Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings–just another Marvel blockbuster here to rake in millions right? Yes, but also so much more.
I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family in the deep South of Arkansas. Throughout my childhood, every night I would snuggle up in between my parents in bed and watch TV with them. But unlike all my peers, I watched heroic epics and courtroom dramas and comedy shows all in Cantonese, starring Hong Kong actors, set in China. Then, when I got a little too big to fit in the space between my mother and father, I also grew more socially conscious. The little remarks my peers made every day about my clothes or hair, my lack of Disney or Nickelodeon knowledge, and the weird contents of my lunchboxes started to chip away at me until I was just putty, constantly changing shape to fit in.
So, I watched all the American shows and movies. The only Asian was always the same stereotype–the weak, bookworm with the tiger mom. Eventually, I believed it too. Believed I was weak and worthless except for studying. Believed I was always doomed to be the side character, there just to support my friends in their adventures and not to have my own. A far throw from my childhood when every hero on screen looked just like me.
As I entered college and found Chinese friends to share and celebrate our culture with, I had begun to reintroduce myself to Chinese shows and movies and media. I was determined to re-learn the Mandarin I had forcefully forgotten. Then, COVID-19 hit. And hate crimes against Asian-Americans skyrocketed and became brutal and grisly headlines almost daily. I felt real fear. For my parents every time they went to the grocery store, for my brothers when they walked to work, for myself. To me, the message was clear, we were not welcome in America. We never were before and we never will be.
This past weekend, I went to the theaters for the first time in almost two years. I got myself a big fat serving of buttery popcorn and enjoyed the nice reclining comfort of the Flagship Cinemas in Waterville. All the glitz and glamour a movie theater next to Shaw’s could ever be. Then the lights dimmed and the Marvel intro rolled and I just watch in utter and complete awe. I sat in a theater and watched a #1 blockbusting hit Hollywood movie that narrated the entire first twenty minutes in Mandarin. I watched a movie that has grossed $196 million since its release and stars a Chinese lead and mostly Asian cast. I sat and watched as Fala Chen 陳法拉 and Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉 and Yuen Wah 元華, some of the most famous Hong Kong actors that I used to watch growing up on my parents tiny old 40 inch TV screen to the giant 90 foot screens of the theater. My old heroes that looked like me were back again, looking just as youthful and strong and brave and important. I felt like a kid again with the sound of Mandarin calling like home to my ears.
Even without the nostalgia of seeing my favorite Hong Kong actors, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a great watch. The cinematography, set design, and costumes all were perfect in celebrating the beauty and intricate awe of Chinese historical myths and legends, quite literally bringing them to life. It was like jumping into an ancient Chinese watercolor, and I appreciated every little detail.
Am I cured of many years of cultural fetishization and erasure? Not by a long shot. But for a single, brief and glorious 2 hours and 12 minutes, I got to forget. I got to live in an alternate universe where Asians are strong and beautiful and courageous heroes. I got to shrug off my mature, independent, strong mask and be a scared little kid looking for a hero to believe in. I hope my kids get to see many more in their lives.