Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee credits teacher Ron Cole with spotting his storytelling talent and encouraging his path in the arts.
By Bill Harris
Photos: Thunderbird Entertainment/Kim’s Convenience; Yolande M. Cole
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, star of the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience, admits he’s not sure what direction his life would have taken had it not been for his Grade 10 English teacher, Ron Cole.
“I had the luxury — actually, the privilege — of being taught by some really fantastic, inspiring people in my youth,” says Lee, who attended Sir Winston Churchill High School in Calgary. “But if I’m going to name just one, it’s Ron Cole. He was fantastic because he was the one who really saw that I had this ability to tell stories that I really enjoyed. Up to that point, I hadn’t really been encouraged to explore that side of myself, especially with regard to writing.”
While Cole and Lee lost track of each other over the years, Cole, who is retired now, is gratified by Lee’s kind words.
“It sure is nice to hear this,” Cole says.
Lee, of course, has gained international acclaim for his hilarious role as Appa in Kim’s Convenience, which debuted on CBC in 2016. The series follows the antics of the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family who run a convenience store in Toronto. Prior to the TV show, Lee fine-tuned the role of Appa in several stage productions of Kim’s Convenience.
Lee can trace his successful career in the arts directly back to the help and encouragement he received from Cole.
“I think I was going to be destined to live the life that my parents had in mind for me, which involved four choices: You can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer />or a failure,” Lee says with a big laugh. “But that’s why Mr. Cole was so great, because he was very encouraging when it came to writing.”
All the way back to elementary school, Lee says he loved writing bizarre and silly stories, and he loved making people laugh. Sometimes he would incorporate his classmates into the tales, including the time he turned them all into fish characters. Usually his stories were big hits with his buddies, although he clearly remembers one of his female classmates — on whom he had a crush — being decidedly unimpressed by her inclusion in the fish story.
Nonetheless, Lee kept at it, without any real understanding that it could lead to a viable career. But that all changed when he encountered his Grade 10 English teacher.
“Mr. Cole saw some of my writing and really thought I had something there, something to offer, and he wanted to nurture that,” Lee says. That’s when Lee started to embrace the idea of telling stories on a larger scale — beyond writing just for his friends. “It opened my mind to the possibility of maybe writing for a living. And in fact that’s how I started out. I thought I was going to be a writer.”
It was through Mr. Cole that Lee entered a gifted program at his school, and was paired up with an author named Dave Duncan, who had published a number of fantasy and science-fiction novels.
Lee spent time with Duncan, who became something of a mentor, showing him how to focus his imagination and channel his endless ideas into creative work. “This was something that for me was brand new. I always had a big mouth, to be honest. I think my dad would be the first to agree. I’m very talkative and I love to ham it up in front of people and just sort of be the centre of attention,” says Lee. But between Cole’s guidance and Dave Duncan’s mentoring, Lee found a way to direct all of that energy into focused story writing.
Despite Lee’s assertion that he loved being the centre of attention, Cole actually recalls a much different version of Lee as a teenager.
“He was a very quiet boy at the time,” Cole says. “I remember driving him out to Dave Duncan’s house. It was a long way, outside of Calgary somewhere. Paul was very shy and reserved at that age, very uncomfortable meeting someone like Dave Duncan, very nervous.
Cole recalls that Lee would have been in his English class, rather than his drama class. “So while I never would’ve believed back then that Paul would go in the direction of acting in film, television and theatre, I am so pleased and fascinated that his career happened />to flow in that direction, because my background is theatre,” says Cole.
In fact, Cole recalls being somewhat taken aback at one event where Lee provided a small hint of what his future might hold.
“The only glimpse I saw of his talent for acting was during an event called the Night of the Notables,” says Cole. For the event students thoroughly researched someone famous, wrote a paper on them, and presented their work while pretending to be that person. Then family and friends asked questions and attempted to guess who the students were representing. “The fact that Paul picked film director Spike Lee really intrigued me,” says Cole. “He was so into the director and his films, I thought, ‘There’s a side to this student I don’t know and I haven’t seen yet. This is really interesting.’”
As Lee’s education continued, he found more and more opportunities />to do live presentations, rather than merely handing in written reports, which meant he started to perform some of the things he had written. From there, it was a steady progression to bigger roles, bigger stages, and finally fame on a hit television series. But Lee’s journey in show business essentially began with Mr. Cole, who admits it took him a while to realize the “Paul Lee” in both the stage and TV versions of Kim’s Convenience was the same person he taught in Grade 10 all those years ago.
“I had speculated about it,” Cole says. “I said, ‘You know, I taught a Paul Lee once.’” And my wife said, “Well, some of the cast are from Calgary originally.” Cole says he wondered, />but then dismissed the idea, thinking it couldn’t be the same Paul Lee. “But I’m just so thrilled for him. I love his character in Kim’s Convenience, and everything he does with it. That just really impresses me a lot. We’re big fans of the show.”
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has a simple but powerful message for Ron Cole: Thanks.
“Teachers are shaping who we’re becoming, and it is such an important job, but it’s so easy to lose track of that sometimes,” Lee says. “I kind />of always wanted to go back and find Mr. Cole and say, you know, Thank you, because your influence made such a difference in my life. You have no idea, it’s a debt of gratitude, it really is.”
Now-retired teacher Ron Cole was the first to spot Paul Sun-Hyung Lee’s storytelling talent.
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.