What Shang-Chi means for Asian American representation in cinema

A portrait of pride, power and praise


Brent Gelick / Talon

Allie Wang, Ombudsman

Growing up as a second-generation Asian American, it is hard for me to find mainstream American films featuring a protagonist who I could culturally relate to. In the rare instances that I have been able to find one, the star is portrayed in a stereotypical, foreign manner. For example, in the Rush Hour trilogy, Jackie Chan’s character Agent Lee speaks broken English, and is considered an outsider, with Chris Tucker’s Agent Carter even going so far as to call him Panda Express in the first film. 

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” however, breaks all barriers. Simu Liu’s Shang Chi is the first Asian hero to lead a superhero film filled with a predominantly Asian cast. The film smashed Labor Day records, earning $94 million in the single weekend. As of Sept. 27, “Shang-Chi” has grossed $360 million.

The success of the film not only comes from a cast filled with familiar Asian actors such as Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, but also from the cultural footprint it leaves behind. Stereotypes such as Asian nerd and the “tiger mom” were avoided, and were replaced with nostalgic and magical martial arts sequences from older films, such as Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

While director Destin Daniel Cretton pays homage to Chinese traditions and language, including opening the movie with Mandarin narration, he also adds elements of purely Asian American culture.  For instance, when Ronny Chieng’s character Jon Jon jokingly quips, “I speak ABC,” to Awkwafina’s character Katy, most viewers might assume that ABC is a cute way of saying, “I speak English.” In reality, ABC stands for American-Born Chinese, a term used to describe any natural born American citizens of Chinese descent. In different degrees, ABCs bring American societal culture and also Chinese family culture, creating unique identities. 

“That was a really big moment,” Awkwafina said in a press interview. “Culturally, you just never see that.”

Even though none of us have the struggles of being in self-imposed exile and having a 1,000-year-old warlord with ten magical rings as a father, we may struggle with who we are, and who we want to be. Shang Chi and Katy don’t fully embrace Asian culture, but also may not be seen as truly “American.” When they are drawn into the adventure and the awe-inspiring action sequences, they finally embrace their identities and realize their full potential. Being a second-generation Chinese-American with a very limited knowledge of the language, it was easy for me to be in their shoes.

Shang Chi has created pride and joy in many Asian Americans such as myself. After the rise in hate crimes due to COVID-19, it was even more important for Asian Americans to have the positive spotlight.

“When you see so much prejudice and hate going around you, we all want to meet that with an equal and opposing force of positivity and joy and celebration. And I very much think that that’s what this movie is,” Liu said in a Yahoo interview.