characters, I was over the moon.” It was, he says, probably similar to what his parents felt arriving in Canada. “Survival mode. Figure out a way to get on sets, figure out a way to work, that was it.”
Later, he says, “when I was further on in my career, I was like, is it going to be more of that, or is there going to be an opportunity to step up? I remember feeling discouragement when I would read these breakdowns and look at who is producing, who’s writing. Even if there was an Asian character, the people making the decisions, none of them were Asian-American, Asian-Canadian.”
He’d had success in Canada, and had landed a role in Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean-Canadian family, but when he went to LA to try to audition for bigger parts he found the attitudes were different. One influential agent turned him down, saying she already represented an Asian-American actor, implying there wasn’t room for two. “I guarantee you it happens still to this day,” he says with a grim smile.
Before he became a movie star, Liu was writing and making his own short films, and he has felt a strong need not only to create his own work, but also to tell stories that have been largely ignored. There has been a huge rise in the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans – up 339% in 2021, compared with the year before – previously encouraged by Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and proliferating during the pandemic. It felt, says Liu, that in the early stages “the world was hungry for some sort of scapegoat. I think what Asian-Americans feel now is the same thing they felt 140 years ago, when the Chinese Exclusion Act passed – this idea of conditional acceptance, that we could be here our entire lives, have grown up speaking the language, being a part of the culture, paying taxes, and still there’s always going to be this notion that follows us that we don’t truly belong. I guess it’s part of why I want to tell our stories so badly – our culture needs to normalise our existence in the west.” It would have meant everything to him, he says, to have seen a superhero with Asian heritage when he was growing up.
Shang-Chi has not been released in China, where it was banned by the government in keeping with a wider crackdown on western movies in recent years. It has been criticised for being based on a racist 70s comic book (Liu has said he won’t sign copies of these at conventions). He has also been personally attacked on Weibo, with social media users sharing quotes from old interviews he has given, appearing to criticise China. This puts him under a scrutiny that other Marvel stars don’t experience. Did it also affect what he felt he could write in his memoir?
“It’s forced me to be very particular about the words that I say, but I don’t … ” He smiles. “I had this conversation early on with my parents.” He showed them a draft of what he’d written about their childhoods, and his perception of the hardships they’d endured, a tribute he says, “to all the things they’d overcome. They were, like: ‘What is this? Why would you make us out to seem like we’re these pathetic creatures, miserable every second of the day? That wasn’t our experience at all.’”
His parents’ memories of their childhoods were as happy as his own memories growing up with his grandparents. “Thinking about that got me to realise that we’re more alike than we think. When you focus too much on differences, you risk dividing people even further than they already are.”
He is more interested, he says, in bringing people together, especially through his work. “Even bringing people together to enjoy a movie that celebrates my heritage and my language, that’s definitely a hope of mine.” Maybe he has bought into “the superhero thing a bit too much”, he says with a laugh, but “I think a lot about what I can do to be a champion of our voices, because I know to some degree I’ll always be a representative of my community. There is a responsibility that comes with all of this – otherwise it’s just privilege, which is obviously terrible for the world, but I don’t think makes you happy, either. I think a life led with purpose is what makes you happy.”
We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu is published by William Collins, available from the Guardian Bookshop.