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Kim's Convenience stars Simu Liu as Jung and Andrea Bang as Janet.Ian Watson/CBC

Have you ever gone shopping for one thing and come home with something you never even knew you needed? Fans of Kim’s Convenience, the distinctly Canadian sitcom whose fifth season premieres on CBC Jan. 19, know the feeling well.

Centred on the Korean-Canadian Kim family and the community that orbits their Toronto corner store, the show may at first come across as little more than reliable, light entertainment. But spend some time perusing the Kim’s Convenience aisles and you’ll find a universal story of intergenerational conflict, cultural differences and familial love.

Developed by Korean-Canadian writer and actor Ins Choi, who drew inspiration from his own family’s business, Kim’s Convenience debuted as a stage play at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. The television adaptation – the first Canadian series to feature an all-Asian leading cast – premiered in 2016 and drew international audiences after being picked up by Netflix in 2018.

The themes behind Kim’s Convenience feel particularly poignant right now – over the past year, as we’ve seen a resurgence of of anti-Asian xenophobia and racism related to COVID-19, we’ve also reassessed our relationships to convenience stores, which, in addition to providing stay-at-home essentials such as toilet paper and shelf-stable food, have served as beacons of normality.

As the show begins its fifth season, its five leads reflect on life before Kim’s, and what it means for them to act as positive representations of the Asian immigrant and first-generation experience today.

Andrea Bang (Janet Kim)

Before landing the role of headstrong daughter Janet, Burnaby, B.C.-born Andrea Bang never had an acting gig that paid more than $100. “For the second audition, I cleared my entire day and just lay on my bed until it started,” she says with a laugh, remembering how nervous she was. “For the final audition, I lay on my bed for a whole week. Just kidding – maybe a few days.”

She credits Kim’s Convenience with giving her the opportunity to grow as an actor, and has since demonstrated her talent and range in projects such as the 2019 thriller Luce, co-starring Naomi Watts, in which she plays a sexual-assault survivor. Now a seasoned professional on set, Bang is eager to spend more time behind the scenes. She is currently working on screenwriting projects with her sister Diana, also an actor. “Positive BIPOC representation happens in front of the camera – but starts and grows behind it,” she says. “I want to be a part of humanizing more diverse stories from all angles.”

Simu Liu (Jung Kim)

It’s hard to believe that Simu Liu, who plays the rebellious (and frequently shirtless) Jung on Kim’s Convenience, started out as an accountant on Toronto’s Bay Street. “I only lasted eight months,” he says. “I was so miserable.” His first acting job was as an extra on director Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim in 2012. “It awakened something inside of me,” he says. “I was this Asian kid with no training, so I never imagined that this is how things would end up.”

This July, Liu will star as the first Asian superhero in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He traces his rise in the industry directly back to Kim’s. “We need shows like this to allow BIPOC creatives to hone their craft and give them opportunities to succeed,” he says. Being on the show has also inspired him to write his forthcoming memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story, which draws parallels between his family’s story of emigrating from China to Canada and his own struggles in Hollywood.

Andrew Phung (Arnold “Kimchee” Han)

Kim’s Convenience has plenty of romantic plotlines, but the relationship between Jung and his best buddy, Kimchee, played by Andrew Phung, is as strong off-screen as it is on camera. “Every hug we share on that show comes from a real place,” says Phung, whose passionate attitude extends across all areas of his life.

The actor, avid sneakerhead and devoted dad of two boys studied economics before becoming director of a non-profit. As a teenager in Calgary, he learned comedy and improv at the Loose Moose Theatre Company, and met Kim’s creator Ins Choi at the Fringe in Edmonton, where the director sought him out because he was the only other Asian guy there. That meeting led to Phung being invited to audition for the show. “These days, I’ve got to recognize my position and my ability to pay it forward to others,” Phung says. “I’m always hustling and trying to create opportunities to get those underrepresented voices into the room.”

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Appa)

“It was a struggle for me in the beginning,” Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Kim family patriarch Appa, says of his career path. When he was younger, as a non-white actor, most of the parts available to him in film and television were “throwaway, expositional roles, like ‘Gangster No. 1,’ ‘Scared Scientist No. 2’ or ‘ER Doctor,’ ” he recalls. So he turned to the stage instead, treading the boards at Cahoots Theatre and Young People’s Theatre in Toronto – as well as starring on the early 2000s TV soap Train 48, set on Toronto’s commuter GO Train – before Ins Choi asked him to read for Appa in the stage version of Kim’s Convenience. Lee has now earned two consecutive Canadian Screen Awards for his portrayal of the character he helped create.

Viewers of The Mandalorian were recently surprised to see Lee turn up on the the Disney+ series in a small role – one that was a complete thrill and career highlight for the self-professed geek and long-time cosplayer of all things 1980s sci-fi.

“We try to lead by example and be real and authentic,” Lee says of the responsibility he feels as a successful Asian actor today. “We didn’t intend to be role models – we just wanted to work!” he says with a laugh. “It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. This is a show that has always been underestimated – and has always exceeded expectations. How do we build on this momentum so that it’s not a trend, but an actual movement?”

Jean Yoon (Umma)

“It’s a real joy to be a part of the kind of show that I was imagining way back in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Jean Yoon, who plays Umma, the doting yet meddlesome wife and mother of the Kim family. Back then, she came close to quitting theatre because of the lack of opportunities for BIPOC actors.

“I’ve had a few different lives,” she explains, tracing her career from those stop-and-start beginnings as a stage actor in Toronto through to studying in China, working in cultural equity advocacy in the theatre scene and then transitioning into the development of new plays, which is how she met co-star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. The two have played alongside each other since Kim’s Convenience debuted on the stage.

Yoon has also received accolades for her tireless efforts advocating for equity on stage and screen, including the Award of Excellence from performers’ union ACTRA Toronto in 2020. “Any show like ours is only possible after you’ve built a foundation of a community,” she says. “Film, television and theatre are communal ventures, and that requires the cultivation of a huge range of talents. I feel grateful that we’re now at a place where we can have a show like Kim’s Convenience, where we know the talent is there and prepared. Here we are. You can’t ignore us anymore.”

The fifth season of Kim’s Convenience premieres Jan. 19 on CBC and CBC Gem

Special to The Globe and Mail

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