'We're more than just tokenism': Andrew Phung on the wild success of Kim's Convenience

The Calgary-born comedian and actor joined q's Tom Power to reflect on the importance of representation and diversity as Kim's Convenience enters its fifth season.
The Calgary-born comedian and actor joined q's Tom Power to reflect on the importance of representation and diversity as Kim's Convenience enters its fifth season. (CBC)

When Andrew Phung auditioned for the role of Kimchee on Kim's Convenience in 2016, one thing that immediately stood out to him was that his character description was more than one sentence.

"It was a paragraph, like a solid paragraph," Phung told host Tom Power in a new interview with CBC Radio's q. "I had never read something so detailed, which allowed me to audition with an idea of who I was."

Prior to Kim's Convenience, the Calgary-born comedian and actor had never even considered film and television as a goal because it would have required him to uproot his family and move to Toronto or Vancouver. The opportunities were also limited for actors of colour, he noted.

"My goal was improv comedy, live theatre, corporate emceeing, hosting events — that was where I was going to be."

Phung got his big break after touring his comedy show Kill Hard at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, where he connected with the writer of Kim's Convenience, Ins Choi, whose interest was sparked when he noticed that Phung was "the only other Asian guy" at the festival.

Choi told Phung he thought there was a role for him. "Ins has always been about that, you know, supporting Asian talent," explained Phung. "But I never considered TV because, the truth is, up until, like, the last five years, we haven't been here. And if we have, it was for very small roles."

WATCH | Official trailer for Kim's Convenience Season 5: 

Kim's Convenience is now in its fifth season, which premieres tonight, Jan. 19, on CBC and CBC Gem. Looking back, Phung said he knew there was "always a possibility" that the now wildly popular sitcom could be a success, but he also considered the possibility that he would be fired after season one.

"Oh, I thought I was gonna get fired in like the first week," he told Power with a laugh, adding that he was just "so new to the television side of things" and nervous about moving to Toronto.

When Kim's Convenience got big, Phung came to a realization that "this isn't a Toronto show. This is a Canada show."

Diversity gets you one episode, but being good gets you five seasons and counting.- Andrew Phung

Recalling the 2017 Canadian Country Music Association Awards in Saskatoon, where Phung and Kim's Convenience co-star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who plays Appa) were presenting an award, Phung remembered being approached by "rock stars, country musicians and farmers," who were all fans of the show.

"I asked one of them, 'Why?' And he's like, 'You know, in our small town, we got a Kim's Convenience. We got a store like that.'"

Something about the heartfelt Canadian sitcom has connected with fans all around the country and beyond. Phung recalled another surreal moment — after the show had been picked up by Netflix and started streaming in the U.S. — when he and Sun-Hyung Lee caused a "frenzy" at an In-N-Out Burger because tables of teenagers recognized them.

He added that his favourite part about playing Kimchee is "when people come up and they say, 'You remind me of my cousin, my brother, my uncle.'"

"That means so much because it means we're more than just tokenism, more than just like this diversity card…. It means that we represent something real in their life."

"I've said it before and Paul will say it often: 'Diversity gets you one episode, but being good gets you five seasons and counting.'"

Hear the full interview with Andrew Phung near the top of this page, where he also talks about the escapism of Kim's Convenience, his relationship with his parents, and what it's like watching the show with his own children.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Jean Kim.


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