From immigrant to superhero: Simu Liu tells his own origin story in memoir 'We Were Dreamers'
Simu Liu took a winding path to portraying Marvel’s first Asian superhero.
The Chinese-Canadian actor played kung fu master Shang-Chi in the 2021 film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
This year, the 33-year-old actor released a memoir: “We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story.” In the book, he chronicles his journey from his native China — as a Canadian immigrant, then failed accountant and finally successful superhero actor.
His story starts with his parents, who were teenagers during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the time, the government shuttered universities across the country, so many students would go from high school “into the fields to learn the value of hard labor,” Liu says.
But when Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, universities opened up again. His parents competed with 10 years worth of applicants who had been denied a post-secondary education, but they both got accepted to the same university – where they would eventually meet.
“The national acceptance rate was something in the single digits,” Liu says. “And it was those odds that my parents were able to overcome just to be able to get that education.”
After university, Liu’s parents worked and began to dream of emigrating from the country. Eventually, they moved to Canada, where they worked as engineers. Liu stayed behind for a time with his grandparents and later joined his parents in Canada.
Throughout his youth, he says, his parents had high expectations for him.
“Their entire definition of success is so closely tied with academic achievement,” Liu says. “And so the path forward for me, according to them, was excelling in science and engineering or medicine or some field.”
But he had other desires. He wanted to get a girlfriend, play sports and skip classes. That didn’t sit well with his parents, so they fought constantly, Liu says.
In one scene in the book, Liu describes a fight with his father. His dad calls him a source of shame and hits Liu repeatedly.
“I don’t necessarily defend or justify those actions,” he says. “But I think, looking back and just feeling the anxiety that my parents must have felt at the time of having sacrificed and worked so hard to be able to give their son every possible opportunity. … It was that feeling of frustration of like, ‘What is this kid doing with everything that we’ve given him?’ ”
Liu recognizes that “making it” in Canada was difficult for his parents, who operated in a “survival and scarcity mindset.” They saw that their only solid foundation was their work, which was a result of their education.
Since then, Liu adds, his relationship with his parents has changed dramatically.
“But I did think that it was very important for me to articulate these not great moments in our history,” he says. “Really, as a means of connecting to other families and children that are going through those same pains and struggles as intergenerational and intercultural families and finding some sort of a point of connection.”
Today, he says, his parents are his “biggest fans.” His newly retired father likes to surf the internet to find references to his son. (If you’re reading this, hi Simu’s dad!)
“To me, part of the joy in writing this book was getting to share their extraordinary journey with the world,” says Liu. “One that they would not themselves think of as notable in any which way. But for me, I feel like the odds that they were able to overcome are easily as crazy and as ridiculous, if not more so, than me getting this role of a lifetime.”
Before securing the role of a lifetime, though, Liu tried first to become an accountant. This attempt to please his parents lasted eight months, before he was laid off.
“I was, by all accounts, a terrible employee,” he says. “But … looking back now, getting laid off was truly a gift.”
He decided to try auditioning for some film roles. And that was the start of his next career, as an actor.
But his early roles, he says, could be deeply stereotypical – like when he played a Japanese mobster.
“I think it just goes to show you how limited we were in our opportunities at the time, that I was willing to do it,” he says. “All of the representation that I saw on screen was basically effectively the same thing. They were stereotypes, caricatures.”
But these roles did help him get a foot in the door. And eventually, that led to his role as a Marvel superhero in a large-budget film.
He hopes that his book helps to shed light on Asians in Canada and the United States, and helps people not to dismiss immigrants with accents, such as his own parents.
“The reason why they have that accent is because they’ve lived an extraordinary life,” he says. “Each and every person that we see on the streets in Canada, in America, that [doesn’t] speak English as their native language, each one of those people has an equally incredible story of how they got here.”
His parents are the first people to minimize their own stories, he says. But he knew he had to tell it.
“There’s such tremendous value, not only for Asian Americans, [but] for everyone to really read their story and the story of our family,” he says. “And to understand that we exist as well and we matter.”
Book excerpt: ‘We Were Dreamers’
By Simu Liu
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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