‘I feel represented’: What San Francisco-based “Shang-Chi” means for Asian Americans of the City
By Jack Quach
Beginning with its Sept. 3 opening, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” earned the attention of audiences, grossing nearly $250 million in its first two weeks and setting Labor Day opening records during the debut weekend. A landmark in mainstream American media, the film also boasted a nearly all-Asian cast.
“Shang-Chi” has earned praise from both critics and audiences while bringing new representation to the world of action and superhero movies.
For Filipino American E.J. Reyes, the opportunity to watch an Asian lead on such a stage could be summed up with three words: “I feel represented.”
Reyes, a student at San Francisco’s Skyline College, immigrated to the United States as a child, where he felt “lost” in the foreign environment. But, he found a sense of identity with the main character, Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, who moves to the United States in his childhood.
“We went through the same phase of feeling lost and coming back to your true self,” Reyes said.
Asian Americans such as Reyes connected with the focus of culture and community values featured in the movie, which for many marked the first in-person theater experiences of the pandemic. The film has also drawn comparisons to Marvel’s 2018 hit “Black Panther” for its spotlight on a previously underrepresented group, especially in mainstream films.
Like Reyes, 27-year-old Greg Shin immigrated to California, though he carries deeper roots to his native country; he moved from South Korea at 18, and most of his family continues to live there. As soon as he was able, he entered the newly crowded theaters with his younger brother and girlfriend on Sept. 10.
He found the film “incredible,” highlighting the pride he felt at seeing an Asian lead and the heavily explored family values – including the sibling bond that he also finds with his brother.
Shin is an Asia-Pacific-region managing sales director for San Francisco Bay Area startup Workspot. With his position in the company, he felt that, though he was “not a superhero,” Shang-Chi captured his aim to inspire the younger generations. And as for his own family, “it’s a big deal,” Shin said. “My parents are looking forward to watching it in Korea as well. And we’re starting to see a domino effect – more Asians are coming on for supporting or somewhat main roles.”
As a person who “has my cultural values innately rooted to me as a person,” Shin added, “I am so proud of the representation and am looking forward to it more and more.”
Many scenes in Marvel’s latest film – and the first theaters-only release since the beginning of the pandemic – were shot in San Francisco’s Richmond District, featuring iconic imagery such as the City’s Muni, Clement Street and Ghirardelli Square that merged with action sequences.
And to Tracy Diep, a Chinese and Vietnamese American who grew up in San Francisco, these landmarks, as well as the portrayal of connecting with two separate cultures, provided a sense of home.
“I can relate to Awkwafina’s character, where she’s trying to fit in as the bridge between two cultures,” Diep said.
When Nick Xing arrived in America from Beijing, he initially struggled with his English. Having experienced life as both a Chinese and Chinese American, he stepped out of the movie theater appreciating how “Shang-Chi” helped to educate those unfamiliar about these aspects of immigrants like himself.
With the recent accessibility to vaccines, movie theaters in San Francisco have opened doors while following the city-wide vaccine and mask policies. Asian Americans have encouraged widespread support for “Shang-Chi” through social media and community foundations.
In watching the film, San Franciscan Judy Young said that she “saw family, the strength of the bond of supporting each other.”
Young is the executive director of the Southeast Asian Development Center in San Francisco, where she supports disadvantaged Asian groups – including youth – with a focus in the City’s Tenderloin district.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of Anti-Asian violence surged nationally and in Bay Area cities such as San Francisco. In the City, protestors held demonstrations against the acts that included the targeting of elderly Asian Americans. To Young, who is Thai, Lao and Chinese, the spotlight that has shown on “Shang-Chi” can serve as an empowering tool for the groups affected.
“Right now is the time to have API [Asian and Pacific Islander] representation in mainstream media because of the violence and because of COVID-19, which has put this big stigma on the API community,” Young said. “Not only tolerance, but really embracing that API is part of mainstream America.”
One week after the theatrical release, Young had enjoyed the film with her family, including her son, Dylan Son. Son, a student in UC Irvine who was born in San Francisco, said that he connected with the new model of an Asian, male lead.
“This movie is paving a new way for the new meta of movies,” Son said. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow, Asian Americans can not only just be action but deeper meaning to what the movies can bring.’ ”