Tony Wong / Toronto Star
Growing up in Toronto, Ins Choi worked at Jug City and Minute Mart.
What he didn’t know was that the frenetic world of the convenience store would eventually become his Walden Pond, an unlikely place of literary inspiration.
“It was my first high school job. I didn’t know it was research back then,” laughs Choi, the creator of Kim’s Convenience.
Like the Chinese laundry or the Greek diner, the Korean convenience store has been an integral part of the complex, evolving tapestry of the immigrant experience.
The new sitcomKim’s Convenience, which has a two-episode premiere Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. on CBC, is based on Choi’s 2011 award-winning play about a Korean family and their store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.
“There are so many lessons from Jug City,” says Choi without irony, sitting in a dark office at a film studio near Toronto’s lakefront. “You see people from all different walks of life, different ethnicities. You catch two minutes of their lives and you start to wonder.”
The original Mr. Kim is Choi’s uncle, who owned a store in Etobicoke called Kim’s Grocer. When Choi’s family first moved from Korea to Toronto, they lived above that store during the 1970s.
“I remember the smell of the store, that first experience. He would count and bundle the money at the end of the day. I thought he was like the richest man.”
That world is recreated in impressive detail in seven standing sets at Showline Studios. The convenience store set is based on an existing store on Toronto’s Queen St. E., just west of Sherbourne St.
The shelves of the faux store are lined with real Pepsi, Grace coconut milk and Aurora extra virgin olive oil. You can almost feel a veneer of dust on the Unico olive jars.
Much of the commitment to detail is due to the oversight of legendary TV executive Ivan Fecan, once the head of programming for the CBC, vice-president of creative development for NBC and then CEO of CTV, the country’s largest private broadcaster.
This is Fecan’s comeback in Canadian TV since leaving CTV in 2011 and he’s taking this seriously, an enthusiastic presence on set every day.
“I started as a producer and then I became a suit. It’s become full circle and I love it,” says Fecan. “I’m a child of refugees myself, so this speaks to me on one level. People will recognize themselves in this show. It’s a universal experience.”
There are high hopes among CBC brass for the show, a production between Fecan’s film and production company Thunderbird and Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest theatre company. It is also something of a thoroughbred product, workshopped to a fine sheen from its origins at the Fringe Festival where it won Best New Play, and eventually Best Canadian Play at the 2012 Toronto Theatre Critics Awards for the Soulpepper version.
Ins shared showrunning duties with the veteran writer and producer Kevin White (Corner Gas,This Hour Has 22 Minutes) to develop the TV show.
But Fecan, who oversaw iconic Canadian shows such as Degrassi and Road to Avonlea while at the CBC, is reluctant to say this is going to be King of Kensington 2.0. Because he knows the failure rate for new shows is high and, mainly, as the grand old man of Canadian TV he doesn’t have to do spin.
“No one sets out to do a bad show. Whether it’s any good the audience will tell us,” says Fecan. “Honestly, we don’t have any perspective anymore. We obviously think it’s great. But we’ll know soon enough.”
At a recent premiere at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, guests were treated to the first two episodes.
The show is good. Possibly even great. The dialogue is sharp, on point and borderline subversive. It has the potential to be a future classic. It has bite where other highly touted shows, such as ABC’s Dr. Ken (starring Ken Jeong), remain disappointingly bland, as if producers forgot to mine the show’s cultural specificity for universal appeal. It’s a reminder that you can have the star power of an actor like Jeong and the budget of a big mainstream American broadcaster, but in execution the writing is everything.
On Kim’s Convenience, the corner store serves as a microcosm of Toronto where all manner of customers trundle through. When Mr. Kim, called Appa (Papa) in the show, is accused of homophobia, he gives customers a “gay” discount for the Pride Parade. In another episode there is an inspired banter between Appa and a Caribbean customer, thick accents colliding, while trying desperately to understand each other, a scene that is not unusual in such a multicultural metropolis as Toronto. It’s funny and true, but not a reality we typically see reflected on television.
“We’ve shown that there is an appetite for these shows, that the talent is out there, and it’s kind of silly that it’s 2016 and we still think it’s groundbreaking that there are a bunch of Asians in a show,” says the outspoken actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Mr. Kim.
The energetic, genial Lee is the heart of the show and is in practically every take. It’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on the role, moving the heavily accented Appa from caricature to relatable human being.
On a rare break, the actor is puffing on a cigarette on the back lot outside the studio.
“I never thought about race growing up. I just wanted to fit in,” says Lee. “When I watched shows it was about character, not ethnicity. I wanted to be Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock. I didn’t want to be Sulu, not because he was Asian, but because he wasn’t as involved. He wasn’t the hero. I wanted to be the hero, but there were no roles.”
Lee is now the star of his own show and No. 1 on the call sheet in a show written and produced by a fellow Korean-Canadian. Perhaps as it should be, because it is 2016 and it’s been more than two decades since Margaret Cho debuted All American Girl on U.S. TV.
“In the past you may have had non-Asian people pushing an agenda of what an Asian family should look like and it didn’t connect with audiences because it wasn’t authentic,” says Lee.
One thing Lee would like to see in Season 2, if there is one for Kim’s Convenience, is for more Korean to be spoken between Appa and his wife, Umma. Other shows, most recently the Toronto-shot Heroes Reborn, have already helped make subtitles acceptable to mainstream audiences.
“We’re definitely not speaking enough Korean. In real life of course they would be speaking non-stop Korean, but we understand that we have to set up the world for a broader audience. But layering in the Korean more and more would be a fantastic goal. If the audience has invested in us they won’t mind reading the occasional subtitle and it makes it more authentic.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Kim’s Convenience is that it expands the world of the play over 13 half-hour episodes. It is also a prequel, taking place a decade or so earlier than the timeline of the play itself. That means secondary characters such as matriarch Umma, played by the talented Toronto actress Jean Yoon (who also originated the theatrical role), get to stretch beyond the world of the stage.
“In the play you meet her at a time when she’s lost and she doesn’t expect much more. But 15 years earlier there is much more life and adventure in her. She has friends, she has relationships, she has a world outside the store,” says Yoon.
Yoon breaks into the world-weary accent of Umma when describing the subplots in the show.
“There are so many themes to explore. Korean moms, for example, are obsessed, just obsessed with setting their kids up and it gets really invasive,” says Yoon. And in accented English: “You know, my friend, Mrs. Pak. Her son, very, very handsome. Rhodes Scholar. You come to church to see him.”
Yoon, a playwright herself (The Yoko Ono Project), has pitched TV shows before. In 2002, she says she tried to sell producers on a show with a Korean woman as the lead, with a best friend who was black, and Chinese and Indian friends as leads.
“It wasn’t that long ago, but I was told straight out that it wouldn’t sell. We just constantly kept hitting that wall, slamming our heads against a glass ceiling that wouldn’t budge,” says Yoon.
Her eyes widen and there is a hint of a smile. “But things have changed right? We’re here. We’re finally here and they’re giving us a shot.”