How Kim's Convenience showcases the difficulties faced by diverse creators
'We didn't get a chance to say goodbye,' says star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
It was a nondescript Wednesday in early July 2011, when actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee stepped onto the stage of Toronto's Bathurst Street Theatre. It was his first official turn as the thickly accented family patriarch Appa — and the first official showing of Kim's Convenience.
At the time, neither Lee nor writer Ins Choi expected the play to go much further, let alone become one of the defining Canadian productions of the last decade, a beloved television series in 2016 and a hugely important source of representation for Asian Canadians throughout the country.
But — as Choi later recounted in a video for the Toronto Fringe Festival, where it premiered — all that changed quickly after the final line was spoken. After a brief moment of stunned silence, the audience rose for a standing ovation, "welcoming the birth of Kim's Convenience."
"We sold out the run, I felt like all of Koreatown came," he said.
"I was so humbled by its success that just kind of took over and so grateful to be so blessed."
Lee was shocked and grateful, too. In a 2016 interview with CBC's q, he credited Choi's work with giving him an opportunity to break into the industry telling a story he identified with — something he said isn't common for a Korean Canadian artist.
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But the TV show's triumphant, against-all-odds success was somewhat countered this year by its premature demise. At the same time, the controversy around it showcased the difficulties BIPOC creators, and their creations, are often forced to shoulder.
Although Kim's Convenience was renewed early on in 2020 for two more seasons, CBC later announced that it would instead conclude in 2021. The news shook up fans, who immediately spread the hashtag #SaveKimsConvenience in an attempt to save it. It also surprised fellow creators, including Saturday Night Live star Bowen Yang, who repeated the refrain on air following a segment on the rise of anti-Asian violence.
And it came as a shock to the cast.
"We didn't get a chance to say goodbye, and we never got a chance to do our victory lap, to celebrate all these moments and to have that closure," Lee said in an interview with CBC's The National.
"And so when it's suddenly yanked away from you, it's very jarring, and it's hurtful."
Similarly, on Monday, the day before the show's final episode aired, costar Simu Liu tweeted that "the truth is I'm still pretty f--king angry" about the end.
On the eve of what is now to be the series finale of Kim's Convenience, I hoped I'd be at a point where I could speak about it with a clear head. But the truth is I'm still pretty f**king angry. Hours of therapy are sure to follow. <br><br>You all deserved a proper ending.—@SimuLiu
Although the exact reason behind Kim's coming to an end is unknown, Lee said Choi — who has refrained from speaking on the cancellation — ultimately told the cast in late January that he was leaving, after Lee tried unsuccessfully to convince him to stay. The series' co-creator, Kevin White, also departed, which left the cast with the decision to either continue without them or stop.
Lee said that wasn't much of a choice.
"Kim's was so unique because you had an all-Asian cast. And if you don't have someone who's Asian, who's part of the producing team, the optics look terrible," he said.
"Unfortunately, the industry, the way it is, it's very difficult to find somebody of that calibre to step in and replace someone like Ins Choi."
Lee said that only served to reinforce the necessity of more representation in the Canadian entertainment industry: if there are more BIPOC producers, showrunners and writers, they will gain the experience to eventually create shows of their own.
'Why is that the only show?'
But the fact there are so few options for Choi's replacement could have something to do with why the show was so popular in the first place. In an interview with CBC about the entertainment industry's hypersexualition of Asian women, Second Jen co-creator Amanda Joy pointed to the outcry over the cancellation of Kim's Convenience as evidence it was doing more for representation than should be expected.
"When you have so few shows that are representing a community ... when they end, the impact of that is felt in such a greater way," she said.
"Of course, it's sad when the show ends. But also, why is that the only show?"
And without more diverse shows such as Kim's Convenience as a way into the industry, those creators have a more difficult time positioning themselves to one day launch their own projects.
That's what Justin Wu, a photographer turned TV director, believes. He got his start in the industry after cold-calling writers with Kim's Convenience, and they ended up giving him the opportunity to direct an episode in the show's fifth season.
But, he admitted, that is in no way a common path. For other BIPOC artists, Wu said, it's usually not that simple.
"There's a general desire for new, young, diverse talent to step up ... [but] despite having the desire to, sometimes it's very challenging to even find new talent," he said.
"You can't get experience to get in front of people that are the decision-makers when you don't have the experience. But how else would you get experience otherwise?"
Canadian TV's golden age
Kim's Convenience was a unique example of diversity in a golden age of Canadian TV. Letterkenny, Schitt's Creek, Workin' Moms and Baroness von Sketch Show all saw success domestically and abroad but didn't represent BIPOC communities and their stories the way Kim's Convenience did.
Wu said that reinforced the importance of the show — and seeing its success is what made him believe he could make a career in the TV industry in the first place.
The movement to improve representation in Canadian media is already underway. Alongside Amanda Joy and others in the industry pushing for better depictions of Asian characters, playwright and artist Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu recently started 21 Black Futures — a series of monologues by Black writers starring Black actors — which Calgary arts and theatre critic Jenna Shummoogum said is vital to overcoming the overrepresentation of white actors in Canadian theatre.
And a recent wave of transgender representation in the media — including Canadian photographer Wynne Neilly's Time magazine photo of Elliot Page — is beginning to challenge conventional beauty norms in the face of alarming rates of hate crimes against gender-diverse people.
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the importance of representation, tweeting that we should "continue to #SeekMore representation in the stories on our screens," after Kim's Convenience left the air.
For years, <a href="https://twitter.com/KimsConvenience?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@KimsConvenience</a> has celebrated diversity and championed inclusion. Although the show ends tonight, and we have to say “okay, see you” to <a href="https://twitter.com/SimuLiu?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SimuLiu</a> and the entire Kim family one last time, let’s continue to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SeekMore?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SeekMore</a> representation in the stories on our screens. <a href="https://t.co/AgfWkuQhO2">pic.twitter.com/AgfWkuQhO2</a>—@JustinTrudeau
But because of the state of the country's entertainment industry — and the precarious place in which BIPOC creators find themselves — being a champion of diversity can actually make it harder for shows like Kim's Convenience to find a place on our screens, and ultimately succeed.
"It's challenging I think, especially for the creators on those shows who have to then tell the stories of their community and do it in such a way that they're doing service to the community," said Jhanik Bullard, a TV writer and treasurer of the BIPOC TV & Film Visioning Committee.
"There's so much pressure on them, whereas their counterparts — their white counterparts — often aren't held to that same standard or that same pressure or that same scrutiny."
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Bullard said it is vitally important to be respectful and authentic when making shows that represent marginalized communities. But shows like Kim's Convenience are often penalized because they're held to a higher standard, while other shows that don't strive for diversity and representation are allowed to focus solely on entertainment.
He pointed to the Tamil drama Funny Boy, which garnered controversy after some pointed out that there were few Tamil actors in lead roles and the language was incorrectly spoken. And despite strong reviews, the second season of Trickster was cancelled after the Indigenous identity of the show's co-creator and showrunner, Michelle Latimer, came under scrutiny.
There should be more work done to have a variety of shows to tell a variety of stories about different communities, Bullard said, and that responsibility rests with broadcasters. In light of all that, he said, Choi's decision to step away from Kim's Convenience doesn't seem like a mystery.
And neither does the reaction to his departure.
"That's bound to happen when the pressure is on one individual to tell the stories of such a diverse community," Bullard said.
"Everybody's putting the onus on the community to answer ... the hard questions that are posed, but they're not putting the responsibility on the decision-makers to answer those as well."
WATCH | How Kim's Convenience broke down barriers to diverse storytelling:
But even as the show's abrupt end left a bitter taste in some fans' mouths, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee said it's important to focus on the good of Kim's Convenience. Despite whatever was wrong with how it ended, he would like to remember the show for what it did — and what it means for the future of Canadian media.
"What we really need more and more is kindness, shows like Kim's Convenience," he said.
"We're about family, we're about love, we're about kindness."