Shang-Chi Made Me Fall in Love With Martial Arts Films All Over Again

When I was seven, my favorite uncle was a martial arts movie buff who spent all of his free time, and even most of his busy time, in front of the box television in the family’s living room.

This was in the early 2000s and family gossip had it that he was fired from his job at a video shop because he’d bring CDs home to watch, making them unavailable for paying customers. But losing his job only meant that he had a lot more free time to watch even more films, and that was what he did. When my cousins, our group of friends, and I all got back from the school, the first sound that greeted us was someone getting kicked, while someone else yelled out a satisfactory ‘yah’ standing en garde.

Slowly but surely, we fell just as in love with those movies as my uncle did. But we were kids, and that meant we still had the luxury of make-believe that my uncle didn’t. So we took ours a step further by acting it out. On school evenings, we would group ourselves into “actor” and “boss”—the actor being the good guy (usually portrayed by the Jet Li, Jackie Chan, or Bruce Lee of the group, while the girls portrayed Michelle Yeoh or Zhang Ziyi) and the boss being the actor’s adversary.

Tee, one of my best friends, put an end to our filmmaking exercises in late 2005 when he fell, like Humpty Dumpty, from a fence and fractured his arm.

“I remember being even more upset about the fact that we couldn’t play actor and boss than I was about breaking my arm,” Tee, who is now twenty-seven, says.

Apart from Tee and I and our neighborhood of “kung fu warriors”—which was what we called ourselves in 2005—lots of other Nigerians feel the kind of kinship that we do to Asian movies.

“Growing up, we moved around a lot. And in almost all of the neighborhoods we moved to, there was an actor and boss roleplaying group,” says twenty-five-year-old Dorathy, “I was always ‘one of the boys’ and fought tooth and nail to play Jet Li every single time. Folks from that neighborhood don’t even remember my real name, they all call me Jet Li,” she laughs.


Nigerians, as a rule of thumb, generally consider ourselves as welcoming, adaptable, embracing and every other variant of words that explain how easily we absorb other cultures, borrowed from abroad.

In the 2010s, Bollywood made a wild entry into the Nigerian entertainment scene, finding its place in the hearts of Gen X and older millennials as Zee World, a TV channel that exclusively shows Bollywood dramas became an obsession, especially amongst women. Before that, Spanish telenovelas were all the rage. In 2021, k-drama and k-pop have taken over a large percentage of the Gen Z community, as there are various fandoms of k-pop and k-drama stars both online and offline.

For some of us ’90s babies, part Millennials and part Gen Zs, perhaps the last thing we loved this much was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which, incidentally, stars Michelle Yeoh. So when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was released, it was thrilling to see Michelle’s role as Shang-Chi’s aunt, firmly guiding him to accepting who he really is.

In Nigeria, there is a saying about your mother’s side of the family always being there for you, and the doors of her home always being open to you.


“I found a lot of things about Shang-Chi relatable—from Katy’s grandmother trying to pitch Katy and Shang together, to Katy’s mom telling her to get a better job,” says twenty-seven-year-old Opeyemi, who loved the movie almost as much as I did.

She draws a parallel between the Asian household and Nigerian household, explaining that the power imbalance between parents and children is something a lot of Nigerian children could relate perfectly to. “I loved Shang-Chi and Xialing’s reunion with their aunt and how they fought together to protect their mother’s home, even against their father,” Opeyemi says.

The thing that made Shang-Chi so amazing to my friends and I, and lots of other young Nigerians like Opeyemi, is how the film managed to combine design and special effects so different from the movies we grew up watching and loving into a storyline that explores loss, family, and self-acceptance—something that we could all completely relate to.

“Since yesterday, seven out of ten young people I picked up after work were going to the cinema to see that movie,” muses Daniel, my Uber driver who had overheard me Facetiming Tee at the beginning of the ride. “Some of them were in twos or threes and they all sound as excited as you did just now.”

I saw Shang-Chi alone, and with my childhood best friends who were also seeing it alone in different cinemas across the country, and abroad. When we came out of the cinema two-plus hours later, we stared at each other on our Facetime screens, grinning and saying “wow” over and over again.

“Uncle Qudus would have loved it,” Medina finally said, about our late uncle who had introduced us to the world of Asian movies sixteen years ago.

We nodded. He would have.

Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is a Nigerian cross-sectoral writer and journalist. Her essays have appeared in Teen Vogue, Romper, InStyle and elsewhere. You can mostly find her on Twitter @thezainabonuh_.


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