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October 11, 2016

Burnaby actor’s lead role in Kim’s Convenience a rarity in mainstream TV


Lien Yeung / CBC

Burnaby’s Andrea Bang has been feeling so lucky lately, she says she can’t even bring herself to think about it.

She’s one of the lead characters in the new sitcom Kim’s Convenience, premiering tonight on CBC Television.

She was an actor only for a couple of years before landing the plum gig.

And, she gets to “pretty much” play herself on TV, a Korean immigrant’s daughter — a cherished role Bang says she never saw on mainstream television growing up.

“The excitement is too overwhelming,” she said with a laugh. “If I actually let it affect me, I would just be like, oh my goodness, I’m just going to stay in my room forever.”

The show follows a Korean-Canadian family who run a convenience store in Toronto. Bang plays Janet, the defiant, Canadian-born daughter in a largely traditional family.

When she first read the part, she says she couldn’t believe how much art imitated life.

“I was like … this is me. It’s perfect.”

Like her on-screen appa and umma, Bang’s parents were also small business owners. They ran a laundromat in Burnaby after immigrating from Seoul.

Despite her mother’s discouragement, she pursued the arts — but only after dutifully completing her psychology degree at UBC and seeing her sister, Diana, quickly gain recognition as an actor.

Bang says she’s passionate about furthering the visibility of Asians in mainstream media and Kim’s Convenience is her chance to reflect the reality of her community.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a show like this to watch … being my first role, as this, it’s awesome.”

While the show has been lauded for being the first sitcom in Canada led by Asians, she says it hasn’t come without criticism.

Some have pointed out to her the plot line of immigrants owning a convenience store seems stereotypical.

But Bang says when it comes to the experiences of Asian-Canadians, the conversation needs to start somewhere.

“That story hasn’t been told, and before we can get to the point of say, aBig Bang Theory with Asian people, it has to go through this process first.”

Desire for diversity

Bang’s desire for more diversity on television isn’t isolated.

She muses a role like hers might have only come up because the issue is more prominent than ever.

Online chatter has been peppered with accusations of “whitewashing” in Hollywood.

There were outcries after Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton were all cast as Asian or partially Asian characters for various films over the past two years.

Online movements such as #StarringJohnCho replaced white actors such as Matt Damon and Daniel Craig on movie posters with Korean-American actor John Cho to help the public visualize a diverse face at the helm of a film.

Constance Hu from Fresh Off the Boat and Aziz Ansari from Master of None, both from critically-acclaimed shows where the immigrant experience is a dominant theme, have also been vocal on social media and in interviews.

Their perspectives are bolstered by industry statistics.

Earlier this year, an exhaustive analysis of 414 Hollywood films and series, totalling more than 11,000 characters was released by the University of Southern California.

It found roughly 50 per cent didn’t feature one Asian or Asian-American character.

Another study from this year looked at all the top films in 2015, and found not one had an Asian person in a leading role.

With so few diverse roles available, Bang says she’s particularly pleased the she and her cast mates aren’t just supporting characters.

“It’s cool that all the Asians are leads and have full, fleshed out lives.”

She hopes the show will not only broaden representation for actors of all backgrounds but also further cultural understanding.

Bang says the sitcom taps into the humour of generation gaps and family tension, something almost everyone can appreciate.