In Conversation: Johnny Kim
On fatherhood, fashion, and identity.
Originally published March 17, 2022, on Sticky Rice Magazine.
“I’m looking at my dad’s face while eating dinner,” David Choe tells Bobby Lee in episode 300 of Tigerbelly, “and I say: I don’t know shit about you.”
It’s a profound moment, knowing that two famous—or infamous—Asian-Americans prevalent in the diasporic zeitgeist of third-culture identity know as much about their parents as I do mine.
Most of what Choe can recall are stories told by him or his aunts that shape a silhouette of who his father could have been in his youth. Sitting on the couch, exasperated, Choe recalls the conversation with his father.
“I have no idea what you think about. I’m a man. I’m a grownup now. I’m living my own life,” Choe says.
“Do you want to get to know each other deeply, or do you want to keep it the way it is?”
“Keep it the way it is,” Choe’s dad says, a closer that sparks a knowing laugh among the people in the Tigerbelly room, myself, and Johnny F. Kim, as we discuss the episode over Facebook Messenger.
“David Choe is the GOAT,” Kim messages me. Much like Choe and Lee, despite only knowing Kim for a few years there’s a shared bond between the two of us, tied by our lived experiences.
An early pioneer of the Montreal streetwear scene, Kim is a multi-faceted creative, moonlighting as a videographer, designer, DJ, and most recently, a cement sculptor. At 36-years-old, Kim shares a lot of parallels with Choe and Lee. The two, despite their controversies, unknowingly became a template for many millennial Asian-American men in the early aughts who wanted to separate themselves from the colonial stereotype of the Asian model minority.
Replace Shang-Chi with Harold & Kumar (“I don’t need flying dragons and kung-fu,” Kim DMs me). Crazy Rich Asians with the Wu-Tang Clan. Think of it as the other end of the social barometer. It was a persona that embraced being weird, being loud, and, putting it bluntly, not giving a fuck.
Uneducated Kids is Kim's capsule collection. Photo courtesy of Johnny F. Kim
But it was also a way to channel a myriad of mental health issues commonly found among Asian-American and Canadian youth. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness aren’t new to people like us despite their burgeoning growth amidst the pandemic. But what’s glaring is that many of these issues are passed down through generations (told brilliantly by Grace Chang in her 2020 editorial in the New York Times).
With his streetwear capsule series “Uneducated Kids,” Kim explores his Cambodian roots by turning essays—as he puts it—into ready-to-wear essentials. A personal memoir as much as it is a limited collection of shirts, sweaters, and accessories featuring Kim’s very own designs, each garment communicates a lingering trauma shared by the Cambodian diaspora today.
Below is an abridged series of transcribed video conversations that Kim and I had over the course of spring 2021, talking serendipitously about our parents a few months prior to the premiere of Tigerbelly’s 300th episode.
NIKKI: So, first off, your name is Johnny Farovitch Kim.
JOHNNY: Yeah. If you read it from a book, it would sound like a rich Jewish person, and I guess that sounded cool.
NIKKI: What about your brothers?
JOHNNY: One of my brother’s names is William Jr. Kim. My dad [name redacted] isn’t a William senior. It’s pretty wild. Instead of giving us Cambodian names, we got white ones. The only thing that’s Asian is the Kim part.
NIKKI: And just so everyone knows, you’re also not Korean.
JOHNNY: I’m not. I get that a lot. I never really asked why I don’t have a Cambodian name but I’m pretty sure what the reason was. He came into the country and had kids. He wanted to give us western names so we could fit in.
NIKKI: Do you have family here?
JOHNNY: All my family is in France. My aunts. My cousins. In Canada, my mom has a cousin and a few friends we consider family. I think we have one relative in Cambodia. But on my dad’s side, there’s nobody. I think they’re all dead. My parents met when they were working for the U.N., helping refugees find homes, I guess.
NIKKI: Do you know much about their experience fleeing the Khmer Rouge?
JOHNNY: My dad has a whole side of the story that I don’t know. But what I hear from my mom, it’s a lot of death and sadness.
NIKKI: So you wouldn’t really talk?
JOHNNY: My dad wouldn’t talk. I would never really see him. All he did was work. It was usually just me, my brothers, and my mom left at home. My dad would wake up at five or six, go to work, eat, then go to bed. We don’t express emotions. It’s that kind of thing. But as I got older, I’d hug them.
NIKKI: When was the first time you said “I love you” to your parents?
JOHNNY: I write them in cards. In recent years, I’d say it, yeah. Saying I love you isn’t really a thing. But we all know we love each other deep down.
NIKKI: I get that.
JOHNNY: It wasn’t a toxic thing. We came in with nothing. We lived in uptown and later we moved to the projects. In Montreal, they put all the immigrants in the same place, Habitations Jeanne-Mance. It was a blueprint to create other housing projects around Canada.
NIKKI: What was that like?
JOHNNY: I grew up with a lot of Latinos. I’m pretty sure every kid with immigrant parents got beat. To Canadians, that’s terrible. But for me it’s discipline. I fucked up. I deserved the duster.
NIKKI: Or the sandal.
JOHNNY: Or the belt. But it could have been worse. I remind myself that my parents went through hell. In Cambodia, you were killed for being able to speak, being an intellectual, or being educated. But the thing that fascinated me about my parents is that, after everything they went through, they’re happy.
JOHNNY: My parents have worked their asses off. It's now up to me to do it for my daughter in the same way. It's my turn to maintain that. To provide them a better future for my family and my lineage.
Portrait of Kim wearing "Our Future Is In The Hands Of Youth" hoodie from his latest Uneducated Kids collection.
NIKKI: Let’s talk about mental health.
JOHNNY: Sure. Anxiety I'm comfortable with because there's less taboo around it.
NIKKI: A lot of my anxiety and depression stems from growing up in a white majority community, being around my extended family, and moving around a lot. My parents never communicated with me or each other, and if they were arguing about something, they would rather just not speak at all.
Where does your anxiety come from?
JOHNNY: Maybe growing up in the projects. A lot of things happened there that weren't normal but it was a normal thing for me. To my parents, without communication, I was a shy kid. I was also a class clown. It was probably because I lacked attention. I like attention. My younger brother's pretty shy. I used to be shy.
Being a class clown was a way for me to deal with issues. I can know when shit is going to happen just by growing up in that area. It's like having an extra sense. I grew up with a lot of fucked up shit and seing fucked up things.
Growing up, I had a lot of anger issues. It would come in bursts of pressure. I'd keep it in, and I would just explode.
NIKKI: Did you get into fights often?
JOHNNY: Like three or four fights. High school was different. We used to hang out in arcades. There was some gang stuff, jumping people. It was all the Asians banding together, influenced by street gangs.
I was a bit careful, though. I didn’t want to be a criminal. I got arrested twice in my life, for shoplifting and doing graffiti, but they just brought me home.
NIKKI: Yeah, I get that. There’s this thing about Asian masculinity in the west, you know? We’re always so emasculated in the media and in our environment, so we tend to look for ways to be more “manly”.
JOHNNY: There were a lot of insecurities, maybe. You know? You look at me weird, I’m gonna beat you up, kind of stuff. Yeah a lot of it comes from being insecure. Growing up, we have this anger—
NIKKI: —Totally. It’s a weird, alienating feeling. A lot of lashing out.
JOHNNY: Even the good kids were doing weird shit too. Where does it dwell from? When it comes to my insecurities, it’s about how people perceive me.
NIKKI: Being the good asian.
JOHNNY: Yeah, I always wonder about the perception of who I am. How do people perceive me? People say “Johnny says wild shit.” Sometimes like you. A lot of it comes out of me emotionally. I’m an emotional creative.
I’m working on how I’m presenting myself.
Johnny F. Kim collaborated with Montreal-based Cambodian visual artist and screenprinter Elie Chap to print Kim's latest designs for his Uneducated Kids streetwear series.
NIKKI: You’re involved in a lot of creative projects. Why are creativity and work so important to you?
JOHNNY: Growing up I used to like to draw. Play with LEGOs. I’d be in my own world. My parents would be working so we had a lot of time figuring things out on our own. A lot of my creative work stems from being alone and being curious. I would watch my dad do things. He was always drawing, doing photography, calligraphy, making mixtapes of old Cambodian songs.
NIKKI: So a lot of observing.
JOHNNY: A lot of my creativity comes from that. With music, my friend showed me this software and I thought it was cool. It led me to DJing, being curious, and being active. With photography and videography, that was from a friend showing me something. I liked it so I bought a camera, started walking around, taking photos of everything.
NIKKI: You just went all in.
JOHNNY: I dived fully into it. Creativity is all I know. I know work. I know the business side. I learned through work. I got my creativity from my dad. I guess my mom, too, when I think of it. Creatively, he raised me the way I’m raising my daughter today.
NIKKI: I have a similar experience, but mostly it’s just childhood PTSD. My dad encouraged me to do all these creative things—but because it was pushed on me I rejected it. It got to a point where when I was twelve, I just didn’t want to learn guitar anymore. So he grabbed my guitar and just started smashing it against the amplifier.
JOHNNY: He’s trying to live his dreams through you. Because he couldn’t do that.
NIKKI: I never thought about it that way. What are some aspects of your parents that are ingrained in you?
JOHNNY: Doing things. My dad is very nonchalant and second guesses. My mom likes to get stuff done. Their will to work hard to get the things they want is always there.
NIKKI: You mentioned your daughter. What are some of the things you want to show your kid as she grows up?
JOHNNY: I care about spending a lot of time. I make the time. I have her on the weekends. Sometimes I’m tired but being present is something I’m doing more than what my dad or mom did for me. I show a lot of affection.
I’m not a tiger parent. Yes, I have my concerns about things, but I have my own style of parenting. I show her The Simpsons. She likes it. It's not for a seven-year-old but if we taboo things, that's how kids act out. Show them things. Communicate with them. I know they're kids but it's not a “googoogaagaa” kind of thing. Treat them like normal kids. Show them stuff that they like. Try to be helpful. Try to be aware.
NIKKI: For a lot of people like us, communication can be a big hang-up.
JOHNNY: Having that conversation is already is a good start. My parents would never do that. Show that you love your kids. And tell them to take their shoes off because sometimes I forget. I’m too westernized.
NIKKI: Speaking of, let’s talk about your roots. How do you get in touch with them?
JOHNNY: The internet. I read and watch videos on the food and the culture. I talk to my parents. A lot of it is finding other Cambodians similar to me—which is hard. Even in Montreal, it wasn’t until five or six years ago that I started having Cambodian friends in the city.
After the war, I noticed that a lot of Cambodian media wasn’t original. Cambodia had a lot of copy-paste music. Karaoke music.
NIKKI: That sounds pretty similar to the Philippine experience. A lot of that is attributed to the post-colonial mentality.
JOHNNY: You know, all the best scratch DJs are Filipinos. Breakdancers, too.
NIKKI: And battle rappers. We love it. It’s so big over there!
JOHNNY: The point I’m trying to make is that we should want to have our own style and voice. Let’s represent ourselves as Filipino-Canadians, Cambodian-Canadians, and represent ourselves to the westerner’s eye the right way.
NIKKI: Right. From your work, how are you exploring the Cambodian side of your identity?
JOHNNY: Uneducated Kids, my brand, forced me to do that. Before I’d make a design, I’d research the theme, and that would open more doors.
Images from Kim’s Uneducated Kids Capsule collection. Photos courtesy of Johnny F. Kim
NIKKI: Tell me about the name.
JOHNNY: When I started, the brand was a way to tell Cambodia’s dark history and the story of my parents struggling through the genocide of the Khmer camps. My dad had to pretend he wasn’t educated. That he was just a peasant selling fruits. That’s how the name came about. A lot of people had to fake it to not die, not just my parents. Some of my family members lived through it. My job is to portray it in the best way possible. That’s the hardest part.
NIKKI: And you recently worked on the latest collection.
JOHNNY: Yeah. When I was working on it, I approached it with a lot more positivity but still brought elements of Cambodia’s dark past to the forefront.
NIKKI: Is this both cultural learning for you and the people you’re showcasing the product to?
JOHNNY: Yeah. I’m telling a story that people don’t really know but I’m not glorifying things just to put it onto a shirt. I have sensitivities to that. That’s why it takes time for each collection to spring up. It’s giving me a platform—a canvas—to do my research. I’m putting an essay into a shirt.
NIKKI: So it’s a form of communicating a shared experience.
JOHNNY: One thing that I realized is everybody from that time that lived through it shares a similar experience. Everyone can relate to one another. An entire country went through it. It’s not just a part of it. It’s not just a state. It’s everybody.
From what I can remember at family dinners, when they talk about it, it’s like a weird ice breaker. And when I talk to my friends who are Cambodian today, we’re sharing the same experiences.
NIKKI: You’re a community.
JOHNNY: Yeah. There was life before the war, and after the war, it was a lot of rebuilding. Everything that I find now is a treasure. There’s a guy that I spoke to that’s writing a comic book on one of the top artists making Cambodian music.
Nowadays, I find that a lot of the younger generation—they’re not really into that.
NIKKI: They’re disconnected.
JOHNNY: They don’t really speak Cambodian. They don’t really see the value. I’m Cambodian. I like Cambodian things. Should I start going to the temple? I thought about it. How can I immerse myself more? I want to learn how to write. I want to learn how to get to that.
Johnny Kim’s multidisciplinary work can be found on his website. His streetwear series Uneducated Kids can be found at Montreal clothing boutique LOPEZ.