While covering the red carpet at the 20th annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian), I had a chance to speak briefly with Jean Yoon and Simu Liu from Kim’s Convenience. Kim’s Convenience is a new Canadian sitcom on CBC that features the Kim family, a Korean-Canadian immigrant family who run a local convenience store in Toronto and is based off the hit play, also called Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi.
It’s fresh, funny and relatable – basically the ingredients you want in a sitcom – especially in a country that’s made up of immigrants because you don’t need to be Korean or Korean-Canadian to understand. If you haven’t already watched it, you really should. I’ve giggled, rolled my eyes and even teared up at various episodes already and can’t wait to see the rest of this season (and hope that there’s a season 2).
But let’s hear from Jean and Simu about some of their experiences with Kim’s Convenience and seeing Asian-Canadian TV shows.
Hello, you’re both from Kim’s Convenience. Could you please introduce yourselves?
Jean Yoon: Hi, my name is Jean Yoon. I play Umma, the mom.
Simu Liu: And my name is Simu Liu and I play Jung, the son.
Jean, you were also in the play, the original play.
Can you tell us how it feels to have the play made into a TV show?
Jean: Oh, it’s incredibly exciting and satisfying too. You know, when we were doing the show, there were several of us in the cast that were telling Ins, ‘you should make this into a TV show, it has all the elements you need for a TV show.’ We talked about backdoor pilots and making it into a film or pitching it for a TV show. Ins didn’t know about TV, he’s from theatre so it was several years of progress towards it becoming a television show. And now that it is, it’s incredibly satisfying because Ins is very careful about his stories, he’s very true, he has a true heart creatively and he waited until he found the right creative partner, who’s Kevin White, the co-creator of the show. They’re both show runners. Kevin has a long track record as a TV writer, Schitt’s Creek, Corner Gas.
Simu: 22 Minutes.
Jean: InSecurity. And he’s wonderful and they’re actually a great team. So to walk on the set of Kim’s Convenience, the television show, with these incredibly solid scripts, it is really, really satisfying.
I enjoyed the play and now the TV show. How does it feel to start seeing more Asian representation in TV in Canada with shows like Kim’s Convenience and Second Jen.
Jean: And Blood and Water.
I haven’t seen that one yet but I’ll look for it. So how does it feel to finally see shows with Asian leads?
Simu: Oh, it feels awful. [Laughter] It’s been really great for me, I’ve only been an actor for five years and I’ve seen the difference. Jean’s been in the industry and around and struggling for much longer than I have.
Jean: I’ve been waiting a long time for this. It’s finally reaching a critical mass, the tipping point. And what’s really exciting too is we have three TV shows, Asian Canadian shows right now. We have Blood and Water which is a Chinese drama that Simu is in as well in the first season.
Simu: That’s right, yeah.
Jean: And then Second Jen with Amanda Joy and Samantha Wan. And Kim’s Convenience. And they’re incredibly different shows. It’s so satisfying to see our talented friends and colleagues actually getting to practice their craft. And for us, we’re doing it too. There’s a lot of camaraderie and it’s wonderful.
Simu: I love the fact that there’s more than one show because when there’s just one, you run the risk of being the token show. If there’s one Asian show, it bears the burden of representing the entire culture. Which is impossible to do. You’re going to leave out certain things and your writers will write from a certain point of view. But what we have right now is three different shows, three different perspectives and that’s wonderful. It’s such a luxury.
Jean: And the last time I remember an Asian Canadian show was in 2007, Dragon Boys. It was a long period without.
Simu: Jean was a part of it.
Jean: Yeah, I was a part of it too and so was Steph Song who was in Blood and Water.
Simu: That’s right.
Jean: Yeah, it’s been a long wait. Asians form a significant portion of our population here in Canada, collectively as a group, we’re the largest visible minority – if you put Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipinos all together – but we have not seen that representation in our drama. Whether it’s performance on stage or performance in film and television, so it feels really good.
Simu: I think audiences are really responding to it as well.
Jean: We have all been waiting a long time.
One last question, you’re not Korean (referring to Simu).
Simu: That’s right.
Do you feel any pressure or difficulty in playing Jung, a Korean Canadian?
Simu: Oh sure, I do. I absolutely do. I mean, you definitely don’t want to break that illusion of the TV magic. The moment I say a word wrong or pronounce it wrong or have a very obvious non-Korean accent, that’s when a viewer somewhere might be like ‘I don’t know if I buy into that show anymore.’ So it means a lot for me to play this character as authentically as I can. That being said, I don’t think that being Chinese necessarily limits me. You’ve seen Randall Park in the States playing a Taiwanese father on Fresh Off The Boat, I think he’s wonderful. For me, I go back to what I think the core of Jung is, my character. That’s this guy who’s just trying to be better and he has a complicated relationship with his parents who are immigrants and who have very different values than he does and those are all things I relate to extremely well. So of course, I think I know the character, I think I’m very familiar with him, and I can’t wait to step in his shoes again, hopefully. I’m going to take some Korean lessons and I hope to be able to speak more.
Jean: And Simu comes from a city in China, Harbin, which has a huge Korean population. It was actually originally a part of the Goguryeo [Editor’s note: I hope this is the correct time period.]. So there’s a real probability that he’s actually got some Korean blood.
Simu: Well, there you go.
Jean: It’s true. It’s something like 40% or something.
Simu: I have the features, the square jaw and I’m tall.
Jean: Yeah, I bet if you did an ancestry trace, that whole northeastern part of China was a part of Korea at one point.
Simu: Yeah, we have a lot of history between China and Korea.
Thank you very much for your time.
Jean: Thank you
Simu: Thank you.
I appreciate it.
Simu: Thank you, we like to talk.
Excellent, that makes for good interviews.
It was lovely speaking with Jean and Simu at Reel Asian (they also participated in a panel session later in the festival that was very interesting). And like I said earlier, if you haven’t already, I really recommend checking out Kim’s Convenience on CBC (and Second Jen, it’s cute. I still haven’t seen Blood and Water). If you have, let us know what you think in the comments below.
If you’re in Toronto, you can meet the cast of Kim’s Convenience at the Kim’s Convenience store in Toronto from 12pm – 2pm this Saturday (Dec. 10th) at 252 Queen Street East.