“Be the one who is ahead of the curve instead of following behind. Lead the movement instead of picking up the crumbs. It’s a new world, the rules are changing. Why not write your own ticket?”
-Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee best known as Appa on Kim’s Convenience is a critically acclaimed stage and television actor. Growing up television was, “A gateway to a world that I wasn’t allowed to go into because we had to stay home. My parents were always working. Television is how I learned how to speak English. It is a very powerful medium.” Television influenced the love of storytelling in Paul but he never believed he could be an actor. “The Asians on t.v. were Sulu on Star Trek, Sam on Quincy, M.E. and everyone else in M*A*S*H who were dirty and suffering. All the heroes are the white people. When the only heroes are white, you kinda figure I’m never gonna be there. There is nothing for me out there. You just consume the stories, you are fed a narrative, you believe in that narrative and it’s damaging.”
Originally planning to major in English at the University of Toronto with ambitions of becoming a writer, Paul unexpectedly came across the drama program. “I didn’t discover acting until university. I was a late bloomer. I thought I am going to write stories. I can’t be in them but I can write them. In high school, I realized I was really drawn to presentations. I was drawn to that form of storytelling. I thought the drama program was going to be an extension of that,” says Paul. The drama program was not what Paul expected. The audition process, “felt more and more humiliating as the workshop went on. I felt more and more out of place as the workshop went on. I got angrier and angrier and at the very end for the final exercise, we were all given the same line to deliver. The line was, “what a terrible, horrible, rotten day.” I thought I got this. It came to me and I was just so done. It was the realest moment I had the whole afternoon. I stared right at the instructor and I delivered that line with such vehemence and vitriol. I said it right to him and I spat on the ground and walked away. I thought I’m done. The Asian kid is finished. You broke him. And then I got into the program.”
Drama school would set the foundation for a 25-year career. Kim’s Convenience was originally a play by Ins Choi. Paul also played Appa in the play, winning the 2012 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for Best Actor before being adapted for television. Acting has allowed Paul to share his love of storytelling with not only his community but the world. This original play turned into an international phenomenon when the show was distributed by Netflix in July 2018. The show introduced the world to the lives of a Korean Canadian family and presented the “narrative of the non-white person carrying the joke instead of being the butt of the joke. It caught people off guard.” Paul remembers the criticism and hesitation from the Asian community when the show first aired. “The flipping of the narrative comes from people with baggage that hits too close to home. It frightens you and is a narrative you are not used to. It makes you feel like you are on display and it’s pushback from that. They are going to laugh at all of us now, because if this show sucks it hurts everybody,” says Paul. Kim’s Convenience is now in its 4th season on the CBC.
Paul feels incredibly blessed to be working in a career he once believed had no place for someone like him. With nearly three decades of experience, Paul has learned, “often it’s not the ones with the biggest pockets who make the most change, it’s the indie artists who make the most change.” It took Ins Choi 5 years to write Kim’s Convenience and in 2011 it won the New Play Contest at the Fringe Festival setting off a chain reaction of unexpected success and cultural transformation. For Paul, the biggest obstacle facing Asian artists is “opportunity to show that we can do this. We will not only go toe to toe but we can exceed and excel. It comes down to opportunity.”
Paul believes that audiences are searching for content that goes beyond, “traditional models that are not only sexist and racist but outdated.” What stands out to Paul about this trailblazing show was how, “people took a chance on Kim’s Convenience because they saw it and it looked different. The cast weren’t international stars. It was just word of mouth for it to spread. We weren’t riding on anyone’s reputation. It was based on great execution, to tell a great story.” In an industry reluctant to take risks, Kim’s Convenience is proof that original storytelling, “is doable, it can be done. Be innovative. To be a trailblazer is a huge asset. Be the one who is ahead of the curve instead of following behind. Lead the movement instead of picking up the crumbs. It’s a new world, the rules are changing. Why not write your own ticket?”
Season 4 of Kim’s Convenience is available on Netflix April 1st, 2020.
Photo by jephoto.ca