Cor­ner-store com­edy be­comes CBC cor­ner­stone

Kim’s Con­ve­nience also pop­u­lar, crit­i­cally ac­claimed in the U.S.


Ac­tor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee isn’t a masochist, but he does like to see his char­ac­ter on Kim’s Con­ve­nience in pain. The owner of the tit­u­lar tele­vi­sion mom-and-pop store is opin­ion­ated, stub­born and leans to the tra­di­tional in his val­ues — not un­like a cer­tain arm­chair-lov­ing pa­tri­arch in All in the Fam­ily.

But when Appa is chal­lenged, a small mir­a­cle hap­pens.

“I al­ways love it when my char­ac­ter suf­fers be­cause it’s funny and there’s growth. When you first meet him, he’s kind of stuck in his ways. He says hor­ri­bly racist and in­sen­si­tive things, but it’s never done out of a sense of mal­ice. In his world, this is how he sees it. He’s just ig­no­rant,” says Lee.

“But I love when he sees the ef­fect of what he says and be­lieves — there’s that mea­sure of heart in him and he learns and changes. He’s al­ways try­ing to self-im­prove. He’s not al­ways suc­cess­ful, he’s no an­gel and he’s not hy­per-ide­al­ized. He’s just do­ing what all of us are try­ing to do: Make our best way and not hurt any­body along the way.”

It’s that par­a­digm-shift­ing po­ten­tial that’s helped make the home­grown com­edy a cel­e­brated se­ries not just in Canada, but in the U.S. and be­yond. Last year the CBC show won the Cana­dian Screen Award for best com­edy se­ries, and Lee has won twice for his role as Appa. Plus, when the first two sea­sons landed on Net­flix last July, Kim’s Con­ve­nience got rave re­views from The New York Times and Vul­ture, among other U.S. out­lets. Ac­cord­ing to Bus­tle, it’s one of the most talked-about Cana­dian TV se­ries since De­grassi.

Cen­tred on a Korean fam­ily run­ning a small store in Toronto, the show fea­tures a largely Asian cast deal­ing with largely re­lat­able fam­ily prob­lems. Sea­son 3 de­buts Jan. 8 on CBC and will be avail­able to stream on CBC Gem.

“I know, via Twit­ter and so­cial me­dia, a lot of peo­ple have said they’d like to be part of our fam­ily. As well, it’s a re­flec­tion of an al­most-utopian so­ci­ety where there is di­ver­sity and in­clu­siv­ity and mu­tual re­spect — all these things that should be nor­mal,” Lee says.

“Kim’s Con­ve­nience is all these things, but we don’t beat peo­ple over the head with it. We don’t make a big deal that it’s a di­verse cast. It just is.”

For a cul­ture that’s been long mis­rep­re­sented in film and TV, the vic­tory is par­tic­u­larly sweet. Last year’s block­buster Crazy Rich Asians was the first movie since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club with a ma­jor­ity Asian cast. Re­cent TV his­tory has gifted us merely a few shows star­ring a mostly Asian cast, in­clud­ing Mar­garet Cho’s one-sea­son won­der All-Amer­i­can Girl (1994-95) and ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, now in its fifth sea­son.

“We’re not play­ing stereo­types, we’re play­ing archetypes. With archetypes you can ex­pand, build and ex­pand, and there’s that fa­mil­iar­ity,” Lee says. “I think es­pe­cially for Asians in gen­eral in west­ern so­ci­ety, they’re tired of that sin­gle im­age that sums them up — if you’re a woman you’re ex­otic and mys­te­ri­ous, and if you’re a male you’re asex­ual and un­de­sir­able. Kim’s is re­ally about just, ‘hey, we are peo­ple.’”

Kim’s Con­ve­nience got its be­gin­nings from the like-named 2011 play by Ins Choi, star­ring Lee as Appa in all of its roughly 500 per­for­mances. Stage Appa was older, more gruff. TV Appa is more multi-di­men­sional. But they both have the same ac­cent in­spired by Lee’s fa­ther, one that Lee slips in and out of with ease.

“I play this char­ac­ter for so long time, he just a part of me,” he says in per­fect Appa gram­mar and ca­dence, be­fore laugh­ing and switch­ing to his nor­mal voice.

“With re­gards to ac­cent, I know there’s been some push­back on that — even with other Kore­ans say­ing, ‘That’s not how my dad sounds.’ It’s like, ‘No, I’m not try­ing to do your dad. I’m us­ing my dad’s voice, and his jour­ney was shaped by liv­ing in Canada for 46-odd years.’ He’s go­ing to sound dif­fer­ent from a Korean liv­ing in Chicago for the same amount of time, or some­one from Hawaii, or some­one just from Korea learn­ing to speak English.”

Born in South Korea and raised in Cal­gary, Lee is a vet­eran per­former with cred­its in­clud­ing TV shows and films (Shoot the Mes­sen­ger, De­grassi: The Next Gen­er­a­tion, Train 48), as well as stage pro­duc­tions (Chimerica, Ac­ci­den­tal Death of an An­ar­chist, Ali & Ali: The De­por­ta­tion Hear­ings). He also hosts Canada’s Smartest Per­son Ju­nior on CBC.

“My mom and my dad are so proud and re­lieved that this act­ing thing is work­ing out for me. Fi­nally they can say, ‘My son, the ac­tor! On tele­vi­sion!’ Not ‘Oh. My son,’” he says with a comedic sigh.

“To be in a po­si­tion where I can con­trib­ute more, fi­nan­cially — we al­ways grew up poor — to say ‘you don’t have to work so hard, you can have peace of mind. I can take care of you guys.’ That means the world to me to be able to do that.”

We’re not play­ing stereo­types, we’re play­ing archetypes. With archetypes you can ex­pand.” Ac­tor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee


Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, left as Appa, with Simu Liu, who por­trays his es­tranged son Jung on the hit CBC com­edy Kim’s Con­ve­nience.

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