A New Canadian Voice
Ins Choi arrived in Canada with his Korean parents as a toddler in the 1970’s. These days he is having a big impact on Canadian culture. We were thrilled to have him tour the Museum on a recent visit to Halifax.
Kim’s Convenience, a comedy set in a Korean-owned variety store, is the first Canadian TV show that features a predominately Asian cast.
But don’t tell Ins Choi, the driving force behind the play and its television adaptation, that it’s a Korean show.
It’s much more than that.
“In my heart of hearts, it’s not an Asian show. I hope in my lifetime… we can come to a time or a place where it’s not ‘the black show’ or it’s not ‘the Asian show’,” Choi said in a recent interview.
“And even with Kim’s as we cast and as we write characters, we try to replicate what we see on the street. When we’re on the TTC, who do we see? It’s not all white, it’s not all black, it’s not all Asian – it’s what Canada is, in my opinion,” he added.
“And what Canada is becoming more and more and what has historically been Canada, and I think a great celebration of Canada, which is a country made up of immigrants who come here trying to make life better for their children.”
The show centres around the Kim family – Appa and Umma and their children Janet and Jung - who run a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.
The play, written by Choi, had its debut at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, becoming an instant favourite with audiences, earning Best New Play honours.
The Soulpepper Theatre Co. picked up the play the following year and it garnered several accolades, including a pair of Toronto Theatre Critics awards.
The play was adapted for television and CBC recently announced it had ordered a second season. Soulpepper has also taken the play on a national tour, with a recent stop in Halifax and Montreal. It hits New York City in July.
“When I first wrote it, all I wanted to do was to share it with an audience. That was it. Every step of the way has been a series of surprises at its reception,” Choi said.
“And then the biggest thing of going to TV was I didn’t want to ruin the reputation of the play. So in creating a TV show it was more let’s try to maintain what works in the play, and we managed to do that.”
Choi was born in South Korea but moved to Canada when he was one. He grew up in Scarborough and now lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.
While he grew up in a Korean immigrant household, he said that the Kim family isn’t necessarily based on his own.
There’s obviously the immigrant thread, the theme of new immigrants to Canada. But in talking with a lot of people, what really resonates is it’s a family – it’s a show about a family. And the fact that they’re Korean, that has very little to do with why they like it. It’s about parents, it’s about kids,” he said.
“It’s not autobiographical. The character of Appa is not my dad, but there are some aspects of my dad that’s definitely in Appa,” he added.
“It’s just kind of stealing from everyone you know and kind of finding out what’s the best equation for a comedy and story. A lot of people I know are in there, but not anyone specific.”
Currently writing the second season of Kim’s Convenience, Choi said he doesn’t feel any pressure to write the characters in such a way that audiences are laughing with them rather than at any particular racial stereotypes.
“There is always some truth, a kernel of truth in every stereotype, but it’s using that stereotype and kind of flipping it on its head, because it’s not the Korean store owner in the back who can’t speak English very well. Actually, the whole thing is about a Korean store owner front and centre, talking and being with customers,” he said.
“So it’s not just a snap shot of a character, which is a caricature, but it’s a fully lived in character.”
Several years ago Choi took part in consultations seeking ideas and input for an expansion of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
While in Halifax for the launch of Kim’s Convenience at Neptune Theatre in January, Choi had an opportunity to tour the expanded museum for the first time since he was here for those consultations.
He said he was surprised to learn that some of his suggestions, such as the Artist-in-Residence Program, which is now in its second year, were adopted.
As someone who grew up in an immigrant family he said he felt a connection to the museum and the site itself.
"It really moved me, and I think it’s such an important museum,” he said.
“It’s a celebration of our history. It’s the story of Canada, in my opinion, warts and bruises and cuts and all. It’s blatantly open about some of the shameful things in our Canadian past but a celebration of how we are coming together, especially nowadays.”