‘The gates are opening’: Simu Liu on having more Asian representation in Hollywood

As Marvel is set to feature its first Asian leading superhero in ‘Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings,’ actor, writer, and activist Simu Liu sat down with Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Melody Hahm to speak on using his platform to call out injustices, what can be done to combat Anti-Asian hate, and fighting back against the ‘Model Minority’ label.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Hollywood can be a mirror reflecting what's important and who is important in our culture.

MELODY HAHM: For Asians, representation has been fairly limited. But we've seen that changing as of late, and who better to speak with than Marvel's first Asian superhero. Simu Liu is a Chinese-Canadian Canadian actor, writer, and activist. He joins us from Los Angeles now. Hi Simu,

SIMU LIU: Hey, Mel. How's it going?

MELODY HAHM: Doing pretty well. You know, you recently shared your thoughts very poignantly in an opinion piece in "Variety." You write in part, "You need to know why rhetoric like the China virus encourages hate toward all Asian people, not just Chinese. Anti-Asian racism is very real, and it will not be solved with an opulent rom-com or Marvel superhero, but with you, the bystanders, acknowledging the validity of our pain." Simu, I want to ask, how have you felt so galvanized to speak up and use your platform during this time?

SIMU LIU: You know, to be honest, Mel, it's come from a place of deep anger. Anti-Asian racism, if you are Asian, is not something that is new. It's not something that we're just hearing about now. It's something that we've experienced our entire lives. And, you know, for most of our lives, and maybe you can speak to this as well, we've been made to feel like our problems are not real, are not legitimate, are not valid.

Well, we're seeing in the last year over 3,800 reported cases of anti-Asian harassment. In some, cases of violence. You know, we have a shooting which left six Asian women dead, that targeted three Asian-operated businesses.

And, you know, the whole world, it seems to be asking, well, why? What's going on? We've never heard anything about this before. And I just wanted to write something that kind of told the world, look, we've been experiencing this. This isn't new. And it doesn't just start with a shooting. It doesn't just start with an unprovoked attack on the street. It starts with something that's much more subtle. And those microaggressions are the things that I think that we're all guilty of every single day.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, Simu, what you're mentioning here really reminds me a lot of this model minority myth. And Melody actually in the last segment was reading out a tweet from Mike Huckabee, which essentially highlights just that. You know, everyone in America says, look at the Asian-American community. Look at how well they're doing economically. Look at how well they're doing socially. Look how well they're doing when it comes to education. So then what do you say to folks who continue to peddle that model minority myth? And I'm curious to know if you think that it kind of prevents allyship with other communities? Serves as a wedge between, for example, the Black community or the Hispanic community?

SIMU LIU: Absolutely. Well, the model minority myth was really perpetuated at the height of the civil rights movement, when we did have African-Americans marching on the street for their rights. And Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants were kind of, you're absolutely correct in using the term peddled as a kind of-- an example of success, of saying, hey, look at this other minority group that's managed to succeed by quote unquote working hard and putting their heads down and just, you know, not causing too much of a ruckus. Why can't other minority groups just be like that?

Well, the problem with that is that there's-- first of all, it's, you know, it's factually incorrect. Asian-Americans are the most economically disparate minority group in America. And so while there are certainly people that are doing well within the community, as in every community, there are also those that are extremely impoverished. And-- Yeah, I just think that these narratives are absolutely outdated and we have to do away with them if we're to have progressive conversations. And like you say, allyship between minority communities, because that's absolutely essential for us moving forward.

MELODY HAHM: Simu, you have been at the forefront of a lot of Asian representation, you know, whether that's intentional or not, right? Your first major gig was "Kim's Convenience," which is a show that depicts a really amazing Korean family in Canada. And now you are the first Asian Marvel superhero for Disney. When you think about the position you're in, where you had this opportunity to sort of raise the roof, raise the ceiling for a lot of people who are trying to become actors and break it into Hollywood. What would you say to folks who feel discouraged? Who feel as though they still don't see faces like them when they look on screen?

SIMU LIU: Gosh. I would say, well, first of all, it's just been such an immense privilege these last few years of my life to be involved with projects like "Kim's Convenience." And now with, you know, the upcoming "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," I mean, I've never had the privilege of being able to kind of sideline my ethnicity and who I am. People look at this face, they see my name, and what they see is an Asian person. So I've never really had the option of not representing.

And I just think over history, I think we've seen cases where we've seen opportunities where public figures could have leaned in more. And I certainly felt that growing up. And so I just think I wanted to be that for the next generation and for kids today to have somebody who they can watch on screen who is unapologetically Asian, and who is proud of their Asian culture and their heritage.

So I mean that's essentially what I would say, is that, look. First of all, you belong. And despite everything that's happening right now, you need to stand up tall and you need to continue taking up space. Now is not the time to withdraw, to make yourself small. Now's the time to march in the street, to make your voice heard, and to vote.

KRISTIN MYERS: Are you seeing more interest in Hollywood of including more Asians in film, or making films more representative of the Asian-American experience? Especially after we had the success of films like "Crazy Rich Asians," we had the critical acclaim of the film "Minari." What are you seeing? Are you getting more interest?

SIMU LIU: Yeah. What I'm starting to see is that the gates are opening. And certainly there are Asian-American creatives that are extremely talented and ready to kind of step up to the challenge. And you're right, "Crazy Rich Asians" was kind of the moment that opened the floodgates for all of us. But it doesn't mean that we should be content with A, you know, the opportunities that we've had, and B, with just being told when our time is.

We should be the ones in the decision making process. We should have representation across all fields in the creative industry, not just as actors, but as screenwriters, as producers, as the studio heads whose decisions it is to greenlight the projects. I think that's when you're going to start to see proper representation. That's when you're going to start to see us as the masters of our own narrative, and creating characters and stories that are nuanced, that are not stereotypical, and that accurately reflect our lived experiences.

MELODY HAHM: And Simu, there are some encouraging notes here, right? Because we did see an all time high for under-represented characters at the center of storytelling playing leads, right? That's according to USC's Annenberg's annual report, which is pretty much the go-to source to see how representation is on film. But we do still have problems, as to your point, with the "Crazy Rich Asians" depiction, with a lot of the fun reality shows that are coming out, of what Americans are supposed to look like and what Asians are supposed to look like. How do we get beyond the trope? How are you able to craft your own characters as you pursue future projects?

SIMU LIU: God. I mean, that's the million dollar question. But I think for me it's always a search for truth. It's always a search for really, really great storytelling. And personally I've kind of always had this ambition of once I've gotten a platform, like I do now with the Marvel project, is to be able to start my own production company and to be able to decide what stories to tell. And you're right, that goes beyond just a Crazy Rich Asian, and it goes beyond kind of these tired stereotypes, like the martial arts man or the geeky sidekick, or for Asian women, this idea of a subservient, kind of exotic or submissive sexual object, which we've seen is extremely harmful and contributed directly to what happened in Atlanta. I just want to be somebody that tells deep, nuanced stories, and I want to play three dimensional characters.

KRISTIN MYERS: I wish we had more time. So I want to ask you this last question here really quickly. When you're looking at this, how do you think about solutions? We keep saying and we've used a lot of the hashtags, right? #StopAsianHate. But for the average person at home, who isn't able to make a Hollywood film and act, or anything like that, and participate in really representing the Asian-American community the way that it ought to be represented. What are the solutions for people that are watching? How do we go beyond the hashtags and even the rallies, and actually start moving us more towards progress?

SIMU LIU: Well, I think, honestly, a big part of this problem of the world and Americans in general not acknowledging the validity of what's happening is that we are not taught about anti-Asian racism in schools. It's not a part of our curriculum. And I myself, as an Asian-Canadian, was not taught about Canada's part in all of this over the course of history as well. So I would really start there.

I think it's very, very important to educate children, adults, everybody on things like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented immigrants from coming from Asia, and for Asian immigrants that were already in America, prevented them from obtaining full citizenship. Or I would talk about the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s during World War II. You know, America was at war with, not just Japan, but with Germany, with Italy. And they chose to uproot hunt over 100,000 Japanese families from their homes-- Sorry, Japanese-American families from their homes, I should say, if only for their cultural background and their heritage.

And I want people to know about Vincent Chin, the Chinese-American man who was murdered in 1982 by two white men with a baseball bat, who said something to the tune of it's because of yellow people like you that we're out of a job, referring to what was happening to the Detroit auto industry at the time. They were being basically undercut in price by Japanese imported cars. And they chose to take out their anger and their frustrations on one Chinese-American man and beat him to death.

So those are just three of a long history of anti-Asian racism of prejudice and discrimination. And it certainly has been a part of the fabric of America for the past 150 years. So I would just start there. I would say, you know, education is where it all begins. And we really need to get people talking and get people informed.

MELODY HAHM: And Simu, to that point, comments like the one that Vincent Chin heard unfortunately are ones being heard in schools all around the world for anyone who looks like us. So thank you so much for the work you're doing. Can't wait to have you back to give us some teasers on "Shang-Chi," which is out this September. Thanks so much to Simu.