A man wearing a winter coat stands in a grocery store aisle, looking pensively into the distance.

Filmmaker and TikToker RJ Siu is keeping it in the family

With videos featuring his family, his content gives off "classic sibling vibes" that many can relate to

RJ Siu started out a bit anti-TikTok but is now known for videos featuring him, his siblings and their shenanigans.

Courtesy of RJ Siu

Words by Kelvin Mak

“I love getting a good little rhyme scheme going. Why not throw out some bars that start off clever and then just take a turn? I'm all about not letting people know my next move,” RJ Siu says with a laugh about the impromptu freestyles that have given rise to his TikTok stardom.

Born in San Francisco, raised in Cupertino, California, and now settled in Los Angeles after attending film school at the University of Southern California, Siu’s claim to fame have been the chaotically funny TikToks his sister Jalin (a “social media goddess,” according to Siu) creates of him and his family.

“The funny thing is I was a little bit anti-TikTok,” Siu admits. “I don’t need to download another app to watch these videos—I have Instagram Reels!” But one night during a hangout with his mom and two sisters, Jalin pointed the phone at Siu in a moment of spontaneity. “We just let it rip,” Siu says. The rest is history: “Girl’s Day” adventures, freestyles, and sibling mischief caught the attention of millions of TikTok users. “I think people were like, ‘This is super classic sibling vibes,’” Siu says. “Seeing the comments was encouraging and I was like ‘Oh, people are having fun with it. Let's keep going.’” Siu’s freestyles and TikToks often end with perfectly cut laughter from his siblings, speaking to the unique and genuine dynamics of the Siu family. “My siblings are my best friends,” Siu says. “I try to see them regularly at least once a week.” 

Four siblings embrace, each of them hugging another person from behind except the young man in front.

RJ Siu's describes his siblings as his best friends.

Courtesy of RJ Siu

It makes sense that Siu has a soft spot for family sitcoms (found and otherwise) like Friends, Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother. In particular, as someone who self-characterizes as a man raised by women, he loves characters like Winston Schmidt from New Girl. “Seeing the character Schmidt, who's very in touch with his feminine side but still masculine—I want to uplift characters like that. It was an accurate representation of not just me, but also my roommates. We're all very much guys who love having girl time as well,” Siu says.  

This penchant for warmth and sensitivity can be seen in Siu’s cinematography reel and short films. Lush with emotional close-ups, handheld shots, and warm tones, he frequently depicts family relationships and shows special care to the complicated emotions that arise with the people we love most. It can be hard to believe that the man making hilarious puns about menstrual flow is the same man directing the quiet intensity we see in his films, but Siu believes that good filmmakers need to be fluid. “A good cinematographer is able to adapt to any type of project, whether it’s a dramatic piece or a comedic piece,” he says.

During the strikes in the film industry, his TikToks became the comedic outlet he needed. “In film school, everyone is really into drama and A24 films and really depressing, very intense stuff,” Siu says. “I love family dramas. I love films like The Joy Luck Club. But I also grew up on sitcoms and rom-coms…After all these dramatic pieces, I just wanted to do something a little more comedic and light-hearted. It also just felt very fulfilling to me.”

Eventually, with this dramatic but comedic ethos in mind, Siu wrote and directed the pilot for KOI: Kids of Immigrants. Described as a sitcom following the misadventures of four Asian American roommates in their 20s in Los Angeles, KOI features the typical hijinks of four young men living under one roof: shirtless wrestling, getting Korean barbecue, and endless laughs. However, as Siu describes it, the pilot is also about learning new things about yourself and growing up in the process. “That’s what adulthood is,” Siu says in the trailer. “You grow up thinking you’re ready to take on the world, but the world’s a freaking ocean—and you’re just a shrimp.” Although the pilot is currently making its rounds in the film festival circuit and will not be uploaded online until the end of summer, Siu hopes that viewers will feel a sense of invincibility and optimism in tackling life as they watch these characters ultimately discover who they are.

A man wears a goofy smile while holding heavy camera equipment at a film set.

In addition to TikTok, RJ Siu is a filmmaker.

Courtesy of RJ Siu

When asked why telling this story was something he gravitated towards, Siu says, “I think this felt like the first project where, after learning from so many other filmmakers and honing in on my voice, I had an opportunity to do something authentic to my experience, not only as an Asian American, but just as someone in their mid-20s trying to figure out life.”

Authenticity has often been a tricky thing to depict in Asian American media, in part because of how diverse Asian Americans’ experiences can be. For example, an Asian American growing up in the rural Midwest will have a very different experience from someone growing up in a significantly Asian-populated place like Siu did in Cupertino. “I think authenticity comes from having gone through the experience,” Siu says. “The tough part is how do you tell a story without having gone through it?”

“It’s a dream of mine to uphold the authenticity of what they went through. Through my Gen Z lens, maybe I can make [their experiences] more relatable to today's generation who may not have gone through what they did.”

Given that Siu’s family emigrated from China several generations ago, Siu has always felt detached from the typical immigrant experience and sometimes struggled to find a story worth telling. However, Siu still feels it's his duty to share his family’s history. His grandfather, a waiter in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, has many stories of how poorly he was treated and how difficult it was to raise a family due to the racism he faced. “Someday I’d love to share his story, just like I'd love to someday share my mom's story growing up in 90s San Francisco,” Siu says. “It’s a dream of mine to uphold the authenticity of what they went through. Through my Gen Z lens, maybe I can make [their experiences] more relatable to today's generation who may not have gone through what they did.” With all the projects under his belt, Siu is well on his way to contributing their story to the landscape of Asian American cinema.

Being a professional creative always comes with self-doubt, but Siu has two major pieces of advice for others who want to pursue filmmaking and creative work. “If you know what you want to do, then really give it your all,” Siu says. “Something that helped me get through all those moments of uncertainty with every move I made was that, at the core of it, I still felt very passionate about pursuing filmmaking. I truly believe it will work out. Maybe I'm just an optimist at heart. But stay true to yourself and you will meet others who are like-minded.”

His second piece of advice? “Be patient,” Siu says. “You can be so amazingly gifted and talented and be a boss at what you do, but half of the battle is just being patient for things to happen in the background. And while you're waiting, it's totally fine to just relax and live life. In order to be a good artist, you really have to live life because that's what informs your art. And then when the time comes to slay, you slay.”

Two Asian women and two Asian men stand together and smile, against a white and green background.

A lot of the content RJ Siu (front, center) creates is with his siblings.

Courtesy of RJ Siu

Published on February 22, 2024

Words by Kelvin Mak

K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.