Simu Liu on telling his immigrant family's story in memoir We Were Dreamers
Simu Liu has been busy.
In the last year, the Chinese Canadian actor not only wrapped his five-season run on sitcom Kim's Convenience, but he also joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Since suiting up for Marvel's first Asian-led superhero film, he's also found time to host Saturday Night Live, and he's since landed roles in high-profile films like Greta Gerwig's Barbie with Margot Robbie.
But his latest project might be his biggest yet — and his most personal.
Liu spent much of the pandemic writing a memoir, and the result is We Were Dreamers (out today), a frank and often funny look at his path to becoming a superhero. There are plenty of Hollywood tell-alls on the shelves, but Liu's book is something that delves a little deeper than your standard actor memoir — and it's something far more moving. The 33-year-old Liu expertly weaves together not just his story, but that of his family, from his early days living with his grandparents in China to the sacrifices his immigrant parents made as they built a new life in Canada.
Much of the book focuses on Liu's life, and it's sure to entertain readers eager to learn about his early days as a stock photo model or the Pacific Rim gig he found on Craigslist. But mostly, We Were Dreamers is a love letter to his family, examining his complicated relationship with his parents. He doesn't shy away from the tough moments, and the actor writes candidly about the at-times abusive environment he grew up in. But he tells his family's story with empathy and honesty, and the resulting book is a sincere tribute to immigrant families everywhere.
With We Were Dreamers out now, Liu opened up to EW about sharing his family's story with the world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you start thinking about writing a book? I know writing this was sort of an early pandemic project for you.
SIMU LIU: It's crazy, but actually, the whole process of the book started way before I even booked the role of Shang-Chi. I had written this essay for a Canadian magazine called Maclean's, all the way back in 2017. It ended up doing really well, and a book agent named Jackie Kaiser approached me over Facebook and was like, "Hi, I'm an agent. Have you ever thought of putting your thoughts together and writing a whole book?" At the time, I was maybe 29 years old, and I was very respectfully like, "No way, that's insane. I think I'm going to pass for now."
But almost a year went by, and I was on this college talking tour where I was speaking to people at universities all across Canada and the U.S. and just hearing their thoughts. A lot of them were Asian American or Asian Canadian and came from immigrant backgrounds similar to mine. I started noticing a throughline between all of us, and I was like, "Oh, there are stories here that I think are worth being told."
Then, I was having a conversation with my own parents and listening to their journey coming from China to Canada, and something just clicked for me. I wouldn't necessarily want to write a book that was just about me and a memoir of my life, but I'd be really interested in writing a book about our whole family and the meaning of what dreaming was for us. It's that idea that we were a family of people who set our sights on the horizon and said, "There's a goal. I'm going to reach for it. I'm going to actually act on my goals and my desires, and I'm going to take actionable steps towards achieving them."
That, I feel like, is our story, quintessentially. For my parents, it was risking it all coming to Canada, and for me, it was deciding to pursue acting and eventually finding my way down to the States and succeeding in Hollywood.
I know you went back and interviewed your parents about their lives. What was that experience like to sit down with them?
I hope that everybody is able to set aside the time to really sit down with their parents and go through their whole life story. I think as kids, we hear little snippets or little vignettes of our parents' lives, pre-us existing. If you're anything like me, you just kind of roll your eyes. I would hear these little pieces, but I never put it all together. What I was able to do with my parents was to just put the pieces together, almost like a puzzle to form a bigger picture of what their lives were. What were the things that were important to them? Why did they make the decision to do the things that they did? What propelled them from one place in life to the other? For the early years of my childhood, where I didn't necessarily have the memories, I got them to help fill it in, like what kind of a baby I was or what kind of things would I say. It brought us a lot closer to each other, and for me, it was just such a wonderfully cathartic and therapeutic experience where I got to learn where I came from and be very proud of that.
Was there anything from your conversations with them that really surprised you?
There are little snippets here and there. I didn't expect my dad to tell me the story of the night that I was conceived. [Laughs] A new amusement park had opened up in Beijing, and my dad took my mom out on a date. There was this new restaurant that had just opened up in Beijing called Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was the very first of the American fast food places being imported into the east, so Chinese people were just absolutely fascinated by Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was insanely expensive. It was something like an entire week's salary, just to get a two-piece meal. But my dad said he waited in line with my mom, and they had Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I was like, "How was it?" and he was like, "It's okay." He very specifically singled out coleslaw, like, "I don't understand coleslaw. We wanted to know what Americans eat, and we didn't know what to expect." So imagine them getting a pile of coleslaw and being like, "This is what they eat?" Obviously, Chinese cuisine is extremely broad and rich and full of so many flavors, so coleslaw was hilarious. [Laughs]
Then, apparently the date ended up going very well, and that night, allegedly, I was conceived. So, not necessarily the information that I set out for, but now that I know, I was like, well, yeah, of course I'm putting that in the book.
That's amazing. Have your parents read the book now?
Yeah, I mean they were so instrumental every step of the way. It wasn't just one long interview, either. Every other week I would call them and be like, "Okay, I have more questions." And of course, when I completed the manuscript, they were the first people that I showed. One of the most encouraging things that my dad said to me was that in reading through those first few chapters where I dealt with his early life, he said it really brought him back and he felt like he was there again. That was very meaningful for me to hear because the last thing that I would've wanted to do was to misinterpret their story or co-opt it for my own personal gain. So that was the highest possible compliment.
My parents are not traditionally outspoken people, so despite how incredible their story is, they would've never volunteered it to the world. They would've never written this book themselves. So, I'm very grateful that I was able to coax it out of them because I think that immigrant stories do matter, especially when growing up in a place like North America, where so much of the fabric of our society is built on the backs of immigrant labor. Immigrant stories deserve to be celebrated because they're the quintessentially American story or the quintessentially Canadian story.
In the book, you talk about that, how this isn't just your story but the story of all the people who came before you. I'd imagine that would be rewarding but also kind of daunting, making sure that you're doing their story justice.
Yeah. I wrote the book when I was like 32 years old, and who wants to hear a 32-year-old ruminate about his own life? A lot of people, even in my friend circle, when they heard I was writing this book, they were like, "You're writing a book? What wisdom do you have to impart on people?"
Most of the book focuses on your life before you were cast as Shang-Chi, but there is one delightful superhero anecdote, about the time you worked as a Spider-Man impersonator at kids' birthday parties. What was it like to revisit that experience?
Oh man. I still have all the emails that my superhero party boss would send me. All the details are there, so I know where I was at what time, what superhero I was playing, what I was being paid. But I remember the good parts. Once in a while you would really make a kid's day. If the kid was young enough and innocent enough that they could actually believe you were Spider-Man, they thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I loved that. That was early on in my acting career, so it was a way for me to sharpen my tools as a performer.
But I definitely remember the bad ones as well. I remember the ones where the kids just do not believe that you're Spider-Man, and they will go through any means necessary to prove it, whether that means physically assaulting you or pulling on your mask. They're just little detectives that just want to get to the bottom of it. Oftentimes, those kids had parents who were not around, either. They were in the corner, day-drinking with their friends, and I was just brought into entertain and really babysit for an hour or two.
Now I get paid a little more, although I'm still running around in tights, pretending I'm a superhero. [Laughs]
Was there anything about writing this book that surprised you or that you weren't expecting?
Yeah, in the second act of the book, I talk about growing up in that immigrant household and being a teenager, when my parents and I were just so fundamentally opposed to each other. There was so much separating us: There was a cultural gap. There was a language gap. There was so much that they had to deal with their whole lives growing up, and I'm just some dumb teenager growing up with the internet and girls, and I was worried about things they never would've worried about in a million years. There was just so much conflict.
I don't really shy away from that in the book. I talk about times when things got violent, and my parents had tempers, and at that age, things weren't always great between us. But what really surprised me was my parents' willingness to revisit that part of our lives and take accountability for their actions. I was very impressed by that. Obviously, it was something that we'd spoken about before, so it wasn't the first time we'd ever revisited it. Still, I think it's one thing to have that conversation, and it's another to have that conversation with the aim to publish it in a book. I knew my parents were feeling very anxious about it, but at the end of the day, we decided that we wanted to tell these stories — not to air out each other's dirty laundry, but because we wanted other families to read about where went wrong. We want to encourage families to make a better choice.
After talking to so many kids or young adults that are going through the same thing, I hope these stories have the potential to touch their lives and let them know that they're not alone. And hopefully, we can let the parents of those kids know there's another way as well. If I can just bring those two generations a little bit closer together and have a little bit more dialogue, I think we could do a lot of good.