Kim’s Convenience was arguably one of the biggest Canadian television exports as of late, going beyond local broadcasters to Netflix worldwide. What was once a small, humble comedy series based on a theatre show became a smash hit among television audiences, and even garnered awards in its five-season run. It was hailed for being a win for Asian representation on the small screen in the west, focusing on immigrant culture.
However, all that glitters is not gold. As the show ended in early 2021 (a decision that was much to the surprise of fans), lead actors Jean Yoon and Simu Liu – who play Mrs Kim and Jung respectively, came out on social media to reveal that controversy had been brewing behind the scenes all this time.
Voicing out: accounts from actors Jean Yoon and Simu Liu
Yoon recounts instances where she would have to fight for a more accurate portrayal of Korean culture, particularly through her character, as there were problematic storylines written by a team under a non-Korean – Kevin White. While Ins Choi is credited for the original play, Yoon stated that he had a “diminished presence on set” – thankfully retaking the reins in the final season to prevent offensive jokes that would demean the Korean characters and their culture.
However, apart from Choi, the writers room did not have a Korean present – this would also be highlighted in Liu’s posts online regarding the situation.
Liu’s Facebook post in June (the original, public post that made waves is unavailable to view online) also echoed similar sentiments. In the one that is still available through the ‘subtle asian traits’ group, Liu expressed that he was indeed “increasingly frustrated” with how his character’s story was going, which was nowhere. Little character progression meant that this Asian character was written as one that was stuck in a rut, unable to progress beyond a certain point.
Regarding the writers room, he also detailed that while he did offer to “[shadow] a director or writer’s room” when Choi left, the opportunity was never presented to him. All this aside, Liu is still proud of the series and what it has achieved, according to a statement released exclusively to Vanity Fair.
Representation on and off screen
As told by Yoon and Liu, having people of colour on both sides of the camera is key. Much media attention tends to shift towards the actors on screen; maybe the director if noteworthy enough. However, these are just two roles in an exhaustive list for a film or TV production.
Having representation on and off screen means that both sides can ensure that stories told are realistic and accurate, with the nuances that can only be highlighted by the people from whom these stories belong to. Using the case of Kim’s Convenience, why would you tell a Korean story without having Koreans to at least consult?
Featured in a Time article that turned the focus on producers of colour who were behind half of the Best Picture nominees for the 2021 Oscars, it details Christina Oh, producer of Minari, pushing for a Korean-American production designer in order to achieve a level of relatability and authenticity for the Korean-Americans watching the movie – this ended up being Yong Ok Lee. The result? A widely loved film for its touching story, about the immigrant experience.
On the flipside, the 2020 live-action Mulan received much criticism, partly regarding the lack of Asian people behind the camera. They promoted an all-Asian cast, and yet lacked Asians in the most prominent production roles. The costume designer, the screenwriters (yes, multiple), the director – all were non-Asians, producing a movie that has roots in a Chinese folk heroine. Needless to say, the depictions in the movie came off orientalist.
With Hollywood constantly publicising their wish to embrace more stories of people of colour, it is still predominantly white, and as a 2021 survey done by the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) showed, “nearly 90% said they are often the only Asian or Pacific Islander in the room” and unfortunately “55% have experienced “blatant racism” at work”. These responses came from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across a range of roles in the industry.
One can only hope that these alarming statistics contribute to a continuous wake-up call for the industry to recognise their voices. It’s a glaring problem that the industry needs to address, for it to truly achieve progress. It isn’t simply about pleasing audiences and to appease continuous criticism about diversity on screen, it’s about making the industry as a whole more accessible, so that we can proceed to diversify our stories rather than sticking to the same old ones we see time and time again.
The Kim’s Convenience bombshell definitely does not come as a surprise to those familiar with the industry, and reminds us once again of flaws behind-the-scenes that has been mostly kept out of the public’s watchful eye. It has affected what we see on screen more than we think, and it’s great that the conversation has surfaced in the mainstream, hopefully putting pressure for things to change.