The Art of Collaboration: Simu Liu on the lessons of Kim’s Convenience
Launched in April 2021, the Seek More campaign encourages Canadians to seek more from Canadian media: more diversity, more authenticity, more voices. As part of this celebration of Canadian talent, one of the campaign’s ambassadors Simu Liu sat down with multimedia artist Sook-Yin Lee at Banff World Media Festival to discuss the importance of representing diverse, authentic voices, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
“When I say representation, I mean so much more than what you see on the surface, on the screen. I think it is so important to have voices in the decision-making process that are sensitive to the groups that your show represents,” says the Canadian actor, known for his performance as Jung Kim in popular series Kim’s Convenience.
Kim’s Convenience: A surprising tale of caution
In a recent Facebook post, Liu revealed how Kim’s Convenience, which had a reputation for diverse onscreen representation, was not as open-spirited offscreen. “We were all beholden to the authority of the executive producers and the showrunners,” he elaborates during his conversation with Lee.
According to Liu, what could have been a collaborative environment between the mostly Asian cast and the mostly non-Asian writers, was, instead, a space of top-down authority. For him, this was an issue of respect.
“We were brought in and told about the upcoming season’s storylines weeks before we were set to start shooting. It was far too late in the process for us to have any questions or meaningful discourse that could impact the story in any way.” As a result, the actor feels that his character, Jung, the rebellious but ambitious son of the titular family, was snubbed of his potential.
When asked about the pitfalls of non-Asian writers writing for Asian characters, Liu explains that there are obstacles to understanding the Asian Canadian perspective without the lived experience. He says non-Asian creators often rely on past tropes, such as the “tiger parent” or the “scared Asian guy”, to create Asian characters that can be not only inaccurate but demeaning.
For Liu, the solution is collaboration, which seemed lacking on the Kim’s Convenience set by design. Cast members, for example, would be brought in for cast meetings individually, which would mitigate conversation and collaboration between key characters. And while Ins Choi, the Korean-Canadian playwright who penned the original source material, was still, to an extent, at the helm of the show, Liu argues that Choi’s singular voice was perhaps not enough to represent the complex experiences of an entire community. “The danger of having one singular voice is potentially just as bad as having no voice,” he explains, “Especially when your project has to deal so specifically with a particular identity or a particular lived experience, you just need more than one voice.”
Shang-Chi: The result of Asian contribution and collaboration
Liu contrasts his time on Kim’s Convenience with his role at Marvel Studios. Being recently inducted as Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian superhero, Liu describes a surprisingly open-minded Hollywood studio. “From day one, we were just a part of the conversation… the feedback that I gave changed the course of the story and made it more distinctly Asian American,” he explains. Despite the upper echelons of the studio not being Asian, Liu reveals a collaborative atmosphere that included several Asian voices working together. As a result, the actor sees the upcoming movie as one that will speak truth to the Asian American and Asian Canadian experiences, in spite of the film’s source material.
“We were talking about the danger of non-Asian people creating Asian characters and your case-in-point are those Shang-Chi comics, in the way that he speaks, what his father looks like, the giant Fu Manchu beard and Orientalist tropes,” Liu admits. The actor explains, however, that thanks to the character’s relative obscurity, due in large part because of his race, the team was able to reclaim the narrative, to “start from scratch and to build an origin story we wanted to see” for those of Asian descent.
Shang-chi represents a success at the intersection of collaboration and control over one’s own narrative. “We need more people of colour, more people identifying in minority groups to be in decision-making posts,” he concludes. To achieve this, Liu looks beyond white gatekeepers to put the onus on creators of colour, as well, “to really embrace that position … and to really seize that moment.”
As an exemplary figure, Liu cites his on-screen Umma, played by Jean Yoon on Kim’s Convenience. “Jean works so hard and is such an incredible inspiration for me,” he says, “Jean has been fighting this battle a lot longer than I have… and there’s just something so unwavering and uncompromising about her spirit that is just so admirable to me.” Since Liu’s now famed Facebook post, Yoon has also stepped forward, voicing agreement for many of Liu’s points, in addition to her own negative experience working on the show.
Jean Yoon’s continued work and struggle over the years illustrates how change, unfortunately, often takes longer than a moment. Simu Liu reminds us that change can be uncomfortable and slow, but that the good fight must continue. “People take a long time to truly evolve and certain organizations take even longer,” he says, “And that’s why it’s so critically important to hammer home the importance of having those people of colour in decision-making positions, even when it sounds like I’m being annoying, hitting the same note over and over again.”
Like our superheroes, we must constantly seek more and, most crucially, assemble forces with others to do so together.