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no one will hate simu liu more than asian americans
on the trap of synonymizing your name with an ideology
Last month, Huffington Post ran a piece titled “We Love Simu Liu, But He’s Not The Only Talented Asian Thirst Trap In Hollywood,” by writer Ian Kumamoto. The piece focused on Liu’s casting in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie adaptation.
“We love Liu, and we’re all for an Asian king thriving,” Kumamoto wrote. “All we’re saying is, we don’t want a predominantly white Hollywood to gatekeep sexy Asian male representation…when there are so many other attractive and talented Asian men who deserve to be seen,” before embedding some of the alternative fan casting that people had been sharing on Twitter, including the likes of Manny Jancito and Jackson Wang.
Of course, the writer was critiquing the system, not an individual. But Simu Liu responded soon after the article’s publication in the comments. “Way to attempt to put us against one another,” he said. “Get your facts straight.”
While fans on Facebook harangued Kumamoto for daring to mention their fave, Liu’s response drew in renewed criticism from many people of the Asian diaspora on TikTok for weeks after, expressing their frustrations towards Liu for taking the piece’s industry commentary as a personal slight.
“It pisses me off so bad that Simu Liu is now the face of the Asian diaspora,” TikTok user @parisbynightcore said in response to the Shang-Chi actor’s statement.
Liu then allegedly reposted a screenshot of the TikTok criticism onto his Instagram Story with his own response (to the criticism of his own response to a criticism, if you haven’t been keeping score).
“definitely not the face of the Asian diaspora we are finally in a golden era of Asian representation and that’s what so exciting is that there’s room for so many of us,” he wrote. “i can completely respect that you don’t rock w me but maybe see someone for the amount of hatred you feel over someone you literally do not know in the slightest!”
People immediately clowned him in the comments. “they say if u chant his name 3 times he will appear in ur bedroom,” one wrote. “any enemy of simu liu is a friend of mine,” another said.
I’ll go ahead and admit it. I’ve been a Simu Liu hater. Any time I’ve seen him announce his participation in a project that I’ve been looking forward to, I’ve heaved a dramatic sigh and thought, Jesus Christ, fine, before unhappily paying for my ticket. It has nothing to do with his craft as an actor — I actually liked his work in Kim’s Convenience — and nothing to do with a personal vendetta that I need to heal, as he put it. It has everything to do with Simu Liu the Political Theory, not Simu Liu the Person. But increasingly, it seems those two have become complicatedly, painfully, irreparably intertwined.
There’s one interview with Liu that I feel really summarizes this dilemma: a GQ 10 Essentials YouTube video from September 2021, in which the actor pulls out Pocky, shrimp chips, White Rabbit candies, and a separate essential for boba. “It is the iconic drink of Asian America, just like Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings will be the iconic movie of Asian America,” he says.
That has long been Liu’s modus operandi, peddling the most sanitized ideal of boba liberalism at any given opportunity, continuing to entrench his public Asianness and celebrity in representational politics. And listen, maybe these things are super important to him. Maybe it is absolutely essential for him to stuff White Rabbit candies and loose shrimp chips down his socks when traveling, so he can always have them on hand. Maybe he will literally develop a kidney stone if he does not get his winter melon boba with lychee jelly. But the blanket statements of what is and isn’t important to an entire identity — not asking, but telling you — is, in my eyes, what has made him so hateable online.
Because while he tells GQ about how his not-yet-premiered movie will definitively become gospel to us all, the Asian diaspora has largely moved on from our hopes in representational politics. This is not the #StarringJohnCho era, a time when a show like Fresh off the Boat felt novel. We felt the brunt of anti-Asian hate crimes skyrocketing in the past three years, watched as white, supposedly liberal systems did nothing as Asian people seeking asylum faced violent police harassment and deportations. Atlanta, Half-Moon Bay, Monterey Park. It’s clear now that the salve of representation for representation’s sake has been a false promise. Gen Z is not dreaming of labor, but of complete systemic upheaval. So it feels steadily more painful to watch someone whose reputation embodies a politic of ten years ago — like “tribal print” leggings, or BuzzFeed quizzes.
It’s the trap we all knew was unavoidable with corporate diversity: while nonwhite actors are still a minority, representation is ambassadorship, and the chosen performers’ names become placeholder words for themes much larger than the people themselves. We’re not calling on them specifically, but they’ll turn around and look to see who said their name.
Example: Awkwafina equals Asian American appropriation of Black culture. Mindy Kaling equals internalized racism and white man apologist. Dave Franco equals, I don’t know, hot guy I sometimes get mixed up with Dylan O’Brien?
So the state of Asian America is not in a “golden age of representation,” but rather stuck in a catch-22 for an umbrella of people on the global stage. Most of our best-known and most frequently hired talent (Jenny Han, Mindy Kaling, and yes, even your queen Michelle Yeoh) have received persistent backlash for failing to keep up with the state of our communities. Yes, they’re imperfect people attempting to understand their own identities, put under a spotlight and heralded as progress. That must suck. It also sucks as a viewer to watch these names fail to represent what you actually care about, what you think the issues of your community really are. We won’t get a candid shot of Simu Liu marching with Guild writers for better pay, but we can catch him playing a celebrity charity basketball game with Jeremy Lin for AAPI Heritage Month. And that’s a little exhausting, if you know that’s not enough.
Particularly, Simu Liu the Political Theory is also so easy to target because he’s the gift that never stops giving. Even in the past month, the actor has reacted several times to systemic analysis as targeted disrespect, which of course then only solidifies his branding as corny ideology (because neoliberalism, as we know, puts the onus on the individual), and gets funnier each time.
“he blocked me on twitter bc i said him being famous was punishment for us,” one said in a TikTok comment. Which is objectively hilarious.
It’s an ouroboros that only gets more unserious, a chicken and egg that blurs the line of critique and attack. I’m not saying I might do any better if put under the same microscope. I’m saying that the end product is that everything about him eventually becomes a meme to mock him, thereby mocking boba liberalism, from his ferocious insistence on interacting with every mention of him online, to the song he released in April (unfortunately, the title was “Don’t,” so the jokes really wrote themselves).
Still, there’s one holy grail truth that I must invoke here: being annoying is not a crime. And this truth must be extended to Liu. Being annoying is simply not a crime, no matter how many times he posts in Facebook group subtle asian traits without anyone asking. No, it’s not any one actor’s job to singlehandedly fix Hollywood. But that’s the deception of synonymizing your person with a belief. Your selfhood is no longer your own, but terminology in a discourse, which many public figures of color seem woefully underprepared for.
The solution to this problem of representation has always been quite clear — we just need more of it. And while the system is being forced to include more people via increased political tension and protest in recent years, the consumer’s conversation becomes more conscious of finding art that resonates with you, from someone who looks like you. If Simu Liu ever reads this, I hope he understands that that’s the key takeaway. If he just reads the headline, I look forward to him calling me a hater and telling me to seek help for my spiteful, vengeful ways. Most of all, I think it is actually so funny that this is a situation with more than a zero percent chance likeliness of happening.
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