Simu Liu | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Simu Liu

Simu Liu, actor, writer, director, producer, stuntman, model (born 19 April 1989 in Harbin, China). Simu Liu is best known for his role as Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian superhero, and for his role as Jung Kim on the hit CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience. A former stuntman and model who also produces his own projects, the Chinese Canadian Liu has also become an advocate for equal race representation in the entertainment industry. He was named one of the top 500 entertainment business leaders of 2021 by Variety and one of the 100 most influential people of 2022 by Time magazine.

Early Life and Education

Liu was born in Harbin, a large city in northeast China. He was raised by his grandparents until the age of five, as his father was at university and his mother was working in Beijing. Liu’s parents were very determined and hardworking. Against considerable odds, they had both managed to pass rigorous entrance exams to study engineering in Beijing. Liu’s mother had been sent to a rural work camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She had to study by torchlight after long days working in the fields. Liu’s parents met while attending university, and both went on to become successful aerospace engineers.

When Simu Liu was four years old, a man arrived at his grandparents’ home and told him he would soon be moving to Canada. Though Liu was excited about this, he did not recognize that the man was his father. He had been completing his PhD at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Liu has called the experience disorienting, and said it contributed to a strained relationship with his parents. Upon his arrival in Canada, he spoke no English and found it difficult to communicate and interact with other children.

Ultimately, the family settled in the Erin Mills area of Mississauga. Both his parents worked very hard and instilled in Liu a strong work ethic. But they were also very strict, insisting that their son work much harder and devote far more time to his studies than was the case for most children. At a young age, his parents insisted he read biographies of great scientists and learn algebra early. Discipline in the Liu household was harsh.

Simu attended the University of Toronto Schools, where he was more interested in school talent shows and sports than his studies. A geography teacher of his who had a similar upbringing and background encouraged him to find his own way and to follow his passion. Breaking with his parents’ intentions was not easy, however, so Liu followed their advice to attend university with the aim of securing a well-paid job. He attended Western University, studying business administration at the Ivey School of Business. He also began to engage with his interest in performance, joining a hip hop dance team. Following graduation, he found employment at Deloitte, a big four accounting firm, but was laid off just eight months later.

Career Highlights

Shortly after being laid off, Liu landed his first acting job as an uncredited background extra in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which was filmed in Toronto. He was also able to find work as a stunt performer. His experience grew as he took small parts in television programs, appeared in music videos, worked as a stuntman and modelled for stock photos. He also wrote, directed and produced the short films Open Gym (2013) and Crimson Defender vs. The Slightly Racist Family (2015), about an Asian superhero who rescues a family and then discovers they’re “slightly racist.”

Liu’s first major role was in the first television program produced for a Chinese Canadian audience, OMNI’s 2015 series Blood and Water. His performance earned him a Canadian Screen Award nomination for best supporting actor in a drama. He also wrote episode 10 of the show’s only season.

Shortly after, Liu was cast in his breakout role in the hit CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience (2016–21). The first Canadian comedy series to feature a primarily Asian Canadian cast, the series explores the generational tension between immigrant parents and their Canadian-born children. Liu identified heavily with the role, stating in 2017, “I am now playing myself on TV: a troubled kid, burdened by his relationship to his parents, trying to find his place in the world.”

During the latter half of the 2010s, Liu continued to take one-off or recurring character roles on a variety of TV series, including Taken, Orphan Black, Dark Matter, Bad Blood, The Expanse, Fresh off the Boat, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, Corner Gas Animated and The Simpsons.

Liu’s breakout film role came as lead character Shang-Chi in the 2021 Marvel superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The role was the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made Liu a global household name virtually overnight. It went on to gross more than $432 million worldwide, making it the second highest-grossing movie of 2021 behind Spider-Man: No Way Home. Liu won the 2021 People’s Choice Award for Favorite Action Movie Star and received awards from the Banff World Media Festival and the Hollywood Critics Association.

As of February 2023, Liu was slated to star in a sequel to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as well as an Avengers movie. He has a supporting role in the movie Barbie, written and directed by Greta Gerwig and scheduled for release in July 2023. He was also reportedly cast in Last Breath with Woody Harrelson, Atlas with Jennifer Lopez, and Arthur the King with Mark Wahlberg.

Other Activities

Kim’s Convenience was a major hit for the CBC and appeared to be a breakthrough program in terms of celebrating diversity in Canada. But following its sudden cancellation, Liu expressed his misgivings about how the show was produced, the lack of diversity among the writing staff, and how he was allegedly shut out of developing his own character. He has since earned a reputation for speaking frankly and openly about racism and race representation in the entertainment industry. He has noted that while some attitudes toward Asian people in the business have changed, certain stereotypes and prejudices persist. In March 2021, he wrote a guest column in Variety magazine detailing the long history of racism against Asian people in North America and speaking out against “the hate crimes being committed against Asian people at an alarming rate over the past year.”

In 2018, Liu formed his own production company, 4:12 Entertainment. In 2021, he was named a Variety500 Honoree by Variety magazine, which lists the trade publication’s top 500 entertainment business leaders.

In 2022, Liu published the memoir We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story through HarperCollins. It focuses on his family life, the difficulties he experienced with his parents, their eventual reconciliation, and anti-Asian prejudice. He had previously explored his relationship with his parents in an article for Maclean’s in December 2017. Also in 2022, Time magazine included Liu in its list of the 100 most influential people of the year. In a profile of Liu for the magazine, Sandra Oh wrote, “Simu has been working hard to get through closed doors, and now he wants to hold those doors open for others. You see him doing that through the way he speaks out against hateful violence, his openness about his own experiences of isolation and discrimination, his professional choices.”

Liu hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in November 2021. In 2022, he presented an award at the Oscars (while sporting a Canada-themed red and white tuxedo) and hosted the Academy’s separate Scientific and Technical Awards. He competed on Celebrity Jeopardy! and advanced to the semi-finals. He also hosted the Juno Awards in 2022 (writing his own material and earning a producer credit) and again in 2023.

Honours and Awards

  • Favorite Action Movie Star, People’s Choice Awards (2021)
  • Canadian Award of Distinction, Banff World Media Festival (2021)
  • Game Changer Award, Hollywood Critics Association (2022)
  • Fan Favorite STARmeter Award, IMDb Awards (2022)