Lollipops, lottery tickets and life lessons: Kim’s convenience and the immigrant shopkeeper experience

Growing up amid the brick bungalows and post-war split-levels of suburban Ottawa, Hillsview Confectionery was where we brought our precious coins to buy all things sugary and tantalizing, from Jawbreakers to Mars bars to Frito Lay salt and vinegar chips. It’s where our parents nipped in for a litre of milk or sent us to pick up another pack of Matinee cigarettes. An unglamourous low-slung building, Hillsview was perched at the intersection with a busy main road, its wide parking lot a good spot to drop our bikes and suck on jumbo, fluorescent blue Freezies in the damp heat of a summer afternoon.

In those days Hillsview was owned by the Haddad family, led by the patriarch, Abraham. They were originally from Lebanon and lived next to the store. I was friends with their daughter Rola, who worked in the store from a young age alongside her brothers and parents. Once or twice Mr. Haddad let me work behind the counter, a big thrill for a kid who didn’t have to do it every day. The Haddads eventually moved on to another store. In the years since they sold, the corner store has been owned by new arrivals from Lebanon, Pakistan and China.

I thought about Hillsview and the succession of immigrant families who made it their own many times as I watched the hit play Kim’s Convenience recently. Written by Canadian actor Ins Choi, the play captures the burden and bravery of the first-generation immigrant, in particular the newcomer whose life – willingly or reluctantly –becomes the 15-hour-a-day grind of the shop owner. It tells the story of Appa – the Kim of the store name – a gruff, aging patriarch who dispenses his eccentric but hard-won wisdom to anyone in earshot even if all they want is energy drinks or lottery tickets. The setting is Toronto’s Regent Park, a primarily African-Canadian neighbourhood in the throes of transition to new social housing and condominiums. While his wife, Umma, works quietly in the background to keep the family together and their Korean church thriving, Appa frets about the future of Kim’s Convenience. Neither of their children seem interested in taking it over. Their daughter Janet is pursuing her passion for photography, while son Jung is hasn’t been seen at the store since a devastating schism 16 years earlier.

Promotional still from Soulpepper Theatre, credit Leon Aureus. For more or to see the original: http://soulpepper.ca/kimsconvenience

Promotional still from Soulpepper Theatre, credit Leon Aureus. For more or to see the original: http://soulpepper.ca/kimsconvenience

The immigrant shopkeeper is such a quintessential narrative within global migration, it is a shock to realize that it has rarely been explored in Canadian culture. There was a long-running and much loved television series, King of Kensington, about a Jewish shopkeeper in Kensington Market, the hub for European immigrants to Toronto for much of the 20th century, but that premiered almost 40 years ago and hasn’t been updated to reflect Canada’s changing demographics. Nor does it reflect how times have changed in the convenience store business. With chain stores and larger retailers eating up the market, running a corner store in the inner city is not the economic stepping-stone it once was.

Angelina Chapin explored this double-edged sword in a recent article discussing how convenience stores have become a dead-end for many. Highly-educated newcomers reluctantly turn to small-scale retail for survival income, only to find the long hours required to break even prevent them from studying to improve their English or upgrade their skills, crucial steps to overcoming the pervasive bias Canadian employers hold against foreign credentials. Further, Chapin argues, the proprietors and their customers are often so different in education levels and aspirations, their relationships rarely flourish King of Kensington-style beyond the business transaction.

Certainly that’s the case in Kim’s Convenience. Appa feels his customers need him, but there’s a gulf between them that’s most evident as he sizes each of them up for their potential to steal (leading to a funny – and more than a little uncomfortable – scene where Appa outlines his detailed, race-based theories of who will steal and who won’t, to the horror of his politically progressive daughter).

Exclusion in employment is a sad but important theme running through not just the play but its creation, for Kim’s Convenience was written out of frustration at the lack of good parts for actors of colour in Canada’s theatre scene. When I spoke to playwright Ins Choi to learn more about the making of the play, it’s one of the first things he mentions.

“People ask me why I wrote this play and I kind of tongue-in-cheek say ‘So I could cast myself,’” says Choi. The 39-year-old describes thriving in the colour-blind casting of theatre school but found himself shut out of many roles in the professional acting world. Choi later joined other Asian-Canadian actors and writers in fu-Gen Theatre Company, “with the attitude that if there’s not a place for us out there because of the way we look, we’ll create a place for ourselves.” fu-Gen has nurtured important and popular Canadian theatre, including the 2008 hit play Banana Boys, based on the novel by Terry Woo. Kim’s Convenience began as a project Choi developed in fu-Gen’s writing program, then performed at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, where it created tremendous buzz and won Best New Play. The mainstream Soulpepper Theatre Company has since mounted several productions and the play is in the middle of a Canadian tour. Soulpepper recently announced that Kim’s Convenience is being developed for TV and film, with Choi playing an integral role.

So a play that explores the challenges of building a new life and economic success after migration has been so successful that it has provided steady employment for a group of first- and second-generation immigrants. Lead actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who has played Appa since the early days of developing the play, says Kim’s Convenience has done so without sacrificing the voice of the Korean immigrant. He should know – unlike Choi, who worked in his uncle’s shop but whose own father was a pastor in a Korean church, Lee did grow up in a Korean convenience store.

actor/playwright Ins Choi, both credited courtesy of Choi.

Actor/playwright Ins Choi, courtesy of Choi.

“Reading the play it really struck me how real and authentic the story was, how honest it was, because I lived through it,” Lee told me. “I joke that I thought Ins had been spying on my family my whole life. I had those conversations. I can relate to those characters, especially Janet.”

Choi draws his characters with just the right mix of sympathy and clarity that their stories feel universal. There’s the matriarch who finds strength in her faith; the single daughter whose failure to wed by the ripe old age of 30 prompts her parents to worry that she is “the gay;” the son who tries to destroy any chance he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps, but ultimately returns seeking reconciliation.

Lee and Choi both say that the Korean community in Canada has embraced the play, raising funds for its development in the early stages and organizing bus trips for shop owners to see it together. Choi’s own parents thanked him for bringing the immigrant struggle to life on stage with obvious affection and respect – but he says the biggest surprise has been the reaction from other immigrants.

“People come up to us after the play and say ‘thank you,’ even if they’re not Asian,” says Choi. “They say ‘That was my story. That was my dad.’ I even had a grandmother from Newfoundland say to me ‘I may not look like an immigrant, but that was my grandfather’s story. He came from England and set up shop in part of his house, and even then there were different cultural values between England and the new world.’”

As the story of an immigrant shopkeeper, Kim’s Convenience encapsulates the emotional landscape of migration, the sharp thickets of love, ambition and generational tension surrounding the decision to seek a better life, a safer life, in another country. For Lee, that is the underpinning of the play and the reason it resonates across ethnic lines.

“Fundamentally, it’s about a family coming to grips with how to tell each other they love each other and how to forgive past transgressions,” says Lee. “They’re thinking about their legacy and the struggle to live a good life.”

At the end of the play, Appa makes exactly that point to the prodigal son, Jung, now the father of a little boy, Sonnam.

“What is my story? What is story of me, Mr. Kim?” says Appa. “My whole life, I doing this store. Is this store my story? No. My story is not Kim’s Convenience. My story is you. And Janet. And Umma. And Sonnam. Understand?”

Kim’s Convenience will be performed next in Winnipeg and Vancouver. Other dates in North America are under negotiation. For more information, visit http://www.soulpepper.ca/kim’s_convenience_tour.aspx

Further reading

Ins Choi speaks to Now Magazine http://www.nowtoronto.com/guides/fringe/2011/story.cfm?content=181679

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