TORONTO — Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu is deeply proud of his heritage and likes to champion it whenever he can.
But the discrimination, racism and xenophobia that’s been aimed at the Asian community during the COVID-19 crisis has put a damper on such spirits.
The star of CBC’s “Kim’s Convenience” and Marvel’s upcoming film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” says he’s heard from countless people who’ve experienced such discrimination, and he’s faced it himself, during the pandemic.
He’s hoping to shift the narrative by celebrating Asian and South Asian Heritage Month this May — and spotlighting the works of notable Asian Canadians throughout the month — on social media as a new ambassador for Made / Nous, a movement recognizing creative Canadian talent.
Also taking part in the campaign is Tamil-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, star of Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever.”
“I think it is especially important now in this day and age, at this time where anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia is higher than it’s ever been in a very long time — and I don’t think you can argue that,” Liu said in a recent phone interview from Sydney, where he was filming “Shang-Chi” until the pandemic halted production. His role as the kung-fu master makes him Marvel’s first big-screen Asian-American superhero.
“Every day I see more instances of hate crimes and discrimination, not only in Canada but the U.S. and Australia where I’m at. There have been a lot of cases of people getting spat on in the street, verbally abused, physically abused. It’s really easy to be weighed down by all of this hate that’s brewing in the world.”
Liu, who immigrated to Canada from northern China at age five and grew up in Etobicoke and Mississauga, Ont., said he felt such discrimination first-hand when he was recently walking out of a restaurant in Sydney before the pandemic lockdown came into full force.
“I had a piece of food in my throat and I was trying to get it out and was coughing and hacking a little bit,” he said. “And this white guy comes out of a restaurant with a woman and looks over at me and, without even thinking about it, he just says ‘Coronavirus’ and chuckles to himself and keeps walking.
“I was honestly so shocked in that moment that I didn’t even know how to react. And I did just kind of brush it off…. But it’s just a taste of what is going on in the world right now and what collectively people are thinking.”
Liu added: “I feel like if you’re an Asian person in the world in 2020, you’re fighting a virus on two fronts: We are, like every single other person in this world, at the mercy of this COVID thing. And then we’re also at the same time fighting this virus of hate that has apparently spread and infected just as many people, if not more.”
The 31-year-old graduate of the Ivey School of Business at Western University said he stayed in Sydney once production on “Shang-Chi” was halted partly because “Australia is in very good shape compared to a lot of other countries in the world” when it comes to the novel coronavirus. And there was a risk in contracting the disease through travel.
He celebrated his birthday last month by asking his social media followers to donate to either Trillium Health Partners hospital system in Mississauga or a health network of their choice.
The initiative raised over $10,000, Liu said, noting he matched that figure himself in a donation spread amongst different hospitals and non-profits.
His advice for those facing racism at this time is “not to buy into this ‘Go-back-to-where-you-came-from, you-don’t-belong-here’ kind of mentality and rhetoric that is being propagated by some top politicians.”
“You belong exactly where you are, and you deserve to stand on your own two feet and hold your head high no matter what,” he said.
“Call it out when you see it, and then reach out if you ever feel like you need somebody to talk to, because I think the aim with a lot of these angry people is to make us feel alone and isolated.”
Liu said he’s happy to hear from those who want to reach out to him on social media. And he noted that hate crimes can also be reported to authorities.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re going through it and we’re fighting for each other’s causes. And together we’re going to get through it, as long as we keep being active in holding these individuals accountable for their actions and their words.
“A big part of why this has gotten so much media coverage is because Asian people who have been attacked are refusing to let it go and they’re filming their perpetrators. And we’re making an effort to call out these attacks and not brush them off, and to take it seriously.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press