Aanji Sin ’24
Whenever I talk or write anything about the lack of Asian representation in American media, I like to bring up Halloween costumes. It’s the negligent example of casual white privilege at work that I’ve been hyperfixated on since I learned what race issues even were. Little white girls had their pick from Cinderella and Snow White and Elsa and Rapunzel, and I had an overused and historically inaccurate Mulan qipao. I can count on ten fingers the Asian characters in popular media that I had to look up to as a kid—the good representation and the bad.
Which is why, in the spirit of Halloween, “Shang Chi” is so important.
“Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first Asian American superhero movie, was released in theatres on Sept. 3 and proceeded to demolish the Labor Day box office record with $71.4 million in three days. It became the second highest box office opening for any movie released during the pandemic.
The significance of being Marvel’s, and really the world’s, first Asian superhero is not an achievement to be regarded lightly. Just like “Crazy Rich Asians” paved the way for East Asians in romantic comedies, “Shang Chi” is another landmark success that demonstrates our burgeoning versatility in roles across American popular media.
Asians are officially more than just the man in the chair; we are writing our own stories, we are subverting the tropes. Getting a superhero? It redefines more than one might think.
I think what gets me the most about “Shang Chi” is how genuinely respectful it is of Chinese culture—unfortunately, this is still something to be praised when it happens. Characters practiced consistent and fluid use of Mandarin, in which sections featured both English and Mandarin character subtitles. Fight sequences were choreographed in traditional forms of Chinese kung fu, with all of the rushing adrenaline of a classic Marvel action sequence while incorporating references to other on-screen Chinese martial artists (Jackie Chan jacket move, I’m looking at you).
These aspects of Chinese culture are treated without a sense of foreignity or mysticism attached to them, drastically different from how Western media has historically regarded the culture of the “Oriental.”
Mandarin is spoken lovingly between a mother and son, by the villain warlord is startling moments of powerful vulnerability, between family members poking fun at each other at the breakfast table, through proverbs and sage advice. Kung fu can be fought on the battlegrounds of an ancient Chinese village and on the scaffolding of a building while hundreds of feet in the air, and it looks cool every time. Chinese culture becomes accessible.
With all of its cultural accuracy, “Shang Chi” continues to remain outside the box of a token film. There is no underlying metaphor for oppression, there is no white villain or theme of colonization, there is nothing that inherently ties the story of “Shang Chi” to an inherently East Asian experience. The same story could just as easily be applied to a superhero of Latinx, or Black, or Southwest Asian descent. With some tweaks to the world-building, they would make just as impactful a movie to their respective cultural groups.
I believe that these are the kinds of stories that matter now the most—stories with Asian faces at the front of them, Asian just because they can be. Normalizing faces of color in roles and tropes occupied predominantly by white faces is the next step towards leaving behind the narratives constructed for us. The world doesn’t need any more movies about Asian oppression. I care more about how the Asian American shows up in pop culture—what space do they occupy? Are they memorable as people? Are they only included to fulfill some ulterior motive?
I don’t say all of this to suggest that “Shang Chi” has cured racism or bridged some monstrous gap in representation. It hasn’t. Everything still sucks. I’m still fighting off Twitter users replying under the official “Shang Chi” account who “didn’t get it” or “were thrown off by the subtitles,” because the fact is that it’s going to suck a lot more until it gets better. Representation—good representation—is a slow development. It’s not easily solved by a couple of above-average movies with majority Asian casts and an influx of Tony Leung fancams, but I believe that it’s something worth waiting for.
What I’m really trying to say here is that this movie means a lot. Shang Chi is just a character to some, but he’s a symbol of something real and good for an entire community. I just thought about a group of elementary-aged superheroes trick-or-treating around the neighborhood and welcoming their friend dressed in spray-painted dragon scale armor and five cardboard rings on each forearm, and it made me kind of emotional. It means a lot, that’s all.
Image Source: LA Times