Hustle and Heart: The Curtis Lum Story

How hip hop and food influenced one of Canada’s rising actors and his career.

31-year-old actor Curtis Lum was named one of Canada’s Rising Stars by The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. He earned this recognition for his work in “Prison Break”, “Supergirl”, and FreeForm’s “Siren”.

Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung sat down with Lum to learn about his experience as an Asian actor and how hip hop and his family business led him here.

Listen to full audio interview below. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Mark Stenson

Unspoken Identity on Television

Cold Tea Collective: Tell us about your connection with your character on “Siren”.

Curtis Lum (CL): I’m really happy with my character on “Siren”. It’s the first time I’ve been able to sink my teeth into a character and grow with the show.

Most importantly, the role has nothing to do with my ethnicity.

Cold Tea Collective: Do you think you bring anything to the character that is uniquely Asian?

CL: I love the fact that ethnicity hasn’t been brought into my story line or dialogue. On the flip side of that, we’re two seasons in, I almost want them to write something about my ethnicity because it almost feels a little surreal that we haven’t.

What I bring that might be innately Asian is that I throw a lot of shade at the main character who is Caucasian [because I think he’s privileged], but have a really good bond with an African-American character because we’re both ethnic minorities. I’d like to think our characters have a connection that is completely different than others.

Black and Yellow, Black and Yellow

Photo: Mark Stenson

CL: Growing up, I was the token Asian guy and I grew up repressing and negating my own culture. I spoke Cantonese at home, but you would never catch me speaking it with any of my friends.

One of my favourite rappers, Jay-Z, really helped me with my own journey. I’ve done business deals and the only reference I had were Jay-Z lyrics. He’s a bonafide hustler, and does it with such class — that’s how I want to be perceived.

Black, or urban culture, appealed to me so much because of this. It seemed easier for me to latch onto. It’s a beautiful, vibrant and powerful culture. They’re proud to be black, they’re proud of their community, they really support one another.

We didn’t have that voice at all at that time [when growing up]. I think we’re almost there as an Asian community.

We’re very much alike, the Chinese-American/Canadian and Black [communities]. Not to compare the struggles, but we’ve both overcome a lot in terms of adversity and from that you can see it reflected in our cultures today. From how expressive we are in nature, to how much soul there is even in our food.

Being a Third Generation Restaurateur

Photo: Mark Stenson

CL: I grew up in Hawaii early in my life, so my family’s restaurant is a homestyle Japanese and Hawaiian comfort food cafe.

We were doing poke before any of these poke shops popped up. It’s cool to see now that Hawaiian culture is starting to really blossom.

Cold Tea Collective: How would you describe Hawaiian food?

CL: To me, it’s simple, yet complex. It’s beautiful, vibrant, and flavourful. It really speaks to the mana, to the soul. It’s food from the heart without any bougieness, no frills.

Photo: Mark Stenson

Cold Tea Collective: Is there an expectation placed upon you to carry on the family legacy in the food industry?

CL: Definitely. My grandfather had a restaurant in Chinatown — The Jade Palace. It was the first push-cart dim sum restaurant in Vancouver.

My dad really wanted me to be a part of what he was working so hard to build. I just knew from a really young age that I had to do my own thing and work toward building my own legacy.

With that said, because it’s in my blood, I’ll always be a part of a restaurant or bar or something down the road.

Turning his Parents into his Biggest Fans

CL: I had to move out to have a strong disconnect for a while so I could come back and really be there for them, really love them, and really respect them — and for them to respect me.

I had to show them that what I was doing was not only viable and potentially lucrative, but that I was happy doing it.

Cold Tea Collective: What’s your relationship with them like now?

Now, I almost don’t want to tell them too much because now when I have an audition, everyday on the hour, my mom asks “have you heard anything?”.

I’ll also never forget this: When I went away to shoot a show and then I came back, the regular customers at our restaurant knew exactly what was going on. They knew where I went, for how long, and for what. My Dad and my Mom were bragging about me to these customers. This is how I found out that they supported me; it meant a lot.

Photo: Mark Stenson

The next season of “Siren” comes out on January 24.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photos by Mark Stenson. Audio production by Jessika Noda. For full audio, check out our podcast below and don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast platform.

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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