On a crisp 15 degrees Celcius day in Vancouver, out into the sunshine emerges a smiling Simu Liu, extending his hand and apologizing for being five minutes late (how Canadian of him).
Driving from his downtown Vancouver hotel, we arrive at Buns + Boba, a modern cafe in Mount Pleasant, where we are greeted by the cafe’s owner.
“Is it too early to have a bubble tea?” the Chinese-Canadian actor asked sheepishly. It was 9:20 a.m. After ordering jasmine milk tea with pearls, he proudly takes out his phone to show us photos of his new Corgi puppy.
Yes, this is the same man whose shirtless photos have generated heated conversations on the representation of Asian men in Hollywood. The same man who is gunning for the Asian male lead role of Shang-Chi in the newly announced Marvel movie. The same reformed bad boy most notable for his character, Jung, in the hit CBC series, Kim’s Convenience.
In a three-part series, Cold Tea Collective sat down with Liu to find out more about his journey as one of Canada’s leading Asian men on screen.
REPRESENTATION OF ASIAN MEN IN HOLLYWOOD
Cold Tea Collective: I gotta say, there are a lot of shirtless photos, which is great though! For a lot of people. You’re helping men and women.
Simu Liu (SL): You know, I thought long and hard about how I was going to represent myself online, and I think it’s funny and refreshing to kind of lean into this shirtless Simu sort of thing. It’s just not something that we see that often. And I think that Asian men deserve to be as vain and self-absorbed as the rest of them. And you know, just the fact that we really don’t have that kind of exposure in the world. I’m happy to contribute to that. It’s like a space that not a lot of people are in.
Cold Tea Collective: And we thank you for your contribution!
SL: Oh thank you, it’s really hard, so it’s a huge personal sacrifice [jokingly].
Cold Tea Collective: How does it feel to play an Asian male character who is coveted by a non-Asian woman?
SL: First of all, to be an Asian man to be coveted by anybody on television is kind of a new thing. It’s very exciting that in the very recent past, we’ve started to see kind of a new Asian man come up; and it’s about damn time honestly, because we have an entire generation of people who grew up in a society that painted them in a certain way before even knowing them. And really, when you walk down the street, even in Vancouver, there’s tons of really attractive Asian guys and Asian girls who are just attractive, athletic, and sexy, and it’s mind-boggling that hasn’t translated on screen.
When you talk about representation, it’s more than just about having diverse faces, it’s about accurately portraying them as well. I’m happy to be a part of that conversation and I’m happy that Jung is just a regular guy who dates — Asian people date!
Cold Tea Collective: What about Kim’s Convenience do you think resonates most with people?
SL: It’s this huge part of what it means to be Canadian that hasn’t been touched on a whole lot in the past. We’ve had people who are not Korean that will come up to us and say that Appa reminds me of my dad, or when I see this on screen, it reminds me of my relationship with my father. It really hits home, the idea that you don’t have to be of a specific ethnicity in order to tell a story.
This idea that there’s this immigrant family coming into this country, giving up everything for their kids, for their future, that’s so quintessentially Canadian.
FOLLOWING THE LEAD OF OTHERS BEFORE HIM
This past year, Liu has worked alongside veteran content creators and perhaps some of our first on-screen Asian crushes, the people behind Wong Fu Productions.
SL: I’m following the lead of people like Phil, Wes, and Ted. They were coming up in an environment where if they were just waiting for the opportunity to come to them, it just would’ve taken forever. They took, in many ways, the only route that was available to them at the time, which is to do it themselves.
I joined them on their Yappie tour in Toronto and New York, and younger fans and fans closer to my age were very vocal about how much Wong Fu has inspired them, saying to Phil, “You’re the reason why I went to film school.” Three guys had such a lasting impact on so many people.
For me, I try to bring it to my work everyday as well. Things are changing for performers of colour, but it’s not where it needs to be yet. We shoot two months out of the year and for the other times of the year it’s great to hop onto another project, but it doesn’t always happen. My attitude has always been to create opportunities for yourself whenever you can.
THE ASIAN CREATIVE COMMUNITY
When it comes to the Asian community of actors, producers,directors, and writers across North America, Liu is transcending and crossing borders to work with a variety of people in the industry.
SL: When I first landed in [Los Angeles], the first person I texted was Ken Jeong. We had just started following each other on Twitter, I had never met him before …
Cold Tea Collective: … You texted him?!
SL: Yeah! Well, I tweeted him, “Hey! I just landed I don’t know anything but I know that we follow each other. Do you have any recommendation, do you wanna grab coffee?” and he responded with a walk on pass to Sony Studios where he was shooting “Dr. Ken” for the entire production. So he was like, “Come by anytime, come watch the rehearsals, come watch the table reads, come watch our tapings. And just come hang out, I want to spend as much time with you as possible.”
This is Ken Jeong. The A-lister Asian actor in Hollywood. And I think that just goes to show you how involved and invested everybody is. And the more people I’ve met — I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Phil Wang from Wong Fu — they were all just so giving and so generous. And I think in a very short time, I hope I’ve been really accepted into the community down there.
THE FUTURE FOR ASIANS ON SCREEN
Cold Tea Collective: What’s an actionable thing that you think we can do to create more opportunities not just for ourselves, but for each other?
SL: I think it starts with great scripts. Once we have a great story, the rest will follow. In the age of digital, professional-grade equipment and talent has never been more accessible. Specific to our community, we have A-listers like Daniel Dae Kim and Randall Park who have shown that they are willing to reach back and uplift members of their community that are still coming up. I don’t wanna speak for them, but that’s the feeling that I get. We’re actually advantageous right now because I don’t think any other community has this.
Cold Tea Collective: No, I don’t think so.
SL: Crazy Rich Asians was like a watershed moment for Hollywood because it proved to them that Asian Americans exist, as a market. This was something very difficult to convince [Hollywood].
The road going forward is really optimistic because a lot of these studios that are not Warner Brothers are gonna be like, “Well, where’s our Crazy Rich Asians?” Hollywood, at the end of the day, is just a collection of businesses and they’re just trying to maximize their value and profits. So once they know that there’s a market that’s untapped, I feel like they’re all just going to be scrambling towards it.
I feel like us as writers and performers, we all need to be ready for that wave that’s coming. I have numerous script ideas that I’m working on, and you know there have been rumblings going on. I’ve started my own production company, and I think a lot of people should be thinking about that.
If you have something you know you wanna do but you’re trying to suppress it within yourself, I’m saying you need to give yourself that permission. Don’t be afraid to step into the spotlight.
Our interview with Simu Liu is a three-part series. Listen to the full audio interview below or check back on Cold Tea Collective for future excerpts from our interview with Canada’s rising star. Featured image by Melly Lee.
Read part two of our interview here: Hustle and Heart: Seven Questions with Simu Liu
Listen to the full interview below
Producer: Natasha Jung
Associate Producer: Jessika Noda
Production: Milton Ng & Dylan Cobankiat
Making Asian American media
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