New CBC Shows Mostly a Step Forward for Asian Canadians

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    New CBC Shows Mostly a Step Forward for Asian Canadians

    Viewers of Canadian television might not know it, but white women hook up with Asian guys a lot. Sometimes they even get married and have kids (I’m living proof). And despite the growing prevalence of “mixed unions” in this country — more than 360,000 couples, according to Statistics Canada — Tuesday night was the first time I’ve seen an Asian man depicted as sexually attractive to a white woman on TV.

    We can thank the new CBC series Kim’s Convenience for this pioneering moment in entertainment history. Chiseled bad boy Jung Kim (played by Simu Liu) applies for a promotion at a car rental agency, to the delight of his lovelorn boss: “I think you’d do a great job. You’ve got wonderful people skills, strong physical presence, amazing posture,” swoons budding cat lady Shannon (played by Newfoundland comedian Nicole Power). “When I picture someone under me — working under me, that someone looks a lot like you.”

    It was just one of the familiar, yet rarely televised moments that had Asian-Canadian viewers celebrating.

    Adapted from a play by Ins Choi, the show has a willingness to laugh at uncomfortable aspects of the immigrant experience that makes it resonate far beyond the Korean community. Inter-Asian resentment? It’s a thing. Rigid scholastic expectations? Awkward church events? Unwelcome matchmaking? All too real. These generational rifts, including a badly broken father-son relationship, are what give Kim’s Convenience its heart.

    The show’s pan-Asian accessibility is mirrored by the cast, which is… well, not entirely Korean. Simu Liu was born in Harbin, China. Calgary comic Andrew Phung, who plays Jung’s dirtbag roommate Kimchee, has Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. And the family’s dashing priest is played with a thick Korean accent by Hiro Kanagawa, a veteran character actor from Vancouver by way of Sapporo, Japan.

    So far it’s not something reviewers or fans have taken up. “I don’t really see a problem with it,” says Korean-Canadian actor and writer Paul Bae. [Disclosure: Paul was also my high school English teacher.] “I only know a handful of Koreans who have fully invested themselves in acting as a profession. So I’m guessing they couldn’t find suitable Koreans to cast for certain parts. Besides, it’s acting. If a Chinese guy can pass himself off as a Korean, why not?”

    I mostly agree. Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who plays real-life Colombian sociopath Pablo Escobar on Netflix’s Narcos, had to learn Spanish for the role. He’s fantastic. So is Juan Riedinger, the Banff-born German-Peruvian actor who plays drug runner Carlos Lehder. And like South American actors trading nationalities, Asian cultures seem to have developed a certain entente when it comes to playing each other on TV — or opening competing sushi restaurants.

    It’s a poorly kept secret among Vancouver’s Asian communities that aside from marketing each other’s cuisines, we do the accents too. I’m still embarrassed by the memory of a visit to A&B Sound with my Japanese-Canadian dad when I was a teenager. I was looking at a car stereo system when he began ranting at me in a loud Cantonese accent about my supposed fondness for street racing (not true). I begged him to stop, but it only fed his enthusiasm. Naturally, the other customers didn’t bat an eye. The joke was obvious: they couldn’t tell the difference.

    There’s something similarly cheeky about Kanagawa (who talks like a CBC weatherman in real life) adopting the sibilant sing-song cadence and extra syllables of Pastor Choi on Kim’s Convenience. He pulls it off, just like series lead Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Lee sounds much like Kanagawa (or my dad) off-set, but employs a thick Korean accent to play the Kims’ gruff but endearing patriarch, Appa. The show’s goal seems to be to unearth shared truths that speak to Korean immigrants — and a much larger audience at the same time. If that balancing act can be achieved by borrowing artists from different backgrounds, hey, that’s show business.

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