How Diversity and Cultural Ownership were Displaced in Kim’s Convenience
By Namah Bose
As a Canadian-Indian growing up in Toronto, with a dad who ran a small store, and a mom who was always right (isn’t that all of us?) Kim's Convenience struck a very particular, peculiar, hopeful chord. I remember first seeing Kim’s Convenience when it headlined as a play at the National Arts Center of Canada, back in Ottawa in 2014. Back then it was billed as “one of the most talked-about comedies in years,” based on “personal experience about intergenerational clashes in a Korean-Canadian family, giving this award-winning play a feeling of integrity and authenticity.” To be honest, I had no idea what I was walking into. I will never quite forget the stage lights slowly panning to the stage, and the scene of Mr Kim opening the store in the early morning light. It was the most surreal feeling to watch my dad’s nearly exact morning routine take place on the stage of the National Arts Centre. I turned to my husband and whispered “this is crazy, I feel like I’m watching clips from my own life.” What an unfamiliar feeling for someone like me to experience, right?
Even beyond the Korean-Canadian diaspora, many immigrant communities in Canada and beyond were surprised to find a familiar and initially authentic representation of what can only be termed #TheImmigrantHustle. The idea of a sitcom that actually attempted to showcase the wonderful and strange dichotomous environment that is growing up as a first-generation immigrant was such a breath of fresh air. I watched it, my parents watched it. It was like a weird family therapy that we hadn’t realized we signed up for. We were so excited.
And then it kind of got a bit weird. And the part about it being based on “personal experiences” got left behind.
Once again, for the millionth time, I found myself watching a version of my life as viewed from the white gaze. *sigh* Is this ever going to change?
Soon after it was renewed for a sixth season, CBC declared that the fifth season of their underrated hit sitcom Kim’s Convenience would be the last. The show is a well-articulated family sitcom touching the hearts of many fans for its relatable characters and insight into Korean culture. Yet everything wasn’t as great behind the scenes. It is clear, now that actors Simu Liu and Jean Yoon have come out in the open, that the writers of the show were mainly white, giving ‘overtly racist story lines’ & making the procedure painful.
The sitcom was a rarity for an American network because it focused on the everyday life of the Kim’s, a Canadian Korean family, talking not only about the struggles of being immigrants but also the daily problems of a simple family. The show is a great example of representation when most Western sitcoms have predominantly white characters and you have to dive into K-dramas to see any Koreans on-screen (which if you haven’t seen any already, are seriously good TV).
The protagonists include Mr and Mrs Kim (played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon) who run a convenience store and have two children, Janet (Andrea Bang) and Jung (Simu Liu). But despite a plethora of actors from diverse backgrounds, it was the exact opposite experience for the actors working on sets.
Trouble Behind the Scenes
The show began with hard-hitting plots and themes and had a few excellent episodes with meaningful storytelling, but this didn’t last long enough. In the episode, ‘The Help’ in Season 4, the racial bias towards people of Asian descent is questioned and yet it loses its charm and fails to make a hard-hitting impact. Instead of calling out the racist actions of Mrs Taylor who confuses Amma for a server and says racist lines like she would “never be racist as her daughter in law is Sri Lankan”, the entire focus is shifted on how Janet, an Asian Canadian woman wins the photography award because of Mrs Taylor’s white guilt. Flaws like the rarity of Multiple sclerosis among Koreans which was pointed out to the writers by Jean Yoon was also blatantly ignored.
Both Jean Yoon, who played the family matriarch Mrs Kim or Umma, and on-screen son Simu Liu felt that the experience of working on the show was painful because of the lack of Asian females and Korean writers. Yoon said that they wanted a Korean female writer urgently, especially as gender parity had eroded by the later seasons. “We never got to 50-50 with BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] parity. Where I felt a female voice was lacking most was in Janet's arc and in her interactions with Umma,” she stated.
She noted the fact that even though the cast all had writing experience, the writers didn’t engage with them even after they requested to meet with them since the first season. The door never opened for them, seemingly because it was being held shut by the force of a predominately white-male writing room that is typical of the TV industry.
Yoon commented that “you cannot do a show about a minority experience, have it run by a white person and expect it to be OK. Sometimes the white mainstream thinks when we ask for equity, we just want the jobs. But this affects the intrinsic moral values of the work we do. A lack of respect for a culture manifests as systemic racism.”
And she’s right, with similar remarks made by Liu. He claimed that he and the other cast members were paid “horsepoop”, admitting that they didn’t band together to fight for higher pay “probably because we were told to be grateful to even be there, and because we were so scared to rock the boat”. Now we might not all be famous Marvel superhero-portraying actors, but Liu’s comments here sadly resonate as a common workplace experience for minorities. He later clarified that he wasn’t trying to call anyone out specifically, and he is still proud of what the show and its cast have accomplished as one of the most “unique shows to hit the air”.
But Liu has maintained that he will be not making any appearances in the spin-off offered to Nicole Power (Shannon in the show) as he is resentful that the only regular white character was offered her own show, while Jung and Janets characters were ignored. Rather than offering Shannon’s character a spin-off, Jung and Janet’s characters had more scope to grow as an individual show, for example, Jung continuing to navigate through life and his career or how Janet intends to run her photography business in partnership with Gerald. It’s safe to say that most fans would be interested in spin-offs of the much-loved brother and sister, rather than the white car sales woman, but that thought was clearly lost on the show’s producers.
But it’s not just Kim’s Convenience, is it?
You guessed it - the answer is no. In fact, we’ve seen similar claims made by minorities on different shows, highlighting a problem the industry faces, as even when they make racially diverse shows on people from different ethnicities and backgrounds, the writers are predominantly white males. Studies from the University of California have also noticed that as diversity increases among actors’ executives running the shows are overwhelmingly white and male. Another study in Women in Hollywood states that overall, women accounted for 31% of individuals working in key behind-the-scenes positions, which is extremely low. Diversity issues actually begin from the writing room problem that has been noticed by many writers, actors and producers who want more gender and racially diverse perspectives and not just diversity on-screen for the sake of it.
A popular Netflix show ‘Grand Army’ which is considered inclusive on camera has also shown the reality of racism on set which the writers face, with four writers of colour quitting due to exploitation and racist abuse behind the scenes. Ex-writer for the show Ming Peiffer tweeted “The showrunner and creator went full Karen and called Netflix hr on the Black writer in the room for getting a haircut. Yes, you read that correctly.” Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act has also faced allegations of being a toxic workplace especially for women of culture. Whether Minhaj himself contributed to this is unclear. but it shows the reality that even seemingly ‘woke’ shoes may fail to provide women of colour a safe workplace behind the scenes.
But as shows like Grand Army and Kim’s Convenience are diverse in terms of actors, the behind the scenes gets ignored. The casting acts like a veneer and real problems in terms of storytelling are brushed under the carpet by all-white male writers who don’t understand the community, race or gender they write about. It gives the appearance of a solution and is rather an example of tokenism. It has been noticed that in terms of creative voices there was no Korean voice other than that of Ins Choi and post the departure of Ins Choi, while Liu tried to offer his creative support, it was continually disregarded.
We all know representation can’t solve everything, so does it still matter?
Of course. Representation serves the important purpose of presenting an accurate image of the issues and problems of minorities and also builds an image of the community to everyone viewing a piece of work, whether it be a film or a television show. That’s one reason why the popular film Crazy Rich Asians received criticism online for showcasing other minorities like Indians and Malays as servants. Asian identity has been caricatured in multiple films since time immemorial, for example, the character of Long Duk Dong, portrayed by Gedde Watanabe in the 1984 John Hughes film “Sixteen Candles.” The character was called Chinaman in the film and was the central joke throughout most of the film, making it uncomfortable to watch.
Diversity can help in writers’ rooms is essential to shows reflecting a minority culture as the presence of genuine experience, especially that of immigrants, allows plotlines to be informed and accurate. Certain jokes which may seem innocuous might actually have negative implications for certain communities, so representation reduces the chances of such incidents and increases creativity within storytelling. It also stops the perpetuation of certain stereotypes against people of some communities.
And this matters when we’re witnessing a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada, the US, and Europe, particularly related to racist tropes surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. A study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University San Bernardino found that hate crimes against Asians in sixteen of the largest cities and counties in America have been up by 164%. The Stop Asian Hate movement raised awareness to how the tragic death of eight people at spas in Atlanta, six of whom were of Asian heritage, was drenched in white, male supremacy and the fetishization of East and South-East Asian women. With this in mind, the question of how Asians are being represented in popular media becomes all the more important.
The reason the show Kim’s Convenience still touched the hearts of the audience was the sheer brilliance of the actors, the comedic timing of Mr Kim, the tongue in cheek humour and the attempts made to discuss the immigrant experience, which is currently missing from television and Netflix. The show has had a positive impact and set a great example for Asian casting, as Liu proudly said the show gave him his “first opportunity to portray an Asian character with significant story arcs and subtleties that most Western Asian actors can only dream of”. But decent representation shouldn’t be just the dreams of actors and audiences alike, and Kim’s Convenience is a good example that shows with minorities as leads rather than token characters are well received. But the writers’ rooms and the behind the scenes needs to reflect that too, telling the stories we want to see through the right voices and the right people.
About the author
Namah Bose is a second-year student pursuing law from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala Punjab. Instagram: @namahbose