When Simu Liu got a phone call from an unknown number one hot July morning he knew immediately that it wasn’t just a “Nigerian prince searching desperately for a place to stash his money.” He had gotten the role as the star of Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings.” He was told he couldn’t tell anyone, but he fudged the rules a little and called his best friend.
“I am definitely not going to tell you who just called to offer me a job,” he said coyly. His friend, who knew he was up for the role, figured it out, and they both screamed with joy.
In his delightful memoir, “We Were Dreamers,” Simu Liu weaves his family’s story into the larger narrative of Asian American immigrants in North America. Writes Liu, “It’s a story about an imperfect family that made mistakes … but held on, survived, and even thrived.” The rest of the book unfolds in three parts: one rooted in interviews with his parents that tell the story of his childhood in China and how his parents made their separate ways to North America, one that follows his rise and fall as every tiger parent’s dream child, and the last documenting how he made his way as an actor.
Although, he was a “walking poster child for model-minority Asian excellence” in early childhood, Liu manages to tell a familiar story about growing up in an immigrant family without relying on stereotypes. He portrays his parents with empathy and complexity, focusing on their stories to help the reader understand their motivations. He addresses with thoughtful generosity the hard conversations he’s had with his parents about their (unfortunately not uncommon) abuse and how it affected him.
The book also includes hypothetical conversations he imagines his parents had, wishes he had with them, or hopes readers will have with their own families. Liu insists on sympathizing with the challenges his parents faced without excusing their actions, hoping that “families like ours will read our story and understand where we went wrong, so that they can make a different choice.”
But “We Were Dreamers” is also deeply funny. At the beginning of chapter two, Liu jokingly tells readers what chapter to skip to if they’re not interested in his parents’ stories but warns that they’d be “committing the cardinal sin of immigrant families: wasting money.”
His commentary and asides throughout the book leave readers feeling like they’ve made a friend, and he successfully strikes a balance between writing for a general audience and one of Asian Americans who have similar experiences. For example, while writing about his family or Chinese history, he introduces and explains Mandarin words but also includes tones on top of the pīnyīn for the diaspora readers who would be familiar.
Unlike a typical superhero origin story, Liu’s path to becoming Shang-Chi did not happen all at once or even randomly. Before he was officially cast as a Marvel superhero, he toiled in obscurity as Spider-Man for 5-year-olds’ birthday parties and even tried to write himself into his dream role through a 10-episode season of Sunfire (a comic book member of the very first team of X-Men), which never got made. He even facetiously tweeted at Marvel about playing Shang-Chi after the “Black Panther” came out in 2018.
Liu is candid about his shortcomings and early career flops, from his unfortunate decision to do a stock photo shoot for $100 in cash (they own those photos “in perpetuity”), to his triumphant transcendence of the “small penis grenade” during a production of “Banana Boys,” a play about five Asian Canadian students navigating challenges such as school, romance, and racism, to an ex-girlfriend’s brutally honest feedback about his shortcomings.
Lest readers be skeptical of its genre, this book is a genuine memoir and not just a Hollywood autobiography. Liu’s unlikely path from Ivey School of Business, to failed accountant, to Craigslist actor, to Shang-Chi is not just a cookie-cutter underdog success story. Fans of Liu will enjoy the intimate look into his life, but the memoir’s real strength is its ability to resonate even with those who are unfamiliar with his work.
Off screen, Liu speaks out about Asian American issues and reclaiming cultural pride. At colleges and universities, he meets the “graphic designers, architects, and artists masquerading as accountants, engineers, or bio majors,” terrified of disappointing their parents. “We Were Dreamers” is the story of Liu chasing his dream, and it invites readers to chase theirs. More than that, it helps them imagine their parents and the generations before them as dreamers, too.
WE WERE DREAMERS: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story
By Simu Liu
William Morrow, 304 pages, $28
Serena Puang is a freelance writer and the incoming living/arts intern at the Boston Globe.