The success of CBC's comedy TV series Kim's Convenience could not have come at more crucial time for Vancouver—with the only regret being that it didn't arrive sooner.
Amid racially charged debates over Vancouver's overheated real-estate market, anti-Asian sentiment has risen to one of the most disconcerting levels in recent decades.
In 2015, Mayor Gregor Robertson spoke out to address racism arising in discussions about housing.
After submitting a freedom of information request, the Georgia Straight's Travis Lupick uncovered racist emails sent to the City of Vancouver that blamed Asian people for destroying the city.
Two waves of anti-Chinese pamphlets were distributed in Richmond last year.
Various Asian ethnicities have been targeted by racist graffiti throughout the Lower Mainland.
And that's only a sample of what's been going on.
Meanwhile, just as Asian representation in North American mainstream entertainment continues to struggle, there have been a number of blows to progress.
There was the controversial departure of Hawaii Five-0 leads Daniel Dae Kim and Vancouver's Grace Park, amid allegations that the two stars quit due to receiving less pay than their Caucasian castmates.
A number of Hollywood films have also sparked whitewashing controversies in recent years, due to Caucasian actors being cast in roles that were originally created as Asian characters.
Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role, who was originally the Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the screen adaptation of the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell. The Ancient One in Doctor Strange was changed from a Tibetan to Celtic character who lives in Tibet, played by Tilda Swinton. Emma Stone was cast as Alison Ng, a character of Asian and Hawaiian heritage in Aloha, despite Stone not having either background.
While some may not view these issues as a problem, replacing Asian characters with white ones not only deprives Asian actors of roles, it adds to the invisibility of Asian people on screen for viewers.
This problem is compounded by the fact that roles for Asian actors remain restricted in number and significance (such as side or extra roles), particularly when it comes to lead roles, while roles for Caucasians aren’t, with few exceptions.
This creates a no-win situation for actors of Asian descent: they aren't opportunities for them to practice their craft because roles are either non-existent or extremely limited but then casting directors won't hire these actors because they don't have enough experience or aren't considered enough of a box-office draw. It's a vicious cycle.
What's more, invisibility or lack of representation can feed into a lack of familiarity and acceptance, ignorance, and misunderstanding, all of which in turn contribute to prejudice and discrimination.
That said, there have been some high-profile breakthroughs in recent years.
Dr. Ken, an ABC comedy series starring Ken Jeong as a Korean American physician, launched in 2015. However, the show was cancelled this year.
However, another ABC comedy series that launched in the same year, Fresh Off the Boat, an ABC comedy series about a Taiwanese American family, is currently in its third season but has been renewed for a fourth.
An important shift occured when actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool) decided to step down from his role in the Hellboy reboot after outcry arose when he was cast in the role of Major Ben Daimio, a character of Japanese descent in the graphic novel. Actor Daniel Dae Kim has since been cast in the role.
On this side of the border, the multilingual Canadian crime-drama TV series Blood and Water, launched on OMNI TV in 2015. In the series, Canadian actor Steph Song stars as detective Jo Bradley who investigates the death of the son of a Chinese billionaire but winds up facing off against the family who has secrets they want to keep that way.
On City TV, Second Jen debuted in 2016 to follow the misadventures of two twentysomethings, a Chinese Canadian gal named Jen (played by Port Moody's Samantha Wan) and her Filipina Canadian best friend Mo (played by Amanda Joy).
The CBC has a history of presenting TV shows with Asian figures, ranging from David Suzuki in The Nature of Things (which launched in 1960) to CBC News Vancouver anchors Andrew Chang and CBC News Network anchor Ian Hanomansing, who are two of the four new cohosts of The National.
Which brings us to Kim's Convenience. Based on the stageplay by Ins Choi, it is the first Canadian sitcom to feature Asian Canadian family members as lead characters.
The ongoing challenge that visible minorities and content face is to be able to reflect, represent, and interest mainstream audiences in the way that Caucasian characters and content have been historically used to represent everyone and that all audiences, regardless of ethnicity, have had to identify with.
Where a show like Kim's Convenience comes in is that it proves that shows with ethnic-minority leads can provide content about universal family-related themes that non-Asian or non-Korean viewers can identify with while at the same time offering Asian Canadian identities and cultural elements.
In fact, it shows that no matter how different we may seem, we all enjoy the same thing: laughing together. In these tense times, we really need to be able to use humour to ease tensions and offer perspective.
In addition, the fact that the series highlights a Korean Canadian family contributes to the representation of Asian diversity by demonstrating that not all Asian people are just Chinese or Japanese. This aspect is particularly important in Vancouver as anti-Asian and racist sentiment often lumps in all Asian people as indistinguishable and interchangeable despite differences or being unrelated.
While it may not be perfect to all viewers, the main point is that the show has suceeded, thus representing something—a starting point—to build upon in the future, whether in this show or other shows inspired by it, rather than having nothing at all to work with.
It's also important for Canadians to be able to see Canadian society reflected on screen, rather than just American representations. Due to the dominance of U.S. media and entertainment, Vancouver has often and continues to be preoccupied with American racial issues, sometimes to the neglect or oversight of local ones.
This year, Kim's Convenience won four 2017 Canadian Screen Awards, including best lead actor in a comedy (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), best supporting actor Andrew Phung, best casting (Deirdre Bowen, Millie Tom), and best editing (Kye Meechan), with an additional seven nominations, including Jean Yoon and Andrea Bang who were both up for best lead actresses in a comedy.
When Lee won his award, he gave a speech that underscored the importance of what the show means for Asian Canadians, immigrants, and all Canadians.
The good news is that Kim's Convenience is back for Season 2, which premieres on September 26.
The CBC is giving the show an added push by taking its stars on the road to appear at free sneak preview screenings in various Canadian cities. Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Simu Liu, Andrea Bang, Andrew Phung, and Nicole Power. Attendees will receive Kim's Convenience tour posters and t-shirts.
The tour starts right here in Vancouver at 8 p.m. tomorrow (September 19) at the Vogue Theatre.
After that, the tour continues on to Calgary (September 21), Ottawa (September 26), Montreal (October 1), and St. John's (October 3), where a special road tour wrap party will be held. For more information, visit the CBC website.
Here's a video in which the cast talk about what the success of Kim's Convenience means to them.More