Eleanor Ty / The Toronto Star
The CBC TV show Kim’s Convenience won two prizes at the ACTRA awards in February: the Ensemble award and Outstanding Female Performance. Ins Choi’s play, also called Kim’s Convenience, has been a hit since its debut at the Fringe in 2011. For me as an Asian Canadian, the recognition of the play, and especially the TV show, is long overdue. Kim’s Convenience is more than a strong comedy with great punchlines. It is about making Asian Canadians, who have long been an absent presence in Canada, visible in the media.
For the first time on TV this season, I saw someone who looked like me on prime-time television in my own city. I was channel-surfing one night and saw a familiar red and white TTC streetcar, a Toronto street, and then an Asian man and a young Asian woman. And lo and behold… he was not a gangster or Kung Fu fighter. She was not a bikini-clad seductive sidekick for James Bond, but a student at OCAD. What a nice surprise!
I have grown up and have lived in multicultural Toronto for the last 40 years and all this time there has not been one show about me or the kind of family I grew up in. There are lots of Asian Canadian students, restaurant owners, professionals, storekeepers and so on in my neighborhood, but they don’t seem to appear on TV.
Sure, there have been a number of Asian Canadians appearing on TV, mainly as news reporters and anchors, notably Adrienne Clarkson, Jan Wong and, more recently, Sook-Yin Lee. We know personalities like David Suzuki and Olivia Chow. But Asian Canadian families on prime-time TV? Not ever… until this year.
Fall 2016 brought not one, but two, sitcoms featuring mainly Asian Canadian characters who are intelligent, funny and engaging. Kim’s Convenience depicts a Korean-Canadian family running a store in a diverse, mainly black community, while Second Jen (CITY TV), created by Amanda Joy and Samantha Wan, features two 20-something Asian Canadian women trying to live independently in the city.
Both shows are ground-breaking because they offer representations of Asians that break from stereotypical Orientalist roles of the exotic geisha girl or the threatening Fu Man Chu. For the first time in Canada we are able to see day-to-day interactions between Asian Canadian family members, to see representations of their cares, passions and frustrations, albeit somewhat exaggerated and ironic.
In Hollywood movies and on mainstream TV, Asian North Americans are not given space to show the complexity of their lives. Too often they are sidekicks, villains or short-term romantic partners who support the main character. The stereotypes of Asians as math and computer geniuses or mysterious Oriental villains are harmful in more ways than one.
Although immigrants have gained the right to vote, to work, to live as citizens in Canada, many visible minorities still do not feel like they fully belong to our nation. Beyond legal rights, what’s missing is the sense of belonging to a national community that welcomes and embraces the customs and cultural practices of different ethnic groups.
Television and media can render the strange into the familiar, make the Other become non-threatening and ordinary. Humour and laughter diffuse tension and fears. Kim’s Convenience, for example, bravely tackles foreign-ness (Korean accents), gender difference (gays and pride parade), racial prejudice (Janet’s black boyfriend), and immigrant family issues through comedy.
Like Mr. Kim, many Asian immigrants who run restaurants, dry cleaners, and convenience stores are successful only because of the combined efforts of husbands, wives and children who contribute, sometimes reluctantly like Janet, to the enterprise. The disjunction between the younger, more liberal generation and the older generation who believe in self-sacrifice causes conflicts, but also becomes a source of comedy. These scenes provide insights into the lives of immigrant families and offer visible minority actors a chance to play “fully rounded characters,” as actress Jean Yoon (Mrs. Kim) says.
It is more than cool that Kim’s Convenience picked up a couple of awards this year. It’s an incredible step forward, a good sign that Canadians are recognizing talent from non-white communities and finding different ways we can put our ideals of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusivity into practice in popular media.
Eleanor Ty is professor of English at Wilfrid Laurier University and works on life writing, 18th-century British, and Asian North American literature.