Craig Takeuchi / The Georgia Straight
When it comes to breaking new ground in the North American entertainment industry, a number of household names of Korean descent come to mind: comedian Margaret Cho, Canadian actor Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy fame, U.S. actor John Cho of Star Trek andHarold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
Vancouver’s Andrea Bang might soon be added to the list.
Chatting with Bang at a West Broadway coffee shop, she’s softer and sweeter in person than her on-screen character Janet in the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience.
The TV series, which was rescheduled (thanks to a Toronto Blue Jays game) to launch on October 11, is a home-screen adaptation of the 2011 stageplay of the same name by Ins Choi, which struck a chord with audiences.
The Burnaby-raised Bang plays Janet, the Canadian-raised daughter of immigrant Korean parents who run the titular store. Mr. Kim, or Appa (played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), is the stern and often bumbling patriarch while Mrs. Kim, or Umma (played by Jean Yoon), is the well-meaning but sometimes overmotherly mother.
Meanwhile, Janet’s brother Jung (Simi Liu) has flown the coop, due to tensions between him and his father. Consequently, Janet’s parents have turned all their attention towards her, resulting in some overparenting that she’s unhappy about.
Consequently, while Appa may be the figurehead of the family, it’s Janet who’s the true nexus of the familial relationships—she’s the only one who’s still on speaking terms with all family members.
“Janet is one of the character who’s able to go into Amma and Appa’s world, but also Jung’s world,” Bang says. “A lot of things are filtered through her. You get to see the world through her eyes.”
She says she still has to pinch herself that she got the role.
Although her own real life is different from Janet’s, she identified with the character immediately.
“The lines went straight into my brain, when that doesn’t usually always happen, and that means that I related to the character right away,” she says.
The spirited Janet can clearly stand up to her parents and knows when and how to pick her battles. For instance, she knows how to use strategies to manipulate her parents, which Bang says Janet inherits from her mom, yet is also quite stubborn, which Bang says Janet gets from her dad.
“She’s a lot cooler,” Bang says, with a laugh, in comparing her character to herself. “She speaks her mind and she holds her own ground. I feel like if I were friends with her and we got into something with another person, I’d be like, ‘Okay, you go talk to them. I’ll sit here and you tell me how it goes.’ ”
While cross-cultural tensions may be a part of the family dynamic, Bang says that the main issue that everyone can relate to is the generation gap between children and parents.
As for her own parents, who immigrated here from Korea, she says she think it was “distressing” to them that both her and her sister Diana decided to pursue acting as a career.
Diana has landed numerous roles in TV and film, including Seth Rogen’s 2014 comedyThe Interview.
Janet says her parents are now “super supportive” and that her mother now even shows off pictures of her to other people.
That said, Bang herself was reticent to choose acting as a profession.
Instead, she graduated in psychology from UBC while exploring her creative side through everything from drawing and graphic design to fashion—and taking acting classes on the side.
“I wanted to pursue acting but I was too scared to and didn’t think it was realistic so I just used all these other avenues of creativity to go about that,” she says. “Part of the reason I may not have gone to theatre school is because I didn’t see people like me on TV so I didn’t think it was even a possibility.”
Invisibility—that’s something that even Margaret Cho has talked about in her standup routines. And it’s also something that’s echoed by numerous Asian Canadians—for an inordinate amount of time.
While stateside, the ABC family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat launched in 2015, it was the first primetime Asian-American sitcom since Cho’s 1994 All-American Girl, which only lasted for one season.
“I didn’t see people like me on screen so I wanted to be a part of that conversation,” she says. “The fact that a show like Kim’s Convenience is coming out and it has real characters, fully fleshed out people, not people who just come on and say like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then leave—they actually have a backstory and a future story.”
Bang thinks it’s a problem behind the camera too, as she notes that there aren’t a lot of Asian Canadian writers or creators. She points out that on Kim’s Convenience, the production made a concerted effort to get diversity not just in front of the camera but also on the crew. She said they even had a few emerging directors from various backgrounds shadow the directors on set.
She’s well aware of the impact upon the unconscious of not seeing your image reflected in media, which she says can be potentially damaging.
“I find it really interesting because people say Asians are a minority but then growing up in Vancouver, we’re like a majority of people,” she says. “So it’s interesting, the fact that even the word minority, it’s like you are an outside, whereas I don’t feel that way living in Vancouver but TV and media tells me that I am a minority and I don’t see my face on TV.”
Bang hopes that this show is the beginning of something that will break the catch-22 situation of Asian actors not finding any roles available they can audition for but then also not being hired due to lack of experience.
She also points out that the series provides opportunities for more than just Asian Canadians, as there are numerous characters with diverse backgrounds on the show.
And everything is up for laughs. In the premiere episode, for instance, a running joke (perhaps a tip of the hat to Margaret Cho’s comedic takes on her mother’s views of LGBT people?) is Appa’s effort to prove he’s not homophobic, by offering a discount for gay people. But it’s not gay people who are the butt of the joke—it’s Appa. He argues that he can tell who is gay and who isn’t—and winds up in some convoluted situations.
“There’s humour but there’s also understanding,” Bang says.
Most of all, Bang emphasizes it’s really about universal themes that everyone can relate to.
“At the core of it, it’s about family so I think it’d be so cool if people were able to watch it as a family.”