“Asian American” Through the Lens of Shang-Chi

by Taia Cheng

When I was growing up, my Asian American heroes were Mulan and Yao Ming, then eventually, Michelle Miller, Jeremy Lin, and Emily Tay. Surrounded by real-life Asian American heroes in the East Valley of Los Angeles, I was satisfied with my wonderful, but limited options for role models in mainstream media.

Now, in college, I realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in an extraordinarily diverse environment; however, in college, I’ve realized that out of my heroes, most people only know of Mulan unless they watched Jeremy Lin’s Harvard’s 2020 Commencement Speech (Skip to 1:03 for his speech!). 

Marvel released its “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” on September 3rd, and you can find the trailer here. This is by no means a traditional movie review, but a blog post of opinion: I am still processing the happiness and hope that “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” bring me for my little brother, my baby cousins, and future generations of Asian Americans. 

However, the day after I watched Shang-Chi for the first time, I read the preface of The Big Aiiieeeee! for my Asian American Literature class. My blood was absolutely boiling. The anthology was put together and edited by Jeffery Paul Chin, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusai Inada, and Shawn Wong. The preface highlights inaccurate portrayals of Asian Americans in literature, movies, and other pop culture mediums. 

Particularly, The Big Aiiieeeee! expresses a sense of outrage at the constrictions of the model minority myth and the oxymoronic portrayal of Asian American men as effeminate, yet sexual predators. While the male-centric tone of this preface (and likely, the anthology as well) demonstrates a frustrating lack of intersectional awareness, the call to action at the heart of the anthology resonates. There is a demand to portray Asian Americans truly, as full, complex human beings outside of stereotypes and the model minority myth. 

After watching Shang-Chi, I was filled with a sense of awe at how far the movie industry has come in terms of representing full Asian American characters. The movie demonstrates that we are a far cry from the “snow jobs pushing Asian-Americans as the miracle synthetic white people that America’s proprietors of white liberal pop, like Tom Wolfe, ABC television (“If Tomorrow Comes,” “Kung Fu,” “Madame Sin”), and such racist henchmen passing for scholars as Gunther Barth and Stuart Miller, makes [Asian-Americans] out to be” (The Big Aiiieeeee!, xv). 

In other words, awful caricatures of Asian Americans perpetuated by white mainstream media spurred the editors of The Big Aiiieeeee! to put together an anthology of cultivated Asian American works. The terribly inaccurate portrayals crystallized a search for true portrayals of the Asian American experience as well as tangible role models in media. Fictional elements aside, the characters in Shang-Chi are complex, worthy of role model status, and have lives that mirror the experience of some Asian Americans around me.

I watched Shang-Chi for the first time on September 5th, my dad’s birthday. My father is a Bay Area born-and-raised Chinese American in every sense of the concept from his first language being Cantonese to his bachelor’s degree being from the University of California, Berkeley. The Bay Area is rife with the history of many communities and individuals that fall under the term “Asian American” in the broad and un-nuanced sense of the word.

There are great debates as to the actual usefulness of the term “Asian American” (you can find some articles in my Other Reading & Sources below). However, I think there is a special kind of Asian American pride that comes from growing up in the City where the term was first coined. The voices of unheard communities demanding recognition in sociopolitical, legal, and academic spheres decided on a word to fly under Asian Americans. From San Francisco and from this history, I have inherited a deep-rooted pride in my Asian American heritage and an appreciation for “becoming” Asian American.

This is why the aerial scenes of San Francisco in Shang-Chi, which tie into larger dialogues of “becoming” Asian American, hit different.

As Shang-Chi walks down Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District —known by locals as “the other Chinatown” or “New Chinatown” — listening to the Singaporean Singer JJ Lin’s “Lose Control”, I feel a sense of happiness at the shoutout to that formative space. The dialogue “Grandpa didn’t come all the way from Hunan for you to park cars for a living” and “Don’t worry, I speak ABC!” made me and the largely Asian American audience members laugh. Why? It brought in a subtle undertone of an immigrant narrative and questions of the Asian diaspora. 

In some ways, the first Marvel movie representing Asian Americans had to start in San Francisco with major mentions of Berkeley. Despite the competing nuances of the origin stories, Berkeley and San Francisco are where the term “Asian American” originated. The nuanced origin story variations are as follows:

  1. “Asian American” was first used by Emma Gee, Yuji Ichioka and others for the Asian American Political Alliance, a political organization that was not specifically a student organization, but a part of a larger Asian American movement inspired b y the Black Power Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
  1. UC Berkeley’s “Asian American Political Alliance” was the student organization that coined the term “Asian American”. More specifically “Activists and academics trace the origins of the term back to 1968 and University of California, Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who, inspired by the Black Power Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, founded the Asian American Political Alliance as way to unite Japanese, Chinese and Filipino American students on campus.” (Source)
  1. The term was coined in attachment to San Francisco State University and activism led by the Third World Liberation Front fighting for the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies.

While the narrative of Shang-Chi is very Chinese and Chinese American-centric, I hope this superhero blockbuster that broke the record for the biggest Labor Day weekend opening ever paves the path for more mainstream movies containing snippets of rich and vast Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) narratives. Everyone is worthy of experiencing a well-done movie that resonates with their cultural identity.

The Asian American narrative, specifically, the Chinese American narrative feels thoughtfully done by Destin Daniel Cretton. The characters are full of real-life and full of real dialogue, and I am so happy that my little cousins get to grow up knowing that they can be superheroes too.

Taia Cheng is a Classics and Comparative Literature concentrator at Harvard University with a deep appreciation for her California Asian American roots. When she is not reading, she is playing basketball, baking, or spending time with her amazing friends and family.

Other Reading & Sources