Stars of Kim’s Convenience hope the show leads to diversity in front of — and behind — the camera

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The end of the CBC award-winning comedy Kim’s Convenience last year may have silenced the voices of its characters, but the actors who played Appa and Umma still have a lot to say about the legacy of the beloved series — and how they hope it will change the course of Canadian productions in the future. 

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon were named best lead actor and actress in a comedy at the Canadian Screen Awards for their respective roles, something both say they never could have imagined happening when they were first starting out. 

“When I started, I literally would walk into audition rooms and see people’s faces fall,” Yoon told CBC News following the awards show Sunday. “In my first jobs … I would walk on the set and immediately be pushed towards the background performers.” 

Kim’s Convenience, which premiered in Canada in 2016, was praised for its diversity —  not just of its cast, but of its storytelling. It told the story of the Kims, immigrants who owned a convenience store, raising children in a new country. 

It had been renewed early on in 2020 for two more seasons, but fans — and some of its stars — were surprised and saddened when CBC later announced that it would instead conclude with its fifth season in 2021.

The show unexpectedly ended after its fifth season, prompting discussions about the importance of diverse voices behind the scenes of TV and movie productions. (CBC / Kim’s Convenience)

“It was not expected,” Lee said in an interview with CBC Sunday night. “At least, I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t see it coming at all.”

Lee had earlier told CBC that when show writer Ins Choi told the cast he would be leaving the show, it was clear the show could not continue. 

Kim‘s was so unique because you had an all-Asian cast. And if you don’t have someone who’s Asian who is part of the producing team, the optics look terrible,” Lee said at the time, adding that it reinforced the need for more diverse representation in the Canadian entertainment industry.

In the months since, Lee has become more philosophical about what happened with Kim’s — and incredibly grateful, he says — not only for what the experience taught him personally but what it has done for BIPOC performers and creative producers, too.

WATCH | Lee regrets trying to deny his Korean heritage:

‘I really tried to deny who I was,’ says Korean actor

Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee reflects on how playing Appa on Kim’s Convenience changed the way he saw his own Korean heritage and what it has brought him today, both personally and professionally. 4:02

‘Embrace’ where you came from

“For the longest time, I had this block because I just wanted to be Canadian and fit in. And the irony of ironies is, my personal or professional life really started to blossom once I started to accept where I came from,” he said. 

“The fact that most of my critical success acting-wise came from portraying a Korean immigrant and really leaning into where I came from and my parents’ heritage was an eye-opener for me.”

The 49-year-old Lee said he didn’t connect with his own Korean heritage growing up and now regrets it. 

“I have my children,” he said. “And I don’t have that sort of rich history that I wish I could pass on to them so they knew where their grandparents came from.”

He gets emotional talking about his parents and says he owes his success to them. And he said it has changed how he sees the importance of one’s roots. 

“The biggest thing now is that I advocate for everybody to not forget about where you come from but to embrace it, to lean into it, because that’s you,” he said. “That’s your voice. Good or bad is who you are. You can’t hide it. You can’t get rid of it. So to spend energy denying that does yourself a disservice.”

‘Excruciating’ to play inauthentic roles

For Yoon, the lack of Asian voices in the Kim’s writers’ room was also glaring to her — and painful. 

“It can seem like an inconsequential difference to someone who’s not in the community but hugely important to those who are in it,” she said. “And when you’re playing a character where there’s some external part or words or … actions that are inauthentic, to do them is excruciating.”

WATCH | Yoon says control must stay with minority creators:

Kim’s Convenience actor on the importance of diverse creative voices

‘You have to leave creative control in the hands of the minority creator. Period, end of story,’ says Jean Yoon, who saw her show, Kim’s Convenience end go through controversy about who was in charge behind the scenes. 2:37

She says most producers and executive producers in the entertainment industry are still white and that it’s “hard and challenging and scary” for them “to share power with minority creators or women or people of colour.”

But if they don’t, she said, projects like Kim’s won’t get done. 

“You have to leave creative control in the hands of the minority creator. Period, end of story,” she said. 

“Power has to stay in the hands of the creator of colour and woman of colour,” she said. “And women need to be included in writers’ rooms.”

Lee said he believes things are starting to change. 

WATCH | Actor says Kim’s Convenience forged a lot of positive change:

‘Emotions were running high,’ says star about the end of Kim’s Convenience

‘How it ended was in no part how anybody wanted it to end,’ says actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee about the abrupt demise of Kim’s Convenience. But he wants people to remember all the good the show accomplished during its five seasons. 3:48

“What everybody seems to forget with all the noise that happened [at the end of Kim’s] was how much good the show did: how many doors, how many barriers we broke open, how many people we inspired — not only to become artists but to reconnect with their families.”

He calls this “the golden age” — not just a trend, but a movement.

“We have a wave of the next generation of BIPOC artists, not only in front of, but behind the camera — writers, producers, directors, everybody,” he said. 

“It’s happening. And I never thought I would see that in my lifetime, to be honest. I never did. So this is … it’s unfathomable. And I’m just so humbled and so grateful to be a small part of it.”



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