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The Complexities of Simu Liu’s Controversies Merit a Closer Examination

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 05: (L-R) Juju Chang and Simu Liu participate in the "Trailblazing the Way: The (Super) Hero’s Journey" discussion during the TAAF Heritage Month Summit at The Glasshouse on May 05, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images for The Asian American Foundation)

For a long time, I only knew about Simu Liu because he was in Kim’s Convenience, one of my parents’ favorite sitcoms. I didn’t know anything about him, other than his character was a bad-boy-turned-good or something. When he was cast as the titular character in Marvel‘s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it was announced to me by my dad, who said to me, “Look, Mr. Kim’s son is a superhero!” to which I just smiled and nodded along. “That’s nice, Dad.”

Little did I know that, across the internet, a milieu of controversies surrounded Liu, the loudest of which I did happen to stumble upon: his involvement with a subreddit largely populated by “Men’s Rights Asians.” I’d already known about this subreddit, as it was originally designed to be a communal space for Asians who lived in Western countries. I found it when I was young and had recently moved to a predominantly white area, so, starved for a sense of Asian community, I figured maybe it could give me what I was looking for in my adjustment period.

What I found instead was a lot of hate towards Asian women, especially those who enter interracial relationships and advocate for other people of color. In fact, most of the rhetoric on that subreddit was hateful in nature, the kind of rhetoric people associate with “incels.” So, as saddened and frightened by all this as I was, I naturally turned my attention towards other means of finding community.

Similarly, I haven’t given much thought to Simu Liu ever since, knowing that there was probably a rabbit-hole behind him that I didn’t want to look into. But recently, he’s entered the online conversation yet again, after calling out a TikTok that had some very harsh things to say about him:

Now. There is a lot to unpack here, and we’ll have to leave some of it to future articles. In the meantime, all of this discussion surrounding Liu has prompted me to address a larger problem regarding Asian Americans in Hollywood. I want to use this article as an attempt to explain some things that don’t often get discussed regarding AANHPI involvement in media, especially since Liu is far from the only controversial figure in the middle of it all.

“Golden Age?” Yes and no.

In response to this TikTok (which he only found because an Instagram user reposted it and tagged him in it), Liu made an Instagram story:

Like I said, we’re going to leave point B its own discussion, so right now, we’re going to address point A—the assertion that we’re in a “golden age” of Asian representation. In a way, we both are and aren’t in a golden age of Asian representation. We are because we’re getting more movies starring Asian actors, surrounding Asian plots—which is phenomenal, and a trend I hope will become less of a trend and more of a norm.

However, this doesn’t mean that this “golden age” is flawless. While some of the TikToker’s claims were a little broad, they did have a salient point regarding actors like Liu being “everywhere” in Hollywood. In other words, a handful of the same Asian actors are cast in nearly every Asian-oriented film, and because of this, they are also the actors who get cast in other roles that don’t relate to their Asianness. Other aspiring Asian actors, meanwhile, often struggle to gain acclaim, because while Hollywood certainly likes to pat itself on the back for its smaller progressive steps, it has a long way to go before it’s truly inclusive.

Two examples come to mind: Randall Park is often dogged on for being “corny,” yet my heart goes out to him anyways because it took him YEARS to land a steady, sustainable gig. Hollywood just didn’t want new Asian talent beyond its preestablished go-tos. By the time he was cast on Fresh off the Boat (a show loaded with its own problems), he was already in his thirties and just about ready to give up. Many would have given up by then.

Then, we have Alexander Hodge, who for a brief and beautiful moment in time was universally loved as “Asian Bae” thanks to Issa Rae’s Insecure, where he played Molly’s boyfriend Andrew. Hodge is sexy, funny, and incredibly talented, yet … we just haven’t seen much of him since Insecure. He’s got a role in the upcoming movie Joy Ride, but it’s always been a point of frustration for me that he didn’t “break out” after his role as Andrew when he’s definitely got the talent for more high-profile roles.

Meanwhile, we have shows like Beef, fronted by two very talented and high-profile Asian people, Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, as would make sense for a Netflix production. However, instead of seeking to elevate newer talents, they opted to cast friends, including David Choe, whose past controversies were so vile that when they were unearthed, they turned off entire swaths of people from even wanting to touch the show with a ten-foot pole. Similarly, Bobby Lee—another friend of theirs—was going to be cast as a character who’d essentially be playing himself, but because he was in rehab, they opted for someone else—which ultimately proved to be prudent, because Bobby Lee also has a history of bullshit.

And this begs the question: Why do we cast the same Asian actors and actresses? Why does Asian success depend on who they know, and whether or not they happen to luck out into high-profile circles? Why is there not more of an effort to elevate newer voices, especially voices that don’t carry baggage that will turn people off of them, and then consequently turn viewers off of Asian-led projects?

From my perspective, there are two answers. The first is Hollywood racism and the pressures it applies, plain and simple. Haven’t you noticed Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan “suddenly” getting more roles together following the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once? I love that for them as individuals, but it would seem that Hollywood has seen this growing desire and appreciation for authentic Asian American storytelling, and is now taking the easy way out: capitalizing on actors we already love to get us to watch their content, instead of providing new opportunities for new narratives to be told.

But then, there’s also the larger issue within intra-Asian communities, which Beef ironically touched on very concisely, and this ties back to Simu Liu, and the TikToker venting their frustrations.

Seeking solidarity

It has always been so, so hard to organize Asian American communities, because “Asian American” is such a broad term that ultimately does a disservice to the many communities it serves to represent. There are entire histories behind these communities, and they don’t always mesh together amicably. As such, infighting and intra-community volatility is unfortunately common. What’s even more common is how easily people tend to write off the experiences of Asians who aren’t East Asian.

So when I think about that TikTok and its criticisms of Liu, I see so many things going on. I see frustration due to the fact that Liu is getting so many opportunities and so much visibility, when he not only represents such a small fraction of the “Asian American experience,” but he also has a history within one of its most toxic subsections. I see frustration directed at Asians who have more privilege and express political and social perspectives that are seen as shallow and subtly regressive, a.k.a. the aforementioned “boba liberals.” And I see, at the core of it all, that white supremacy is still the biggest culprit for this fracturing, yet often it’s just easier to turn against one another, as it is with any larger community.

I’m writing this article not to make any grand statement about all of this, as though I somehow have The Great Answer to it all. I’m writing it because I worry that all this fracturing goes woefully misunderstood by non-Asians, and I want to try to bridge some gaps of understanding, so that we can try to work towards a better place of mutual solidarity. Every time a controversy comes out surrounding a high-profile Asian person, I cringe, because I worry that non-Asians will start to develop their own anti-Asian biases on top of the scary anti-Asian hate that’s still ongoing in Western countries.

Guys, we’re not a monolith, and we’re trying however we can, from whatever perspective we’re approaching this from. And when one of us messes up, it doesn’t mean we all share or endorse their views. And when we hold that person accountable, it doesn’t mean we hate our larger community, nor does that give you a pass to indulge in whatever biases you may carry. All of this means we’re working hard to elevate our community(ies) and we just want something good to come from it all, instead of controversies and tokenizing being the main headlines. And we just want you to hope for the same things.

So, to end on a light note, I want to highlight some AANHPI successes lately that I think are worth celebrating. I’m really excited to see Greta Lee’s upcoming film Past Lives, as well as Randall Park’s adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings. Writer Andrea Long Chu recently won the Pulitzer Criticism Prize, for her thoughtful and nuanced book critiques (which I highly encourage you all to read). And though I have my own gripes with the upcoming adaptation of American Born Chinese, I am very happy for the young actors who’ve been cast in it, and I wish them the best for their upcoming careers.

This will continue to be an ongoing, frustrating, at times heartbreaking conversation. All we can do is try to be supportive of one another without enabling shitty behavior. I ask this of you non-Asian readers, too.

(featured image: JP Yim/Getty Images for The Asian American Foundation)

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Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).

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