Why I—a Chinese Indonesian—am not too excited for Shang-Chi?

Created by Kolom Remaja’s Summer Bootcamp Participants,
Written by: Jonathan Haka
Illustration by: Lisa Kalystari

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is undoubtedly one of the most successful and recognizable media franchises in the world. Since its humble beginnings in 2008 with Iron Man, the franchise has grown to heights previously unimaginable before.

Back then, the only popular Marvel superheroes were Spider-Man and the X-Men. Iron Man was considered a B-tier character, and its future actor Robert Downey Jr. even worse.

Now, as the MCU wraps up its ‘Infinity Saga’ and enters Phase Four, one noticeable trend is how diverse their lineups are. As the world sees more societal changes, diversity in films is one of the topics in the spotlight. Our generation is increasingly aware of representation, and why it matters.

2019’s Captain Marvel holds the distinction of being the MCU’s first female-led superhero film, and 2018 saw the release of Black Panther, the first to star a virtually all-black cast and went on to become the highest grossing solo superhero film so far. Even better, it gave the MCU its first Oscars and other awards.

Phase Four opened with the recently-released Black Widow and will be followed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings come September. Eternals comes next for November, and this film will include Marvel’s first portrayal of a gay superhero.

We’ll also get Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels in 2022, which will introduce Pakistani-American character Ms. Marvel.

As the MCU’s first Asian-led film, I’m certain there is a lot riding on Shang-Chi. With anti-Asian hate crimes at an alltime high—partly due to COVID-19’s origins in China—this film couldn’t have come out in a better time.

But that’s the thing. I’m actually not that interested in Shang-Chi. And I somehow felt guilty about it.

I saw it as just another superhero film.

The biggest impact Black Panther had is the discussions it started.

A film with a virtually all-black cast making more than a billion dollars means POC-led films are a worthwhile undertaking. The film inspired a wave of style and musical ideas. Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album debuted at the top of Billboard’s Top 200 chart. New York Fashion Week held a Wakanda-inspired section that year. And many more.

So how could I, an Asian, not care about the first Asian-led superhero film? After all these years of Hollywood typecasting Asians as submissive and only able to be good at math?

I’m much more inclined to Crazy Rich Asians myself. Set in nearby Singapore, it tells a story much closer to us Indonesians. Watching the trailer for Shang-Chi and its American setting, it honestly feels foreign to me.

As if I’m not for diversity in Hollywood.

Partly as a method to understand my guilt, I looked deeper into racial issues in the west. Turns out, it is radically different from what we Asians have to go through.

Westerners—particularly Americans—seem to be very protective (and proud) of their race. Any attempts to appropriate cultures would be met with harassment.

Back in 2018, a white girl wore a qipao (traditional Chinese dress) to her prom. And as expected, the internet was in an uproar. Chinese Americans are outraged, calling it cultural appropriation.

But as long as she is being respectful to the history behind that dress, is she really appropriating?

I’m actually surprised someone wanted to wear a qipao to prom. I went to a high school with 95% of the students being Chinese Indonesian, and not a single soul wore a qipao to prom.

Granted, it might be because we’re used to seeing one, but I wouldn’t even think of wearing traditional attire to prom.

I would actually be flattered if someone thought our culture is cool enough for them to wear during an important event such as prom.

So when it comes to incidents like this, is it cultural appropriation?

Or is it cultural appreciation?

Take (arguably) Indonesia’s hottest export in music right now: Rich Brian. His Chinese-ness was never part of his identity. He raps about being an Indonesian. An Indonesian who happens to be of Chinese descent.

Compare that with fellow 88rising labelmate Higher Brothers (海尔兄弟), who raps about being Chinese and pokes fun at the world’s seemingly obsession for China in a love-to-hate kind of way in their songs “Made in China” and “Open It Up”.

I never thought of myself as a Chinese aside from race. I am very much culturally Indonesian. I just happen to be ethnically Chinese. I sound like your average Jakartan, enjoys eating roadside nasi goreng as well as Indomie, and couldn’t even speak Chinese before my parents got me into a course.

Brian himself couldn’t even speak Chinese entirely.

Of course, my experience as a Chinese Indonesian could not compare to being a Chinese American. Reading just a few of those hate crime attacks sends a chill up my spine. How could they do those vile things?

While yes, the atrocities of 1998 still leaves many—like my parents—an open wound, what we have here in Indonesia is relative peace despite COVID-19 ravaging through relentlessly.

At least, for now.

Of course, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will undoubtedly make history. For the MCU, and for the film scene in general.

Coming to terms with how I’m supposed to like a film that feels rather alien has been an eye-opening experience for me. Learning about the plight of Asian Americans and how they differ from us ‘Asian’ Asians gave me valuable insights on my own identity as well.

I truly hope this film will do to Asians what Black Panther did to African Americans.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters this September.

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