In 2001, Phil Yu was a Northwestern University graduate sitting at a computer in his Bay Area bedroom.
Physically, he was writing code. Spiritually, he was getting angry.
In a primitive era of the internet, Phil Yu used HTML to build a blog called Angry Asian Man. Growing up in his family’s movie rental store had taught Yu to see an absence of Asian faces like his own in Hollywood movies. Angry Asian Man — still one of the leading Asian American pop culture blogs — was Yu’s personal space to express those feelings.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he was changing the course of cinema history.
“I went through some big, personal growth in my Asian-American political identity,” Yu tells Inverse. “I just wanted a place to put stuff down, my takes on pop culture and Asian Americans in Hollywood. Angry Asian Man was a convergence of my interests.”
Among his readers was Dave Callaham, a screenwriter whose credits include The Expendables, Zombieland 2, and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which opens in theaters on September 3.
“A lot of my feelings crystallized years ago when I was reading [Phil Yu’s] blog,” Callaham tells Inverse.
Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood of Fresno, California taught Callaham to hide “quite a bit” of himself. Even in Hollywood, his Irish last name conceals his half-Chinese ethnicity until you meet him. Over Zoom, Callaham’s long black hair is tied in a samurai’s bun.
“I just wanted to be invisible,” he says, revealing a common desire to assimilate like his Shang-Chi, who adopts the name “Shaun.” But reading Angry Asian Man changed Callaham.
“To see Angry Asian Man, I was like, ‘Holy shit. You can talk about this?’” he says. “The internet was the first time I saw these ideas. I wasn’t around a lot of Asian peers, socially and physically. Virtually became the way I connected. To read someone so eloquently sum up feelings I was pushing away, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s okay to speak up, and speak out.’”
Years later, Angry Asian Man helped give Callaham the words to speak up to Marvel Studios, ensuring Shang-Chi’s meaningful theatrical release didn’t include an option to stream it on Disney+.
But Phil Yu wasn’t the only Asian American using the internet to kick up dirt. Twenty years since Angry Asian Man launched, other Asian Americans have used new media to inform a wide audience about Asian representation and its nuances. It’s an informal education, and the lessons change daily, whether it’s a joke at the Oscars or news of an anime remake.
Now, with the release of Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the online Asian community has the blockbuster event film they’ve blogged and tweeted to see for decades. But the difficulties of an ongoing pandemic have this very same generation of voices wondering if making history is enough to survive it.
THE START OF A “FEVER”
In 2003, a trio of Asian American college students — Wesley Chan, Ted Fu, and Philip Wang — met at the University of California, San Diego. Enrolled primarily as engineering students, they considered a serious career in filmmaking after a dorm-made music video became a hit with fellow students.
In the pre-YouTube era, they were just having fun. They’d go on to help launch the career of Marvel’s newest star.
Toward their senior year, the three adopted the name Wong Fu Productions and in 2005 released the influential short film Yellow Fever, a 15-minute satire about interracial Asian couples on college campuses.
“That was lots of people’s exposure to Wong Fu,” Phillip Wang tells Inverse. “It said to our community [of Asian Americans] that these guys were making relatable stuff in a really lighthearted way. It brought a lot of attention to us that I think we weren’t ready for. That set the tone for us.”
Yellow Fever catapulted Wong Fu to become one of the leading DIY filmmaking success stories of the YouTube era. “We had no idea what to do,” Wang says, “There was no industry to be an online content creator. But we had people watching. [We decided] we shouldn’t waste it.” Today, Wong Fu operates as a full-time studio that produces original work and branded content; a short sponsored by Subaru stars a pre-fame Randall Park as a daredevil wheelman in a family sedan.
Before his ascension as the leading star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu cut his teeth as an actor in Wong Fu’s films. Before the MCU, Liu was a fan of Wong Fu.
“He sent a cold email to us first,” Wang remembers. It was 2017, and Liu’s sitcom Kim’s Convenience had just begun airing in Canada. “He came to our office and was so excited to meet us. He was like, ‘I want to be in anything you guys have.’”
Wang says he “vibed” with Liu, not just as an artist but over-shared dreams for the Asian diaspora in popular media. “We became close talking about what we imagined in the industry for us.”
From 2017 to 2019, Liu starred in Wong Fu’s shorts like How to Be an Instagram Boyfriend, Asian Bachelorette, and the web sitcom Yappie. Wang humbly believes Wong Fu didn’t “make” careers, “but we helped get their reps in.”
“We helped them get practice to see themselves as characters they might not normally get [to play].”
By 2019, Liu was cast as Shang-Chi, a role Wang remembers Liu manifested like The Secret.
“One time, we were at my place, and he was like, ‘There’s going to be an Asian Marvel superhero. That’s going to be me.’ Maybe I was too jaded, but there was a part of me that was like, ‘Will we ever get that?’ It was hard for me to believe.”
Wang was, indeed, jaded. Before Wong Fu grew on YouTube, the team tried a “traditional” path to the industry with an original feature. It was 2008, and the rejections were harsh. “We had companies tell us, ‘You can’t make this. This has Asian leads. It’s bad business.’” Despite Wong Fu’s growing audience, the ecosystem hadn’t yet placed a premium on social followings.
“It was too early,” Wangs says. “People didn’t understand. That’s when we doubled down on YouTube. We just felt the mainstream wasn’t ready for us yet.”
WHAT IF… THERE WAS JOHN CHO?
While Asian Americans like Wong Fu made art by themselves, others strived to reimagine the echelons of the mainstream in their image. In 2016, the internet was swept by the hashtag #StarringJohnCho. Created by Boston-raised William Yu (no relation to Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu), Yu’s award-winning project had a simple premise: He swapped the faces of Hollywood’s white leading men on movie posters for the visage of Korean-American actor John Cho.
Before #StarringJohnCho, the 2000s saw a wave of Asian American actors and filmmakers splash into Hollywood. But despite the progress of the new millennium, the industry at large was — and still is — married to notions that only white actors can anchor movies. Even Crazy Rich Asians almost had its Asian female lead rewritten as a white woman. For Asian performers in Hollywood, only one percent actually land leading roles.
In 2018, William Yu told Inverse that #StarringJohnCho was less about Cho (who has actually become a leading man in films like Columbus and Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop) and more about the barriers in place for all Asian actors. Now, amidst Shang-Chi, he asserts #StarringJohnCho made a difference in showing that Asians “encompass the range of the human condition.”
“I like to think #StarringJohnCho had a part in sparking conversation,” William Yu tells Inverse. “I don’t think we’ve seen a project that preceded #StarringJohnCho in which the global community wanted to engage in what Asian representation means.”
What does representation mean, anyway? For William Yu, pop culture crucially plays with universal human emotions, which fosters empathy.
“There are few things in the world that translate emotion and behavior in a way culture can,” he says. “When you see something that understands you, that’s powerful. It has the power to hit on a personal level, and on a universal level, to change minds and make people believe in things they couldn’t before.”
There are few platforms as big. “Marvel movies are the pop culture gold standard,” Phil Yu says, calling the Marvel Cinematic Universe a “pop culture city that people live in.”
While Phil Yu says a Marvel movie isn’t the be-all, end-all for representation, the unparalleled prominence of Marvel’s movies simply hit different. “It feels like you’re seen,” he says. “[You have] a presence in something people care about. They couldn’t have planned this, but in the midst of Covid and anti-Asian racism, we can’t avoid talking about it. It’s important.”
Dave Callaham, too, knows the importance a Marvel movie promises for representation.
“Marvel is the most successful franchise in the history of movies,” the Shang-Chi screenwriter says. “The visibility is unparalleled. To tell an Asian story from the biggest game in town, knowing it was going to reach more eyeballs than the last ten of these things combined, it’s a tremendous honor.
“They could make Captain America forever and do very well. [But] they’re using their powers for good.”
THE END OF “WHITEWASHING”
#StarringJohnCho wasn’t the first nor the last hashtag about exclusion in Hollywood. A year prior saw #OscarsSoWhite by April Reign, which raised attention to the vastly white nominees of the 88th Academy Awards. #WhiteWashedOUT also raised awareness of “whitewashing,” the practice of casting white actors in roles meant for people of color. The 2017 film Ghost in the Shell and the Marvel series Iron Fist were major talking points.
“I think the internet has taken down whitewashing,” says sociologist Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Stars and Racism. Previously, “Hollywood had no problems with it. Now, studios are scared. They don’t want to do it.”
Yuen herself is a known authority on Twitter in her expertise of Hollywood’s problems with people of color. “There is definitely an awareness now,” she tells Inverse. “[Studios] could see the social media campaigns, not just from the Asian community [but] communities of color.”
The underwhelming box office performance of Ghost in the Shell was a sign: “From that point in time studios were scared of bombing because of whitewashing controversies,” Yuen says.
Nothing is ever “fixed,” of course, with new films still raising eyebrows. Kate, a new Netflix film, stars white actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an assassin in Japan. The film has received harsh criticism for its optics of a “white girl on an Asian killing spree.”
But the fact that a more informed populace doesn’t just see when something is wrong, but can express why and how is progress to Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu. “I’ve been talking about Asian American identity and representation in pop culture for a very long time,” he says. “Now, people on a mainstream level are listening.”
“The internet did a couple things,” says Jeff Yang, CNN columnist and co-host of the Asian American podcast They Call Us Bruce with Phil Yu, who notes that the internet did “create a platform for Asian Americans demanding content that represents us.”
“You’re telling stories people haven’t seen before in places people are going to find to be ‘new,’” he says. “That expands your gamut of how you reach audiences. There are stories that haven't been told. Why hunt in overhunted territory?”
“I think the internet has taken down whitewashing.”
Naturally, there are also more obvious incentives to make movies like Shang-Chi. The mainland Chinese theatrical market continues to appeal to Hollywood in a big way. And the buying power of Asian Americans is a staggering $1.2 trillion. Simply put, there is money to be made. And surely, the likes of Marvel do not spend time combing internet hashtags for cues on where to take its cinematic universe.
But when there is noise made, even Marvel knows to pay attention.
“When enough people organize, change can happen,” Callaham says. “Everyone at Marvel is savvy. They’re sensitive people. They care about what voices are being heard.”
“In this industry, to make progress or get what you want, you have to voice yourself,” says Philip Wang. “Especially in this country, we’re told to just appreciate we’re here and not ask for too much. The internet allowed us to galvanize around things we want to see.”
Adds Wang, “We as Asians are kind of going against our DNA to be vocal, but that’s what it takes for stuff to happen. It does make a difference.”
Enter, Dave Callaham.
Why Shang-Chi is on the big screen
While Shang-Chi is primed to put Asian representation on the biggest screen possible, it almost didn’t make screens at all. Facing a never-ending pandemic, the same Asian voices who've spent years championing for heroic representation are now concerned that the pandemic box office is cutting off their feet at a moment in history.
Some believe the film’s potential to “fail” could keep Marvel from pursuing more Asian-led blockbusters.
“If it bombs,” says Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, “There is this idea: Will Hollywood make an [Asian] superhero ever again? We still don’t have many big-budget films centered on Asian Americans. We don’t have narrative plenitude. We have scarcity.”
As of this writing, Deadline reports Shang-Chi is on track to a Labor Day Weekend record of a $90 million opening.
“I worry because I feel like other movies that don’t do well get the excuse of the pandemic,” says Wong Fu co-founder Philip Wang. “And I worry [they’ll say] Shang-Chi didn’t do well because it’s Asian. I worry they’re going to use that as a reason. See? Nobody cares about Asian characters.”
Others disagree. A pandemic means realistic, adjusted expectations — which means recognizing Shang-Chi may not be a billion-dollar hit like Marvel’s other films — and Marvel’s careful world-building guarantees that audiences will see Shang-Chi again.
“I would hope that Shang-Chi is not exceptionalized,” Jeff Yang says. “I’m confident Marvel is not looking at this as one and done. I think we’ve gone past that. There are a couple billion of us on the planet. We cannot be erased.”
On September 3, Shang-Chi enters an uncertain pandemic box office. Dave Callaham, the man who gave Shang-Chi his voice in the MCU, used his own voice to make sure Marvel’s first Asian superhero even had a chance.
When production of Shang-Chi resumed in Australia after Covid-19 shutdowns, questions about its release arose within Marvel Studios.
“Bluntly and honestly, I was petrified at the notion of this movie coming out on Disney+,” he tells Inverse. “Once it became clear this [streaming] model did exist and seemed to be working well, I called Marvel. I said, ‘This movie can’t come out on Disney+.’”
The writer admits voicing his concerns was “not [his] place” and that he would have accepted a streaming release if a vaccine were not available.
“But facing what we were facing at the time,” Callaham says, “[I reminded them] the promise I believe we were making ourselves when we started, which was that we are going to put Asian faces on the big screen. The same place kids saw Captain America, Tony Stark, Black Panther for the first time.”
Callaham is aware that the distribution of media is changing. “I’m told over and over that younger generations barely give a shit where [movies] show up,” he says. He also tells Inverse he doesn’t think less of Marvel’s many productions for streamers.
But given the cultural temperature, from heartbreaking anti-Asian violence wrought by Covid-19 and the historic moment Shang-Chi was positioned to be, “I felt strongly Shang-Chi had to stand next to [the Avengers] on the big screen,” he says. “It signals importance.”
Adds Callaham, “I believe if this movie had been on Disney+, it would have signaled that [Shang-Chi] is ‘less than’ the other Avengers. I want my nieces and nephews and daughter to see Shang-Chi in the same place they saw Spider-Man.”
When Marvel Studios first contacted Callaham in 2018, the writer was close to signing onto a different project, a biopic of an unidentified figure. Driving home from its Burbank offices, he pondered over Shang-Chi's potential to tell a unique story: His story.
An industry veteran of 18 years, Shang-Chi was the first time Callaham was offered to write about an experience he felt only he understood.
“Why would I tell someone else’s story if someone is going to let me tell my own?” he says. “No one has ever asked me to write a story about an Asian guy. I was blunt with Marvel from day one. I said, ‘I want to talk about what it means to be Asian in America.’ I wanted this because I felt strongly Asian stories hadn’t been represented in Western media. I thought it’s critical to express what we go through so people can see us as the three-dimensional people we are.”
“We are going to put Asian faces on the big screen.”
Even an MCU movie, one that’s “fantastic and fun and wild” Callaham promises, offers vast potential to show audiences about a lived experience only a lifetime can teach.
“A lot of Asian people in America can relate to feeling shame around your heritage or wanting to hide from the culture your parents represent,” Callaham says. “That is what Shang-Chi does in the movie. It’s all represented in the film, hidden underneath a superhero film.”
Twenty years of blogging about representation have taught Phil Yu a thing or two. “Temper your expectations,” he warns. “No one thing should be the project that holds our hopes and dreams. That’s an unfair thing to put on anything.” For Shang-Chi, he just wants to have fun.
“Asians kicking ass, that’s not going to solve the problems of the world,” he says. “But I am looking forward to seeing Asians having power and strength and joy. That’s cool to me.”
Even if some things stay the same, some things really have changed.
“It seems a lot easier to talk about this stuff,” Phil Yu says. “People will listen.”
This has been the third part of a series on Shang-Chi’s rise, fall, and rebirth by Inverse senior staff writer Eric Francisco. Read the other parts of the series. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericfrancisco24.