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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings made me feel seen like never before

A Chinese-Canadian student reflects on the importance of positive representation in media
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SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY
SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY

There’s a scene in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings which — despite being only 30 seconds long and relatively insignificant when compared with the huge plot points or climactic events — I latched onto during my first viewing of the movie. Here’s how it goes.

Shang-Chi walks through a part of San Francisco. As he walks by, various other Chinese-American people open their stores for a new day. Cardboard cartons of fruits are stocked up at the front of a Chinese grocer and piled on top of one another. Shang-Chi walks past a restaurant that’s tucked inside a refurbished garage; on top of the door, a bright white sign with Chinese characters shines, and the translated English words “GOURMET DIM SUM AND CAFE” are written underneath the characters. 

He gets to his friend Katy’s place and takes off his shoes. Katy’s inside, wearing slippers. Katy’s younger brother, Ruihua, tries to pass off his chores to Shang-Chi, but Katy’s mother catches him, insisting that they’re Ruihua’s chores to finish. The scene continues for longer, but what stood out to me was how relatable every detail felt to me.

Though I’ve grown up in a Chinese diaspora in Canada and not the US, everything in those scenes made me feel seen. The cardboard fruit cartons and the white gourmet dim sum sign felt like exact replicas of the Chinese plazas in my hometown. The sight of Shang-Chi taking off his shoes before entering the house and seeing Katy wear slippers reminded me of the things I do every day at home. The conversation in which Katy’s mother wants Ruihua to do his own chores sounded like it came straight out of a conversation between my mother and younger sibling. 

Similar scenes filled the rest of the film, particularly during its first act, which was set in America. In that same scene in Katy’s house, her family asks the kind of questions that many other Chinese diaspora audiences have heard from their own parents: “When will you settle down? When will you get a real job?” And later, despite the fact that Katy and Shang-Chi’s relationship is entirely platonic, her grandmother asks Shang-Chi, “When are [you and Katy] going to be married?”

These are questions that I’ve heard my friends’ parents ask them. They’re questions similar to ones my own parents have asked, such as, “Have you found a boy yet?” Seeing this conversation take place — in a superhero film, no less — was incredibly validating. It made my Chinese-Canadian friends and I feel seen in ways that we’ve rarely ever felt in other Western media. 

The way the character Katy Chen was written felt extremely relatable. Though she was given a Chinese name that her family used when speaking with her, she stuck by her English name in public — even when in Macau or Ta Lo — because it was what she was used to using. Though she understood Mandarin, she would respond to Chinese speakers in English because, as she said, “My Chinese isn’t very good.” 

Everything about her character felt authentic to the Chinese diaspora experience. I have a Chinese name, but I rarely use it with people outside of my family. My Chinese is godawful, and I’m likely to respond in English while my parents speak to me in Chinese. Seeing this experience represented so well on screen in a Western superhero film was amazing; several times, I found myself getting emotional in the theatre because it was the first time I felt well represented. 

To add onto that, the film’s fight scenes made me feel seen, albeit in a different way. I trained in Chinese martial arts until I was 13 years old; not much, but enough to recognize the Wing Chun forms on screen when I saw them. I also grew up watching my grandmother go through her Tai Chi forms every day, and I remember walking into the living room every so often and seeing parts of the wuxia films my dad watched while he ate his lunch. 

Seeing the beautiful wuxia-inspired fight choreography in Shang-Chi made it feel — in the words of another one of my Chinese-Canadian friends — “right.” It took me back to watching the films of my childhood, and made me feel properly represented in another way. 

And there were so many other details. The food looked like it came straight out of my dinner table and onto the screen. The mythical creatures of Ta Lo — especially Morris and the Great Protector — were all directly inspired from Chinese mythology and reminded me of the statues that decorated the many dim sum places I’ve been to. 

The costumes. The architecture. The scene where Shang-Chi tries to get Katy to pronounce his Chinese name correctly. The sheer amount of Mandarin spoken in the film, though the translations in the subtitles missed the nuances. The shrines to the dead, lit with incense and with platters of fruit given as offering, which reminded me of the cemetery I go to when I visit my late grandfather. All these details and more in a Western film sent out a message to me that I’ve rarely ever gotten in Western media: You are seen. You are heard. You are valid. 

There’s something this film offered to me that many others did not. Both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell were amazing steps forward in Chinese representation — and I’ll give credit to Kung Fu Panda as well — but what Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings showed us was that we could be the main characters in worlds of superheroes, too. Many films from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China don’t offer us the hybridity that this film did — the blend between Western and Chinese cultures that many of us in the diaspora experience every day. It made me feel seen not just as a Chinese woman, or as someone living in the Western world, but specifically as a Chinese Canadian. 

There’s much, much more that I could talk about that’s not in this article. I haven’t spoken about the plot or the amazing performances of the actors — especially Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who my Hong-Kong-born parents were extremely excited to see. I haven’t mentioned the problematic comic origins of Shang-Chi. I haven’t spoken of some of the criticisms I do have of the film, which will be for another time. But I will leave you with the following scene.

It was nighttime. On the benches near the University of St. Michael’s College, I sat with two other Chinese-Canadian friends after seeing Shang-Chi. We spoke, our faces animated, and I asked them, “When was the last time you felt so well represented?”

They stopped. They thought, then one of them said, “I don’t know.” The other: “Never. I’ve never had this before.”

I thought back to Crazy Rich Asians. It was good, but as much as I loved seeing an all-Asian cast grounded in Chinese culture, I couldn’t relate to the lavish lifestyle shown in that film. I thought back to the scene with Katy’s family in Shang-Chi. “Me neither,” I said.

“I’ve never had this before,” my friend repeated. “But seeing it represent us so well made me feel good.”

My thoughts turned to the film again. I’m generally not a crier when it comes to films, but I almost teared up three times during Shang-Chi because I felt seen — felt properly represented — for the first time. 

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It felt really good.”