Actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (briefly) swaps his role as a lovable Korean shopkeeper for that of a troubled Chinese dissident in Canadian Stage’s epic political thriller.
This past holiday season, when Soulpepper presented Kim’s Convenience at the Bluma Appel Theatre, star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee would routinely come out after the curtain call, divested of the thick Korean accent he uses to play the role of Appa, the Regent Park shopkeeper, and address the audience in his actual, bred-in-Ontario-and-Alberta voice. When he did, you could hear audience members emit an audible gasp of surprise.
“I’d always get a big kick out of that,” says the sweet-natured Lee during an afternoon chat at Red Rocket Coffee on the Danforth, not far from his East York home. “The reactions ranged from delight to disappointment,” he recalls. “One afternoon there was a large group of Korean people at the theatre, and when I came out and spoke in my real voice they were all, ‘Ahh… he doesn’t really speak with an accent.'”
It’s a tribute to the authenticity of his performance as Appa, a role he originated when Ins Choi’s heartwarming comedy was just an unknown script still in development, and which he has since played continuously in the beloved, much-revived Soulpepper production, both in town and on tour. The part is so synonymous with the actor that there was no question of him not performing it yet again in the new television series based on the play, set to premiere on CBC in 2017.
In the interim, however, he’s been busy portraying a very different Asian character, the tormented Chinese dissident Zhang Lin, in the Canadian Stage-Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre presentation of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica. The epic-sized political thriller just opened last week at the Bluma Appel after an acclaimed run in Winnipeg this winter.
The Olivier Award-winning play, by rising British playwright Kirkwood (her media satire NSFW was seen in Toronto last season), cuts back and forth between 1989 and 2012, China and the U.S., as it revisits the momentous, bloody protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and follows a New York photojournalist seeking to identify the mysterious, iconic “Tank Man” who single-handedly stood up to the People’s Liberation Army. The photographer’s main Beijing connection is Zhang Lin, a middle-aged teacher who participated in the protests as a youth. Outwardly affable, Zhang is a tortured alcoholic, haunted by memories of his late wife, one of the victims of the massacre in the square. In his moments of delirium, he imagines that she lives inside his refrigerator. Eventually, distressed by a neighbour who is dying from Beijing’s notorious air pollution, Zhang decides to take a stand once more against the government.
Chris Abraham’s cinematic production, which runs three hours, employs a team of 12 actors playing 24 characters, and involves more than 40 set changes, is different in every way from the traditional, small-cast, one-set Kim’s Convenience. “It’s very daunting,” Lee admits. “I remember going to tech [a technical rehearsal] and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?'” But it’s a show he felt he had to do. Although fictional, Kirkwood’s play “is based on actual events that affected people, and that still affect them today,” he says. “This became more than just a show, but a way to honour these people and make sure their story gets told. In China, they’ve censored it all. People of a certain age there have no idea [the Tiananmen Square protests] even happened. That’s frightening.”
Like his character Zhang Lin, Lee was 18 at the time of the protests. As a teenager in Calgary, he watched the news coverage but admits he didn’t understand the reason for the student-led uprising and didn’t give it much thought. “Horrifying as it was, I’m ashamed to say that a few weeks later, when they moved on to the next celebrity crisis, it was all forgotten. It just didn’t have a lasting resonance for us in North America.”
Today, the Tiananmen tragedy has come to represent the dark side of China, the most chilling reminder that the West’s largest trading partner is still an iron-fisted communist dictatorship. Now Lee is keenly aware that North America, with its huge dependence on Chinese manufacturing, is culpable in supporting it. “Everyone wants their smartphones and other products as cheaply as possible, but at the same time they decry the fact that China has a smog problem and human rights abuses,” he says. “They forget that we’re complicit in the creation of that system.”
On a personal level, Chimerica was an opportunity for Lee to stretch his artistic muscles before heading back to the role of Appa this summer. CBC has ordered 13 half-hour episodes of the Kim’s Convenience TV series and shooting begins in late June. He says the show, co-produced by Soulpepper and Thunderbird Films, is a chance to explore some of the characters and themes just touched upon in Choi’s original play. Lee describes it as a contemporary version of the popular Toronto-set 1970s sitcom King of Kensington, with Appa, a.k.a. Mr. Kim, the comically imperious Korean patriarch, and his Regent Park convenience store as the focal point for various scenarios involving his family and the people in the neighbourhood.
Lee identifies closely with Kim’s story. Like Appa, his own parents were originally teachers in South Korea, where Lee was born. The family immigrated to Canada when Lee was a baby and his parents had to take menial jobs to get by. They settled first in London, where Lee’s mother worked in a factory while his father was on the custodial staff at the University of Western Ontario. “It almost killed him,” Lee recalls. “He’d see friends from Seoul National University, where he’d graduated, coming over and teaching courses, and here he was working as a janitor.”
Lee’s parents only spoke Korean at home and as a little kid he learned English by watching TV voraciously. “My parents were both working, so for my older sister and me, the television was our babysitter.” Eventually the family moved to Scarborough, then to Calgary, where Lee’s dad opened a fish-and-chips restaurant and his mom ran a convenience store. After Lee was accepted to the University of Toronto, his parents moved back to the GTA.
“I still can’t get over what my parents did in coming to Canada,” Lee says with emotion. “They were well-respected professionals in Korea, they had a house. To pull up stakes and move to a country where they don’t speak the language, they couldn’t work in their profession… But they did it for me and my sister,” he says, “for the opportunities we’d have here.”
Now Lee is a family man himself. He and his wife Anna, a sign-language interpreter, have two young sons: Noah, 11, and six-year-old Miles. “They are the light of my life, those two,” he says, his eyes getting moist.
That finally brings us to his rather baffling Twitter handle: @bitterasiandude. Surely he can’t be that bitter?
“In my youth,” Lee explains, laughing. “I was cursed with the fact that I started losing my hair when I was 20. When you’re a young actor, that affects your work big time. I was too old-looking to play younger roles and I was too young-looking to play older roles. I was in this horrible state of limbo where I wasn’t getting work, and it wasn’t because of ability, it was solely based on my looks.”
Now, in his forties, Lee has “grown into [his] face,” as he puts it. “I’m the busiest now that I’ve ever been, which is fantastic, but it was a long time coming. Fortunately I was too stubborn to move on and try other things.
“But I know it’s not going to last,” he adds philosophically. “When Kim’s started at Soulpepper, that was a huge dream for me—I never thought I’d be on that stage. So when it finally happened, one of the caveats I gave myself was, ‘This isn’t going to last, enjoy it while you can.’ It’s fleeting, so you enjoy the experience, you learn as much as you can, be as decent and helpful to others as you can be, and when it’s over, you don’t leave with any bitterness or hard feelings. You go, ‘I’ve had my turn and that was fantastic.’ And you move on.”