The truth about Gemma Chan’s parents

Gemma Chan of Crazy Rich Asians fame recently wrote an article on The Guardian protesting the treatment of Chinese seamen in the 40s. Chan noted that she broke down in tears when she learned that the British deemed Chinese seamen who’d served in the merchant navy as ‘undesirable elements’ of British society. 

The British deported these Chinese seamen in secret in response to demands by the seamen for an increase in basic pay. Chan’s father was served in the merchant navy and was one of the first Chinese men to demand better treatment for Chinese crew aboard British ships. Let’s take a closer look at Gemma Chan’s parents. 

Gemma Chan’s parents encouraged their children to learn Chinese

Gemma Chan’s father had a tough childhood. A single mother raised him alongside five siblings in Hong Kong. The family lived in a shack on a hillside before moving to a single room in a block that housed thirty other families. 

Homelessness beckoned when the flats burned down. Chan’s resilient father completed school and found employment on oil tankers. He sent the bulk of his earnings home to fund his siblings’ education. 

After they completed school, he paid for an engineering course at the University of Strathclyde. He ended up meeting Chan’s mother, a Chinese woman who’d grown up in Scotland. The couple settled in London, where they welcomed Chan and her sister. 

Chan grew up in London, but she identifies as Chinese. She told Allure that her parents brought them up with Chinese elements:

“There were elements of my upbringing that were very, very Chinese as well. You know, my mom and dad, they spoke both Cantonese and English to me at home until I was three years old, and then they decided to only speak English to me.”

Though the family no longer spoke Chinese, they encouraged Chan to attend Chinese classes. “I didn’t want to go, but my mom and dad made me go every Sunday to learn how to write,” Chan said.

Much of what Gemma learned eroded over the years, but she feels the need to connect with her Asian roots. As a woman caught between two cultures, she feels obligated to embrace both of them. Chan continued:

“I’m really interested in exploring my cultural heritage. And I really feel what’s happening in the world is really exciting now. I feel that we really can embrace the fact, you know, all of us who are living in the Asian diaspora, we can embrace being American and British, but also our Asian roots.”

Chan experienced bullying while learning in a primarily white school

Chan didn’t grow up in a diverse environment in the suburban area of Kent. She had the city on one side and the countryside on the other and neighbors who were predominantly white. Gemma explained:

“Not diverse really at all. I think there were just a handful of kids in my school. I think, yeah. I think we had, uh, in my primary school class I was the only Asian. We had one black boy in my class. And that was it. So I grew up in a white environment, actually.”

Being different made Gemma stand out, which wasn’t a good thing back in the day. It made her feel awkward and fueled the idea that she needed to fit in. The bullying certainly didn’t help Gemma’s confidence:

“I felt a bit self-conscious at times, you know, had a few occasions, which you know it happens with kids, where kids made fun of, you know, my Asian features and my eyes. You know, that’s what kids do. And I remember just wishing I wasn’t different.”

The abuse made it clear to Gemma that she was different, though she didn’t feel different from others. Later, Gemma realized that being different could be a strength. She now uses her platform to encourage the representation of people and communities that have been sidelined in the past. 

“And I think it’s so important that we use it in a way to, as you say, allow people that haven’t been represented very well, or they’ve been sidelined or ignored in the past, that we now have the door open and embrace all of us, ‘cause we’re all humans,” she said. 

Gemma wants to see more British-Asian actors succeed

If Gemma’s parents had their way, Gemma would be a lawyer. She studied law at Worcester College and earned an internship at the law firm Slaughter and May, but she turned it down for an acting career. 

Chan’s parents tried to dissuade her from pursuing acting by pointing to the lack of Asian representation on screen. “[My] dad said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter how good you are or how talented you are – how many faces do you see on the screen that look like ours?” Gemma told The Baltimore Sun.”

Gemma told her father that she wanted to spark change in the industry. Chan fell out with her father, and they didn’t speak for months after her decision. 

However, Gemma’s parents have since accepted her decision. Gemma’s mom couldn’t contain her excitement at seeing Asian representation on Crazy Rich Asians. Chan told Yahoo:

“My mum said to me, she never expected to see people [on screen] who looked like her family, the food we ate, music that was in the soundtrack that she hadn’t heard since her childhood.”

“I’ll sometimes remind them that we fell out and they’ll say, ‘You do realize that we are very proud of you, don’t you?’” Gemma told The Evening Standard.

Chan has made it, but she isn’t satisfied: she wants to see more British-Asian success and more diverse stories on screen. Gemma told Inkstone:

“And now I just hope it’s going to open the door for others. I don’t want to be the only successful Asian actress or British Asian actress. Especially when we’ve established there’s so much talent out there.”

Gemma’s mission motivated her to start her production company. “It’s about finding those stories that haven’t been told that have been lost to history,” she said. “I’m sure there’ll be many obstacles but I just feel like I don’t want to squander this opportunity.”