According to Ins Choi, his parents didn’t think he would ever make anything of himself.
That was until he created “Kim’s Convenience,” which first rose to prominence as Canada’s most beloved theater play before taking place as one of the country’s most critically acclaimed comedy television series.
“Kim’s Convenience” is wrought from Choi’s personal and observational experiences growing up in Toronto as a first-generation Korean immigrant. His family left South Korea when he was just 1. His characters — the fussy umma, the unyielding appa, the artistic daughter, the approval-seeking son — are hysterical because they are real.
The Regent Park-set show, aired by CBC, received a whopping 11 Canadian Screen Awards nominations this year, including for Best Comedy Series. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, the Korean Canadian actor who plays patriarch of the family in the show, took home the trophy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series at the ceremony Sunday.
“I have to say that I am an immigrant and I am a Canadian,” Lee said during his acceptance speech. Lee, alongside Jean Yoon, who plays umma, was also part of the play’s original cast. “In this weird sort of political time, the portrayal of an immigrant family on a national broadcaster doing what all families do — which is try to make a life for themselves through the laughter, through the tears, through the fights, through the love — is so much more important now than ever before. It normalizes us, and it shows people that we might have some cultural differences, but when it comes to family, we are all the same. Our strength has been and always will be diversity in this country.”
It was inevitable that at the heart of the series is familial love — Choi’s family, like most others who arrive in North America from a foreign country, was a tight-knit unit. And because his father was a pastor, they also played a significant part in the local Korean church community, where the future playwright observed the characteristics and immigrant lives of his relatives and congregation members.
Then there was his uncle, the real Mr. Kim, who owned and operated a store in Etobicoke, much like “Kim’s”‘ fictional appa’s, called Kim’s Grocer. The space above that store was home to the Choi family for a while; in his teens, Choi would go on to work jobs at other convenience stores around Toronto.
Ins Choi is the creator of “Kim’s Convenience” (Courtesy of Soulpepper Theatre Company)
His — and “Kim’s,” as a result — is a Canadian story, and one that resonates with a good chunk of Canada’s immigrant population. So while Choi is “humbled” that it is his show that is breaking barriers as Canada’s first TV sitcom led by an Asian cast (“I feel frustrated that it’s taken this long,” he said. “It’s only one show, it’s on one channel.”), he would have none of it when media headlines began labeling the series as Canada’s first “Korean show.”
“It’s a Canadian show, and the stories told in it are part of the fabric of Canada,” Choi said. “When reviewers — articles written by, in many cases, by white male reporters — label [the show], that would hurt me. It’s not that they mean to do that. In their eyes, they are celebrating, but really they are trying to find a box we could be No. 1 in. That box is not ‘Asian,’ it’s No. 1 comedy series on CBC.”
Before “Kim’s” made it to the screen, it was a theater play that made several country-wide sold-out tours with Soulpepper Theatre Company beginning in 2012. A year before that, it had emerged as the breakout project from the Toronto Fringe Festival, where it won Best New Play; seven years before that, Choi, then a struggling actor who turned to writing after becoming disheartened by only stereotypical roles available to him, had begun writing the story.
“Up until then, the starving artist, that was me. My parents were worried that I was going to be homeless,” Choi said. In true Korean fashion, he said, “My mom would say, ‘Who’s going to want to marry you?’”
He remembers inviting his parents to one of the performances. When it ended, they gave him a big hug and told him: “We love you. We’re so proud of you.”
“That was a culmination,” Choi said. “I know all they sacrificed and all they went through for all of us. In that moment, that was it.”
Rosie Simon, left, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, right, in the play “Kim’s Convenience” (Cylla von Tiedemann/Soulpepper Theatre Company)
The story, due for a second TV season in fall this year, is set to bring its stage production stateside, to New York, through Soulpepper Theatre Company come July 1. Choi and the team are hoping that a successful run will result in bringing the play to more American cities, including the West Coast.
“I’m curious to see how Americans receive [the play],” Choi said. “I wrote the play and thought that my Korean Canadian friends and family would love it. The surprise was that non-Korean Canadians loved it too. They embraced it all.”
July will also see “Kim’s” in Seoul for the first time, in a 10-day run. Choi has been invited to be a part of the National Theater Company of Korea’s special diaspora program that gathers shows from playwrights of Korean descent from around the globe. “Kim’s” is the only participant from Canada.
“The interest in Korea will be, how did Koreans who left Korea fare? How did they do overseas, and make a living?” He said. “When we went on tour all across Canada, I was surprised. The story is very Toronto, very urban. We went to Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver — they loved it. Ahjummas and ahjussis came up to me tearful and said this was their story.”
The lives of the Kim family and their little convenience store, of course, is for more than just adults. It’s a celebration and, he hopes, an honest telling of the Korean Canadian experience.
“I want little Asian students to see Asians on stage be celebrated and inspired to be artistic,” Choi said. “And not just artistic, but that they can do so many things, and to encourage them.”