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.