Kristina Wong’s pandemic story: Sewing with her aunties

Kristina Wong is an in-your-face performer who, until this month, hadn’t performed for an in-person audience since March 2020. The thought of looking into dozens of eyes, not just the little green light on her laptop, made her feel, well, weird.

>> Sarah BahrThe New York Times
Published : 1 Nov 2021, 04:06 PM
Updated : 1 Nov 2021, 04:06 PM

So her stage manager, Katie Ailinger, came up with a plan to ease her back into the rhythms of live performance: She taped stock photos of people’s faces around the rehearsal room at New York Theatre Workshop, where in September Wong began to prepare “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” a one-woman show about running a sewing group during the pandemic.

“Just turning my head and having a range of motion is a whole thing — and having eye contact again is huge!” Wong, 43, a comedian, performance artist and community activist, said recently during a phone interview from her dressing room. She was about to run through an afternoon technical rehearsal of the 90-minute production, a hybrid of stand-up, lecture and performance art that is scheduled to open Thursday.

While Wong was stuck at home in Los Angeles, she stayed busy leading the Auntie Sewing Squad, a volunteer group of mostly Asian American women she founded in March 2020 to make face masks for health care workers, farmworkers, incarcerated people and others. She recruited 6-year-old children, her 73-year-old mother and others for the operation, which ballooned to more than 800 “Aunties,” a cross-cultural term of respect and affection for women, as well as “Uncles” and nonbinary volunteers in 33 states. Together, they distributed more than 350,000 masks.

“I feel like I got more done for the world by running a mutual aid group than as an elected official,” said Wong, a third-generation Chinese American from San Francisco. (She’s served as an unpaid elected representative of the Wilshire Centre Koreatown Neighbourhood Council in Los Angeles since 2019, an unusual electoral journey that is the subject of her one-woman show “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” whose national tour was interrupted by the pandemic.)

After disbanding the sewing squad (she hosted a retirement party for the Aunties in Los Angeles in September), Wong shifted her focus to bringing the tale of her 504 days leading the group to the stage in a production directed by Chay Yew. And a streaming version of the show ran at New York Theater Workshop in May.

In a conversation a few days before previews began, Wong discussed her journey from an out-of-work artist to the leader of hundreds of volunteers, her mother’s changed opinion of her performing arts career and how she hoped the show would reshape people’s perceptions of Asian Americans. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: In March 2020, your tour for “Kristina Wong for Public Office” was postponed. What made you want to start a mask-making group?

A: I was home without income feeling sorry for myself, and I stumbled across some articles that said there was a need for homemade masks. It started with me taking my Hello Kitty sewing machine and fabric and making a naive offer to the internet: “If you need masks and don’t have access to them, I will help you!” But my ego wrote a check my body couldn’t cash, and within four days I was inundated with requests, so I started a Facebook group of people whom I knew could sew. We had Aunties cutting the elastic off their fitted sheets, the straps off their bras. It was a Robinson Crusoe situation.

Q: Why did you call yourself a “sweatshop overlord”?

A: My first volunteers were all Asian women, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the sickest moment, we are a modern-day sweatshop.” Our mothers and grandmothers did garment work — my grandmother and grandfather did laundry work as part of their rite of passage to America — and now we find ourselves doing this work again, for free, because the government hasn’t prepared us for this moment. So it was this gallows humor joke that I was the sweatshop overlord — also humor about child labour because I was ordering children around.

Q: At what point did you realize this was a show?

A: Within the first 40 days, one of the Aunties — my first mentor, Leilani Chan of TeAda Productions (a Los Angeles-based theater company) — was like, “We’re going to try to figure out how to make work online.” So I’d get a booking from a college or a theater and then would just create new sections up to that point in the pandemic.

The shows, which were all (streamed) live, became an event for the Aunties. I would post in our Facebook group “I’m doing a performance about us now,” and they would all change their name to “Auntie So and So” in Zoom. They’d openly chat with audience members during the performance and be there for the Q&A afterward, usually at their sewing machines. So it was me half-entertaining them, but also trying to bring our story into existence.

Q: What changes did you make for the in-person production?

A: Doing the show from my home on Zoom — and the fact that we were all in a pandemic — was a great shorthand for the audience, but now I’m moving into a neutral space that is a representation of my home. So I realised I’d have to spend more time laying out context that we might’ve forgotten, and also trying to think about the bigger meaning of all this, rather than just putting moments to memory.

Q: You use comedy as a way of talking through micro- and macro-aggressions against Asian Americans. How did anti-Asian sentiment affect you personally?

A: The great irony is that I didn’t even wear a mask for the first few weeks I was sewing them, because I felt like the mask I permanently wear on my face was already a sign to the world: “I’m a foreigner. I’m an immigrant. I brought the virus here. Come get me.” With this show, I wanted to find a way to tell the story that’s more than us just being beat up, beat up, beat up, but also about how we survived.

Q: Were you concerned that people wouldn’t want to relive the pandemic?

A: We need to figure out how to visibly see Asian Americans and culture. During the pandemic, I saw Asian American women not as quiet, subservient virus passers but as warriors behind sewing machines doing the work of protecting Americans. If there’s a museum one day about this moment in history, please let there just be a little footnote that remembers our work. And I’ve learned that, especially as an artist of color, I can’t wait for someone else to write that footnote, so this show is really me screaming at people to know how to respect our labor.

Q: As recently as 2015, your mother was still sending you newspaper articles with the average pay for careers like doctors and government officials to try to dissuade you from pursuing a performing arts career. Is she more supportive now?

A: My mom called me when I first started this and told me, “You’ve got to stop making those masks; stay inside!” I got really mad at her, but then she completely surprised me — she was like, “OK, mail me some fabric, get me the patterns.” Then she recruited all her friends and got really into it. I think she feels really proud.

Q: Is she coming to see the show?

A: She was really scared to come to New York because of hate crimes and the delta variant, but she and my dad are coming to watch the show. I’m really happy she gets to see it, and I think she’ll be surprised because she doesn’t know how much she’s in it. My shows have been my way to have honest conversations with my parents from a distance — they learn more about me from watching my shows than us sitting at the dining room table, where I’m mostly just lying to them and hiding stuff. And I think they know this!

Q: How much of the show is just you, Kristina Wong, on that stage, and how much is you playing a character?

A: This is my great dilemma! I play a character named Kristina Wong who’s mostly me, but highly dramatized. Did I really crawl on my belly to go to the post office? No, but it did feel like life or death a lot of the time.

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