I used to say that, in the film of my life, Keanu would play the starring role. Most people don’t realise he’s mixed race. Keanu Reeves’s father is Hawaiian-Chinese—hence his name, Hawaiian for ‘cool breeze over the mountains’—but since he passes as white that’s how people think of him.A high-school friend says that ‘if you asked him where he came from or what his roots were, he was anything you wanted him to be’. I like to think that, not quite white and not wanting to constantly explain his ‘roots’, he was trying to get his friends to see race differently: not as a fixed sign but as a fluid signifier. Like a cool breeze, he turned his shapelessness into a form of resistance.
When I was at school I wanted my roots to be mysterious too, but unlike Keanu I don’t pass. As soon as a conversation turned towards the Orient—Chinese food in the canteen, a new Jet Li movie, the other Chinese kid in our year (who was actually Korean)—I’d get these sidelong glances. Asked where I was from, I’d hide behind my mixedness. I’m a quarter-Dutch; most of my family live in Indonesia; my great-great-grandma was from Hokkien; my granddad was a French teacher; I’ve lived in London my whole life.
Keanu could choose whether or not to wear the cape of whiteness: an accepted outsider, different and the same, he was capable of spanning the contradictions within himself. Though it now seems shameful to admit, his was the sinuous and racially unmarked version of the face that I wanted to present to the world.
Recently, an elderly woman in a café asked where I was from, or where I was really from. ‘Gosh’, she said, ‘those Chinese genes are powerful’. ‘I don’t think it works like that’, I said, and started saying some-thing about genetics and race—how they have almost nothing in common—before trailing off. She wasn’t listening. ‘Have you heard of Keanu Reeves?’ I asked.