Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on fatherhood, family, 'Star Wars' and 'Kim's Convenience'
Kim's Convenience is a certified TV phenomenon, with fans around the world, cast members taking roles in Star Wars & Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, multiple awards & rave reviews, and a run of hilarious episodes that can't be beat.
As the patriarch of the Kim family on Kim's Convenience, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a highly visible star of the series, now in its fifth season on CBC, and has earned two Canadian Screen Awards for his efforts.
Working for years as a journeyman actor in Canada, including appearances in Train 48, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Shoot the Messenger, the acclaim Lee has enjoyed as part of Kim's Convenience even led to an appearance on the Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian.
But it all started in 2011, when Lee first joined the cast of the original Kim's Convenience stage play as Appa, who he would reprise for the screen adaptation for CBC.
"When I first read the role of Appa, I understood where he was coming from because that was my dad and my uncle and my grandfather. It was just surreal. After I read the first draft of the play, I used to joke with Ins [Choi, the creator of Kim's Convenience] by saying, 'Have you been spying on my family?'"
Childhood memories and eye-opening experiences
Lee was born in Daejeon, South Korea and his family immigrated to Canada when he was three-months old. They moved a number of times during Lee's childhood before settling in Calgary, Alberta.
Lee remembers that his fondest memories as a young child was working with his parents at their businesses, forming a bond with that would become "as close as you can get."
"Around when I was in grade two, we lived across the street from the fish and chips restaurant my dad owned. I would go with him in the mornings to help prep for the day by sweeping, mopping, and turning on the deep fat fryers."
Another important time for Lee was a three-week trip to Seoul, South Korea, when he was in grade six; a visit that reshaped his world view and connected him to his heritage.
"As a kid, I always sort of thought that Korea was like a third world country. I spent a large majority of my childhood pushing away my parents' heritage. I wanted to fit in which meant not being different. Being 'different' was being 'Asian' or 'Korean,' and so I was really ignorant about where I came from."
"I had tremendous culture shock during the trip. I saw that Korea was not a third-world country but in fact, was very modern. (Seoul) was much bigger and faster-paced than Calgary where I was living at the time. I met at least a dozen cousins along with uncles and aunts I didn't know existed. And I met my paternal grandparents for the first time."
"I gained a lot of respect for my parents too. The fact that they left behind their friends and families and jobs to immigrate to a place where they didn't speak the language. They left everything behind to give my sister Angela and me new opportunities that they didn't have."
Like the character he plays on Kim's Convenience, Lee now calls Toronto home, where he lives with his two sons Noah and Miles, his wife Anna, and their dog Podrick.
"My eldest Noah is into all things nerdy like Star Wars, which is awesome. He's like a miniature version of me and I think that's why we butt heads a lot because we're so similar."
"Miles is the youngest and he's a fireball. Very physical and athletic. So 'not me,' but I love him because he's got his own geeky passions. He loves to create stop motion and draw."
Lee says that his own experiences of being a father has helped him learn that he has more in common with his parents than he thought as a child.
"It's like there is a cosmic payback to all the stuff you try when you're a kid. I thought I was always right and they were being unreasonable. I see my kids look at me the same way and now I know what my parents felt like."
Lee also inherited the same drive of instilling respect for others in his children.
"I want my children to be excellent not only in what they do but also how they behave and respect others. I was raised to respect your elders, respect other people, and think of others first."
"It's a deeper understanding as you get older. As a kid, you're very self-focused. As an adult. you need to look at the bigger picture. That's one of the things my parents had to do that I understand now."
Getting into character as Mr. Kim
After playing Appa for a decade, Lee loves the character now more than ever, and maintains a strong connection with him due to his personal experiences (while also fully crediting the Kim's Convenience writers with great material to work with).
"Appa is a family man who is very set in his ways because he's an immigrant. He chose to immigrate to Canada to give his kids the best opportunities to succeed. They might not follow the path that he hoped, but he supports and loves them. He's stubborn and often says things because he thinks he knows it all."
"But what I love about Appa is that he's not above realizing when he's made a mistake. Often times, as difficult as it is for him, he admits to his mistakes and tries to change for the better. He does everything with the best of intentions and with a lot of love in his heart. Especially when it comes to family."
"I'm just so proud that our show has affected so much positivity."
Jean Yoon, who plays Umma on Kim's and is a longtime friend of Lee, describes working with him as a "joy".
"While we're shooting, Paul is focused but goofy. He loves to pull pranks which is great in a comedy. Keeping it light and loose makes for better work, but for him, it's just a way of being."
"Paul is magnanimous, kind, geeky, proud, and a Dad with a capital D. We have known each other for 25 years. You see how big Appa's heart is? Paul's heart is even bigger. He's a good guy."
"With Kim's, first as a play and then a television show, we've had the great good luck of collaborating as Mr. and Mrs. Kim for almost 10 years now. What a joy it's been."
Creating 'Kim's Convenience' in a pandemic
Like many other productions in 2020 that were underway during the pandemic, Lee says it was an arduous process, but ultimately resulted in a season that is something everyone involved is very proud of.
"There were many rules everyone had to follow to keep us all safe. That made for an interesting production period because we were separated from each other either behind masks or physically distanced and often both.
According to Yoon, everyone came together to make the new season of Kim's a success.
"I think everyone came to set with some measure of anxiety. We had new and unfamiliar protocols and it was disorienting at first, but everyone pulled together. And within a few weeks, it all felt great. Coming back to set is kind of like returning to summer camp and seeing all your old friends again."
Lee added that the audience will be hard-pressed to see that the show was shot during a pandemic.
"I am very proud of the fact that we did shoot season five without one case or losing any days to COVID. We were able to shoot a season under the most difficult of circumstances and I'm so proud of the entire cast and crew and production team. If you watch the new season and there was no pandemic, you would have no idea."
As for the growth of popularity of Kim's Convenience in the last year, Lee thinks the pandemic has also played a part as well.
"I've heard from many people on social media that they are discovering the show because they need a diversion. Something to heal them after feeling beaten down by the pandemic. Kim's for them has been a breath of fresh air."
Not just a 'Bitter Asian Dude'
Though Lee is known by the self-proclaimed moniker "Bitter Asian Dude" online, in reality, his joy for family and acting is evident, and is someone who hopes to continue inspiring a new generation of immigrants, families and actors with his work.
"When I was growing up, all the TV shows were telling me that Asian families and Asian people didn't matter. That our stories didn't matter. Asians on screens were often depicted as outsiders or comic relief. Exoticized and fetishized, something to be used."
"To finally be able to play a character that's fully a human being instead of a caricature. It's a tremendous responsibility and an honour."
"The power of representation should never be underestimated. We need diversity. I think it's a tremendous step forward and it would have made a huge difference for me growing up."
"I'm really proud to make a difference for viewers who never saw themselves or their families reflected on screens. I'm just so grateful and humbled that I have this opportunity to do that."
Subscribe now to the Kim's Convenience YouTube channel, and catch season five airing now on CBC & CBC Gem.