We had the good fortune of connecting with Kristina Wong and we’ve shared our conversation below.
How does Auntie Sewing Squad help the community or the world?
In March 2020, I started the Auntie Sewing Squad as a casual Facebook group to connect to friends who were sewing masks for frontline and essential workers because of the PPE shortage. The idea was that we’d only exist for a few weeks until the cargo boats of factory made masks from China got here and the US Government got masks to everyone.
Spoiler alert: the cavalry never came, the GOP turned mask wearing and social distancing into a politically polarizing thing, and 17 months and 600k domestic Covid deaths later, we were still sewing and mailing masks to the most vulnerable of communities– many long since left behind by the Federal Government. Among these communities– agricultural workers, migrants at the border, children in low-income households, undocumented immigrants, First Nations, and Black and Brown populations living near environmental waste. We work in partnership with local organizers in those communities who have vetted relationships with their communities to make sure our masks our distributed to the people who need them the most.
This 3 week stopgap of a project is now a loose collective of over 800 volunteers across America (2 Aunties in Canada!). Many of us were strangers to each other before this pandemic and even though some of us have yet to meet each other in person, we are deeply bonded by this strange time in history where sewed and distributed masks together. By our retirement in August, we will have distributed about 400k masks (mostly cloth and some disposable) around North America, We’ve coordinated a eight relief vehicles to Standing Rock and the Navajo Nation, as well as their winter clothing drives. We had two rounds of a kids summer mask sewing camp (I joke it’s our “child labor camp”). We also have a book written by the Aunties coming out this Fall from University of California Press. I am premiering a new solo show about this experience of running our “remote factory of Aunties” at New York Theater Workshop this Fall.
More significantly, we have been our own community of radical care and support during this time. And we have invited others to offer care for us as we do this labor. By recognizing that our labor has value via this community caring for our mental, physical and emotional health, we have been able to sustain our ability to continue this work so many months in. We unabashedly acknowledge the political power of our sewing as a way to express our solidarity and support in the most impacted of communities when national leadership has failed us. We proudly trace the lineage of this sewing to our mothers and grandmothers, immigrant and refugee communities in America, and underpaid women of color garment workers globally.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a performance artist, comedian and elected representative in Koreatown, Los Angeles. The “comedian” label of my identity is mostly to keep people from being totally scared off by the “performance artist” thing.
I’ve created original solo theater works, ensemble plays, videos and a national mutual aid collective. I am currently an elected representative in Koreatown Los Angeles and the elected ADEM Executive Board delegate of the California Democratic party for CA Assembly District 53. My shows have toured North America, UK, Hong Kong and Nigeria. I’ve made guerilla theater actions and community based theater projects. My essays, films, and web projects have gone viral. I consider all of this my performance work.
The unifying characteristic of my work is employing humor to explore difficult subjects and amplify the experiences of marginalized people, using the premise of “autobiography” as a starting point of exploration. My aesthetic is subversive, humorous, and endearingly inappropriate. I criss-cross avant garde performance art, arts and crafts, stand-up comedy and cultural criticism.
For many years until about 2016 (around the same time as the Trump’s election… hmmmm), I was heavily obsessed with using strategies of culture jamming and pranking my way to social justice victories. This instinct came from burning out in college from the overwhelming anger from trying to take on activism. I really found myself wanting to find my humor and joy in activism and made finding those strategies the centerpiece of the first 15 years of my career. Crashing events in my performance personas, staging fake funerals for white male penises, luring people into my fake mail order bride website, while performing this long form version of my “Kristina Wong persona” on stages in my solo shows seemed to be the best strategy. But it has seemed of late, more difficult to subvert a world that has become stranger than fiction. As a once “wacky performance artist” I am learning that the most subversive thing I can do to disrupt the world is to sit inside sincerity, embrace earnestness, and shift the stage in which my ideas are read. I still believe that there is joy and humor in how I approach this work and am constantly wrestling with how to find joy, make grounded messaging that isn’t just reactively pushing back, as it adjusts to the ever changing state of the world and culture.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I am just getting reacquainted with the world outside my neighborhood after we’ve been locked in isolation for over a year. But I’d take out of town folks to my local food bank– the World Harvest Food Bank at 3100 Venice Blvd. The founder and CEO Glen Curado has become my best friend and has a food bank that anyone can shop at regardless of income status. It’s a quaint storefront and the shopping experience doesn’t feel embarrassing or scarce the way we think getting food from a food bank feels like.
For a $40 donation (or 4 hours of volunteer work) you get a heaping cart of groceries that can feed several families for a month! You can also buy items a la carte. He gets some really cool things donated from some very upscale grocers. During the pandemic, he got all the Girl Scout Cookies that didn’t sell and was giving them away by the carton! He also had pallets of Starbucks coffee! The experience of shopping there is like being on a cross between a treasure hunt, an episode of Chopped, and a game show shopping spree.
And the runner up places I would take my friends: Merkato Ethiopian restaurant and the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d like to give some love to my “Super Auntie” Amy Tofte. Amy has become my “work wife” during the pandemic and really has done an incredible amount of work behind the scenes with very little public recognition. She’s a screenwriter and playwright who I met many years ago in a rideshare. We were really just Facebook acquaintances but she’d seen my frantic posts about needing help delivering fabric around town, and stepped up. Within a matter of days, she was the First Captain of Spreadsheets and helping us “fly the airplane as we build it.” I appreciate how Amy recognizes the work of white allies to stay behind the scenes to really center the communities most affected by this crisis. She’s also been great about ceding space to celebrate our Aunties of color whose labor would otherwise be written off as “invisible labor.”