The truth about Keanu Reeves and his Asian roots
by Jeff Yang
There’s a photo that’s been skidding around the internet.
It shows Keanu Reeves, whose career has been reignited by the success of the John Wick franchise and his brilliantly self-deprecating turn in the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, sitting on a couch with a smiling, bespectacled older East Asian woman in a flowered print top.
In truth, the picture itself isn’t particularly notable.
It’s actually the image’s whimsically spelled caption that has made the meme go viral: “Keanu Reeve’s grandma is Chinese Haiwaiian.”
That Reeves has Asian Pacific Islander heritage isn’t exactly new information.
From his earliest initiation into Hollywood, Reeves has always been referred to as the “son of a Chinese-Hawaiian father and an English mother.”
And his last two films before the John Wick trilogy were both films with predominantly Asian casts: the old-school kung fu genre revival Man of Tai Chi and 47 Ronin, a loose remake of the samurai epic Chūshingura, in which Reeves starred as a half-Japanese, half-English outcast named Kai.
But every generation seemingly has to renew its love for Keanu, and then, shortly thereafter, rediscover that he has Asian ancestry.
The trigger for this latest eruption of awareness was, of course, Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe, in which Reeves appeared for the first time in an undeniably Asian American context, surrounded by an almost entirely Asian American cast.
And so, after the film’s release, the Grandma Meme exploded across Subtle Asian Traits, the Facebook group that's become a cultural touchpoint for diasporic Asian youth — triggering ecstatic conversations around Keanu’s long-awaited public embrace of his “secret” Asian heritage.
There’s just one problem: That’s not Reeves’s grandmother in the picture.
“The viral claim is inaccurate,” says his publicist, Cheryl Maisel.
It’s not clear who the woman actually is.
The photo made its way to the internet apparently in 2017, in an Instagram post.
The uploader, Jacqueline Bond (her username is rococoroco) said the photo was hung in her grandma’s home. A colleague of her grandma, she explained in a comment, had taught Keanu kung fu for a film.
But even if the woman in the photo isn’t Keanu’s grandmother, the excitement with which online Asians greeted the image says something about our newfound eagerness to expand our community’s boundaries, to be inclusive of more diverse and complicated definitions of Asian identity.
It was less than two years ago, after all, that the decision to cast Henry Golding as the romantic lead of Crazy Rich Asians generated controversy among some who saw the biracial British-Malaysian as “insufficiently Asian” for the role.
Of course, the film’s staggering success, owing more than a little to Golding’s charm and charisma, sealed the deal on whether his casting was the right commercial choice.
But it didn’t fully erase the question at the heart of the controversy: Where do multiracial people fit in the evolving and complex architecture of Asian identity?
“As a ‘halfie’ I live in a middle ground. I’m not considered Caucasian, but I’m not full Asian,” says Cory Lee, an actress best known for her four seasons as Winnie Oh, a regular on the cult-hit teen series Degrassi: The Next Generation.
“I feel very Chinese. I grew up in Vancouver with a very close relationship with my Chinese mother. I was immersed in Chinese food and culture and family. I feel like that can never be erased, and I wouldn’t want it to be. But I also love my other side, being German.”
Lee says she often doesn’t get specifically Asian roles. Her resume features characters with names ranging from “Holly Wescott” and “Kylie Penrose” to “Shoko,” “Ms. Soo” and yes, “Detective Torres.”
That’s not uncommon.
Multiracial Asian performers say they’re frequently asked to come in for “ethnically ambiguous” or Hispanic roles (which is itself a problem, given the significant underrepresentation of Latinx in Hollywood productions).
“I get cast as Latina more than any other category,” says Briana Cap, who had a recurring role as “Barbara Dicasoli” on the Fox police procedural Rosewood.
“I think they see tan skin and dark features, so they feel comfortable lumping me in there.”
Being told that they don’t “read as Asian” on camera, or at least not sufficiently Asian, is par for the course.
“I don’t normally go out for ‘Asian’ Asian roles, if that makes sense,” says Tim Lounibos, currently playing the recurring role of “Ed Sung” on the Amazon series Bosch.
“If I do, I’m usually viewing it as an opportunity to make more people aware of my acting chops. I’m not seeing it as a realistic booking.”
Having a non-Asian-sounding last name, like “Lounibos,” can be an added challenge.
But even if you check all the boxes that a casting director’s looking for, it may not make a difference.
Paraphrasing Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor from Crazy Rich Asians, Irish-Chinese American Broadway veteran Erin Quill says: “You realize that no matter how you as the actor feel, for a majority of people, ‘you will never be enough.’ Even if you speak the language, even if you cook the food, even if you marry a ‘pureblood’ — that won’t cut it for a lot of folks.”
And of course, everything faced by multiracial Asians with white ancestry is exponentially harder for those whose non-Asian heritage that isn’t Caucasian.
“Being half Black instead of the default half white, I find that Black Asians are nearly entirely erased from the conversation of being Asian,” says actress Asia Jackson, whose mother is Filipina and father is African American.
“Like, I’m not even allowed to audition for Asian roles because Hollywood’s vision of Asian is just East Asian, even though there are Southeast Asians who look exactly like I do: same brown skin color, same hair texture, all of it.”
Hollywood is an industry of labels and categories, and if you can’t be cleanly assigned into one of them, you can end up lost and invisible.
“As a Japanese and Egyptian human in the film world, I’m always contending with people asking me which I am, Asian or Middle Eastern, as if it’s not possible to be both,” says Takaya Abdou Lloyd, who stars in the forthcoming indie film Summertime Dropouts. Which means that multiracial Asians are often gently urged to push themselves out of the racial DMZ: to make themselves more Asian, or less.
“I’ve had managers, agents, producers and directors tell me to change my name, to color my hair lighter or darker, or to do my makeup in a more or less ‘exotic’ style,” says half-Chinese Mia Riverton, who played Swedish IKEA worker Sam Hullestaad on Ileana Douglas’s acclaimed web series Easy to Assemble (on which Keanu was a guest star).
Which neatly brings us back to Keanu.
Reeves’s most compelling quality has always been the very mutable, enigmatic in-betweenness that serves as a handicap for many other multiracial Asian actors.
In fact, The New York Times recently ran an entire feature about Reeves’s indefinable character, titled “Keanu Reeves Is Whatever You Want Him to Be.”
And now, in the afterglow of Always Be My Maybe, Asians of all backgrounds are keen on projecting themselves onto Keanu.
For Reeves, it’s no big deal.
He told Essence recently that he identifies as a person of color and is proud to be part of Hollywood’s Asian American moment, even if he doesn’t see himself as a “spokesperson for the community.”
In short, he’s always been our maybe, even if he hasn’t always made it explicit, and even if Asians haven’t always realized or recognized it.
But for Asians, it’s huge.
Keanu is the hero that Asian Americans — rising in influence and growing in numbers, but culturally undefined and unsure of identity — need and deserve.
An icon who expresses our hopes and our anxieties all at once, ambiguous enough to be everything we want him to be, yet resolutely committed to being himself.
He’s a multiracial Asian at the top of his game who’s chosen to publicly claim his Asianness.
“As a biracial Asian who often doesn’t read ‘Asian enough,’ Keanu coming out as an Asian-identifying multiracial person has been the most cathartic experience of my life,” says Jewish-Chinese actress Anna Suzuki, who plays Genna Park on Netflix’s series adaptation of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
“I never felt firsthand the whole ‘representation matters’ thing. Now it feels real.”
And it is real — even if the Grandma Meme is not.
I know who Keanu’s actual grandmother is.
It’s not hard to find out: Hawaii is a tightly interwoven place, and one of his second cousins (who says Keanu used to summer at his house in Nānākuli) confirmed that his paternal grandma is Momilani Sarah Victor Abrahams, called “Auntie Momi” by her beloved extended family.
She passed away quietly in 2014, at the age of 90.
Momi was a matriarch of the Victor family, a clan with deep roots in Hawaii and heritage extending into England, Ireland, Portugal, Australia and — six generations back — China.
Her son Samuel Jr, by her first husband Samuel Reeves, was Keanu’s estranged father.
My review of Reeves’s family tree makes his ancestry out to be three-quarters European, 7/32 Native Hawaiian and just 1/32 Chinese.
The math says he’s a little less than a quarter Pacific Islander, and less Chinese than he is anything else. But those fractions shouldn’t matter.
Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli in the Hawaiian tongue, do not believe in blood quantum as a means of determining who belonged to a tribe, any more than they believe in blood relationship as a means of defining who belonged to an ohana, or family.
They believe in a radically inclusive sense of identity: Your tribe are the people who live and fight alongside you, and who have been immersed with you in common traditions, mutual values, a shared way of life.
Your family are the people with whom you’ve been raised, with whom you’ve formed lifelong debts of love and loyalty.
That’s a pretty good lesson for Asian Americans to learn as well.
“I want to get to a place where we’re all just actors, not ‘Asian’ or ‘mixed Asian,’ arguing about who can play what because of what percentage of race,” says English-Chinese actor Lewis Tan, whose breakout appearances in Marvel’s Iron Fist and AMC’s Into the Badlands led to a starring role in Netflix’s forthcoming martial arts series Wu Assassins.
“I’ve been getting remarks about not being white enough or not being Asian enough for 15 years. It all just limits us, and we’re limited enough in this business.”
I’m sure Keanu, and his grandmother, would agree.