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Barrier-breaking ‘Kim’s Convenience’ family reflects immigrant experience

Beloved Canadian sitcom series to get fifth season

Imaging hearing “appa” and “eomma” -- the affectionate words for dad and mom in Korean -- on an English-language TV channel, let alone a regular sitcom series in Canada. One would say, improbable.

But that is what has been happening for more than three years now through “Kim’s Convenience,” a much loved sitcom on public broadcaster CBC that depicts a Korean Canadian family’s authentic everyday life. 

“Kim’s Convenience” (CBC)
“Kim’s Convenience” (CBC)

The story revolves around the Kims, a Korean immigrant family running a convenience store in Toronto. The series is based on Korean Canadian actor-playwright Ins Choi’s play of the same name.

The show has made a splash across North America and enjoys a large fan base in Korea too, where it can be watched on Netflix and the Chosun cable TV network.

Invited to the 14th Seoul International Drama Awards in the noncompetition category as a favorite foreign series, the show’s actors and producer met with press at the Korean Film Archive in Sangam-dong, western Seoul on Thursday.

“One of the lovely things about the show (is) that (Ins Choi) is a part of Korean heritage. So right from the very top, you have somebody telling a story from an authentic point of view, drawn from his own family history,” Paul Sun-hyung Lee, who plays the beloved “Appa” character, said.

Jean Yoon, who plays “Umma,” agreed, adding how her previous roles were limited due to her ethnicity. “Kim’s Convenience” has been a groundbreaking production for her, and in a larger perspective, for the whole immigrant community. 

From left: Actors Paul Sun-hyung Lee, Jean Yoon, Andrea Bang and producer Ivan Fecan pose for photos after a press event held at the Korean Film Archive in Sangam-dong, western Seoul, Thursday. (Seoul International Drama Awards)
From left: Actors Paul Sun-hyung Lee, Jean Yoon, Andrea Bang and producer Ivan Fecan pose for photos after a press event held at the Korean Film Archive in Sangam-dong, western Seoul, Thursday. (Seoul International Drama Awards)

“Before ‘Kim’s Convenience,’ I only had two or three characters where I had a husband or children. I played mostly functional roles, lawyers, for example,” she said.

“We are a family, the story of Janet and Jung (the Kim family’s two children) and their relationship with their parents is really important not just for the Asian, Korean community, but for the larger, the whole immigrant community.”

The two actors have been with the story since 2011, when it was a stage play, playing Appa and Umma. The stage play ran for more than six years, on and off, with Lee actor going on the stage 481 times and Yoon appearing 322 times in the same roles.

Though Lee and Yoon play characters who speak broken English with a heavy Korean accent, in reality they were both raised in Canada and speak English much more fluently than Korean.

“The accent is authentic. My father speaks like that,” Lee said. “I have played Appa for long. He is a part of me. He is based on my Appa, on my assumptions on my grandfather and all the middle-aged stubborn Korean men. He is an homage for all these Korean men that I grew up with.”

With the huge success of the first three seasons, the story has reached its fourth season, which is now being edited. It is to continue into its fifth season soon, with the writing process already started.

“In the show, the parents came to Canada in the ’80s. Like any immigrant, they relate to Korea they knew in 1985, not today,” said Ivan Fecan, the executive producer who brought the play to the small screen.

“Canada is a nation of immigrants. Over 50 percent of residents in Toronto were born in other countries. Some of these factors provide a very rich material of some of the storylines.”

According to the producer, the upcoming fourth season -- a release date has not yet been set, but it is to be released on Netflix by April 2020 -- will be the best of all.

“We understand each other better and also understand the audience better. As we get the audience’s reaction, we can start to relate to the audience and (reflect) what they are telling us. It is very natural,” Fecan said.

Andrea Bang, who plays Janet, a character who consistently experiences the generational gap with her parents, expressed her gratitude for her two senior actors.

“People like Paul and Jean are breaking down walls for me to make a career,” she said. She also mentioned how surprised she was to see people recognize her on the streets of Seoul.

“The last time I visited Korea was 36 years ago,” Lee said. “So I was little bit nervous coming here this time. Mostly because, I have always tried to push away the Korean heritage, trying to be a Canadian. But the biggest success of my acting career came from portraying a Korean character.”

“Along the way, (‘Kim’s Convenience’) has become about (proper) representations, responsibilities,” he said. “Being on ‘Kim’s’ has been the biggest blessings of my life, I am eternally grateful for. We approach with love and gratitude, and we want to honor everything it came from.”

By Im Eun-byel (