Review: Simu Liu’s memoir details the rocky upbringing that led him to Marvel superhero fame

Actor Simu Liu.JENNIFER ROBERTS / The Globe and Mail

  • Title: We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Story
  • Author: Simu Liu
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Pages: 304

Who is Simu Liu? In the past year, it’s a question asked – and answered – by media and fans the world over, as the Chinese-Canadian actor shot to stardom as a Marvel superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Before that, curious television audiences wanted to know more about the outspoken star of the CBC-cum-Netflix hit Kim’s Convenience. But now, with the release of his memoir, a more fascinating question gets an answer: Who does Simu Liu think Simu Liu is?

While the subtitle of We Were Dreamers promises “an immigrant superhero story,” it should be noted that Liu emphasizes the “immigrant” part of his life, an important narrative choice that centers on a coming-of-age experience rarely seen on bestseller lists (Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat from 2013 comes to mind). Put another way, Marvel diehards and celebrity gawkers in search of Hollywood gossip will be mostly disappointed.

Shang-Chi’s Simu Liu talks diversity, tweeting a lot and what his parents really think of their superhero son

Which is probably as it should be for a project seeded in 2017, two years before Liu’s life was transformed by the Marvel machine. But two years is how quickly a determined character can change his trajectory, from writing a letter to his parents in Maclean’s magazine (commissioned by current Globe and Mail editor and high-school classmate Adrian Lee, who also helped structure the book), to selling a book to a Canadian publisher in 2018, then appending “superhero” to the manuscript after his reveal as Shang-Chi at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con.

With an origin story like that, it seems right that the strongest impression Liu leaves with readers is that he is, first and foremost, his parents’ son. Despite a lifetime of family conflict that he now details for the world, hindsight (and success) shows that the best superhero version of himself was made possible because of his rocky upbringing.

He devotes the first of three acts to his parents’ story, a conscious decision to honor their own immigrant journey from Harbin, China, to Kingston then Toronto. In a self-deprecating voice that will be familiar to those who follow Liu on social media, he breaks the fourth wall to advise readers that “you can skip the rich family backstory that pays off beautifully at the end of the book.”

You should not. (“If you jumped here straight from chapter one, shame on you!”) In the first six chapters, Liu documents how, despite the family upheavals brought on by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, his parents eventually thrived as individuals and then as husband and wife. He vividly pieces together their separate lives after he was born in China. While infant Simu remained at home with his grandparents, his father, then his mother, left to study and work in North America. He would not meet them again until he was 4½ years old, when his father returned to China triumphant, a new life abroad firmly established.

Liu is suddenly uprooted to Canada and thrust into the care of parents he barely knew, and the story of Simu the immigrant – and the Liu family troubles – begins. Perhaps he should have added a trigger warning. While he has alluded in Maclean’s to fighting with his parents, contextualized then as tough-love tiger parenting, what he makes explicit here is the physical and emotional abuse they inflicted on him.

Liu’s father “would hit with his feet and his closed fists.” His mother “delivered an MMA-style beatdown as I curled up into the fetal position to protect my head.” These are difficult passages to process but, addressing readers again, his “hope is that families like ours will read our story and understand where we went wrong.”

The lessons Liu hopes to impart are sometimes at odds with his colloquial delivery. While his jokey everyman persona, first honed on Kim’s Convenienceis a perfect fit for recounting drunken misadventures at Western University or questionable Craigslist casting calls he would answer as a burgeoning actor, it feels dissonant when that tone seeps into more serious moments.

In remarking on his parents’ reaction to poor grades, Liu can not help but call it “a slap in their face (figurative, unlike the actual slaps in the face that I got).” And while he has previously told the story of his layoff from Deloitte that jumpstarted his acting career, here he openly describes how the job caused him severe depression and ultimately suicidal thoughts after his firing. It’s visceral, and could have done without strained pop culture references to “Peyton and whoever Chad Michael Murray played in One Tree Hill. ”

Then again, his particular mix of serious and fun is in line with the person who would jokingly tweet at 7:54 am on Dec 4, 2018: “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.”

The final act shows how Liu sees himself now: a survivor, a now-grateful son (who features his parents in Google television ads), a hardworking actor who got the right break at the right time, a force for good in his Asian community. It’s a well-deserved coda to his early tribulations, the immigrant superhero origin story as promised. He does not need to dream any more.

I wonder, though, how the 2018 version of We Were Dreamers might have read differently, if it were simply an immigrant story. “If I had not gotten cast in Shang-Chi“Liu writes,” I would still be hustling every single day. ” True enough. But I wonder if he would have devoted more than a few pages to critiquing the production of Kim’s Convenience; if, absent Marvel’s China ambitions, he would be more critical of China’s modern history; if a career in prolonged ascent would be more or less interesting than one tied to the instant expectations of being Marvel’s first Asian superhero.

Regardless of where Liu’s career may land in the multiverse, I’m certain there will be one constant: a new chapter with his family. In a world without Shang-Chi, his hero’s journey ends like so: “I had experienced my parents’ reassurance and unconditional love for perhaps the first time in my life… and it made me feel invincible.”

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