We Were Dreamers: Book Review

If you’ve ever watched the bus fight scene in the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, you’ll know that the onscreen choreography looked incredible. You might have even searched for a behind-the-scenes video just to figure out how they orchestrated all of it. From those behind-the-scenes takes, one person comes to the forefront: Simu Liu. 

We all know actor Simu Liu as the titular Shang-Chi, but in his new memoir We Were Dreamers, he offers that necessary backstory — a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Shang-Chi, sure, but mostly an honest, critical look at how Liu got the role of Shang-Chi and the events in his life that have shaped his thoughts about superheroes.

From his early years with his grandparents to his struggles as an accountant, Liu relives the events that have shaped his life thus far. Thematically, We Were Dreamers focuses particularly on Liu’s conflict with his parents and how his life as a struggling actor was an attempt to carve out his own destiny. 

This is a lot of heavy content, but Liu executes it with a lot of humor and asides to the audience, in true actor fashion. Present throughout are heartfelt reflective moments when Liu looks back in retrospect about his family’s immigration story from China and their hardships in Canada. It’s Liu’s way of understanding — and having readers understand — that they are much more than the one-dimensional villains his childhood self perceived them as. 

Many of the stories in We Were Dreamers involve themes of growing up Asian: harsh criticism from parents with brutal impacts, a desire to rebel against family expectations, and being made to feel like you’re an all-consuming disappointment to your family. They’ll be familiar for many second-generation Asian children, and Liu is deeply empathetic when it comes to such experiences. Although he now acknowledges that those experiences were more layered, Liu says, it still doesn’t invalidate how hopeless he felt while he was living them. Liu doesn’t discredit these feelings, and it’s part of what makes We Were Dreamers so profound as a sort of letter to young Simu. 

Through all of that, Liu manages to infuse We Were Dreamers with biting social commentary mediated by personal experience. From his childhood in Harbin, China, Liu makes a point that China is complex, a country with humans who aren’t government officials, and that the country is much more than the harmful rhetoric surrounding it. 

It’s not a particularly novel point, of course, but it’s surprising that an actor whose film was banned in China for nationalistic reasons would actively advocate for China’s attributes as a nation. Somehow it shines a brighter light on Liu’s character, as if his status as a superhero isn’t predicated upon how people respond to him. At a later point, Liu again illustrates the hardships the Asian community faces, honing in on the issue of representation in the media.

The memoir might be stronger if it wasn’t so chronological, as if Liu is attempting to force his life path into a structured narrative with Shang-Chi as his peak. Shang-Chi is undeniably a groundbreaking achievement for the Asian community, and it’s not hard to see why Liu thinks of it as the culmination of all his hard work. 

Yet having to reflect on every incident or obstacle as somehow a stepping stone to success feels a bit linear and forced. It’s possible that Liu could have integrated a compilation of stories or essays that didn’t have that explicit purpose for more insight, but it’s easy to see why he didn’t — the book is called We Were Dreamers, so it’s meant to show Liu’s dream being fulfilled. 

It’s still difficult to not think about what Liu’s memoir might have been like if Shang-Chi wasn’t a core part of his identity. To his credit, Liu remains self-aware, telling readers that if he hadn’t gotten the part that catapulted him to the mainstream, he would have continued to hustle. 

What a memoir should do is help audiences learn more about the individual by expressing that individual’s interiority. We Were Dreamers achieves that, and is nothing if not motivating. Particularly when it comes to Liu’s innermost thoughts, he makes sure that readers don’t just see him as the superhero he is and will continue to be for the next generation, but as the human whose powers stem from his family — and his ability to dream.

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