“It’s kind of a wild story. How I went from comedian to Overlord of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a nationwide sweatshop of volunteers who made and delivered 250,00 face masks."
“It’s kind of a wild story. How I went from comedian to Overlord of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a nationwide sweatshop of volunteers who made and delivered 250,00 face masks in 2020. This was not how I expected my 2020 to go. I have these moments where I'm just like, how did I get in so deep. Like literally my first mask was sewn on a Hello Kitty sewing machine.
I'm a performance artist, comedian and a local elected representative in my neighborhood of Koreatown, Los Angeles. I wrote a show about it, called Kristina Wong for Public Office, and had a national tour set, in cities all over the country. It was going to run alongside all the real life rallies and events leading up to November's election. That was supposed to be my 2020. I premiered the show in February in Los Angeles and it was the greatest show of my life. The standing ovation started even before the show was over, like, it truly was the greatest show of my life. And something that I could not imagine doing without an audience. I did one more show in March at a community college in Sacramento and basically 20 minutes before I finished the show, all the students got a text saying, we're going online tomorrow. And then the show the next day in Santa Cruz was cancelled.
It was really kind of a perilous, scary drive back to Los Angeles, where I live, because the big question was how am I going to make a living as an artist who tours live if I can't be in front of crowds. And I really thought well, maybe this will just be a month, we'll just lock down for a month.
But basically within a week, I was like, I, I have this martyr complex that kicks in when I'm, like, afraid the world's gonna explode and feel helpless. So I was like, you know, I, there's got to be something I can do, rather than just watch the news and be horrified and do nothing. Then I saw that hospitals were asking for homemade masks. And I was like, ‘Oh, I have an essential skill even though I'm not an essential worker.’ Now, that's another point of conversation. I do feel like the Arts are essential, but, yes, we'll save that for another interview. But like I was like, ‘I didn't become a nurse, but I can save a nurse.’
So I used the pattern I saw online and I took some scraps of elastic and fabric that I happen to have in the house. And I sewed my first mask and very naively offered it to the world. ‘If you're immunocompromised or have no access to a mask, let me make you a mask.’ ‘You can just reimburse me for shipping and, if you don't even have that, don't worry about it.’ That ballooned very quickly in the course of four days into hundreds of requests from nurses, grocery store workers, postal workers, bus drivers. It was very hard to say no, it was very hard to say, ‘I’m sorry, I have limits.’ These people were putting themselves at risk to keep the world going and what am I going to say, ‘I’m sorry, I got in over my head?’
So I got a neighbor, Audrey, to help me cut fabric. I was saying to Audrey and my other friends, ‘I can't believe it's people, just people like us, who are going to save us at this moment. It’s so weird.’ Now there are teams of Aunties all over who are doing this labor. I love this image of an Auntie. When I'm called an Auntie by little kids and I’m not actually their biological Aunt, I'm just like, my heart just warms. It's a very sweet way, especially in Asian communities, to refer to elder women.
I was so endeared by this image of Aunties for days, and I was like ‘I need to find help.’ I looked at other mask-making groups, and they were already huge and exploding. I didn’t know if these big groups could help me with my requests, so I started my own group. But I just thought it was going to be like a stopgap. I thought it was going to be a casual group of people and that we would disband in a month or less. And so I called it Auntie Sewing Squad. I named it in such a rush I didn't realize that our acronym was ASS.
I was literally reclined in bed, trying to quickly come up with a name, and didn't want to have a name with ‘mask’ in it, or some sort of regional name. I didn't want it to have a lot of responsibility around it, with people flooding me with more requests. Some of these other groups were like Masks for Los Angeles, Homemade Masks and PPE for LA. I was like, ‘I'm not committing to that.’ I just tried to grab a few friends to help me finish this request list of masks and be done with it. So Aunties Sewing Squad.
The whole sweatshop Overlord persona I take on is because our first volunteers were all Asian American women and it was just sort of a joke. I was like, ‘What's happening?’ ‘What kind of weird ancestral destiny is this?’ It’s turning into a Chinese sweatshop, that’s what's happening!’ And so it's funny because now our group has lots of different kinds of women - White women, Asian, Black, Latinx, and some Indigenous women. They all call me the Overlord and it all stems from this Chinese sweatshop reference.
I didn’t intend to become an Overlord. Because some articles had been running about me, I was getting flooded with donations. The crazy thing was that there was nowhere to spend the donations, there was no Garment District, it was closed up. There was no elastic on the market. So I found myself sort of at the top of the Auntie chain, trying to track down elastic. I bought out all the elastic this one dress shop in MacArthur Park had. I met the lady outside and paid her all in cash. It was like this crazy drug deal. And we would spot random people on eBay who had spools here and there and we were paying like three times what elastic cost right now. It was my job to get that shipped to other people in the group because I was getting in all this money that I was supposed to spend, so I did whatever I could to spend it for its intended purpose.
So, yeah, this whole effort just grew like crazy over the course of 10 days. It went from me gathering this group to me suddenly facilitating donations from interior designers and people who just had rolls of fabric lying around and then getting them out to other people and then tutoring people on the phone on how to use their sewing machine because they hadn't touched it in a while.
To date, across these nine months, we’ll have made a quarter million masks. We have this whole system of Auntie Care within our group, which I think is why we've been able to stay so long. We take conscious care of each other even though we've never met. We send treats and goodies and we have a yoga class on Zoom and all this kind of stuff. The concept of Auntie Care started because the first week of this I was so stressed out. Literally in the first 10 days, I went from like zero to a million. I was on the phone with garment industry people, cutting people and like, you know, I've never run a garment company in my life, and suddenly I am running a remote factory of Aunties sewing masks in a pandemic and trying to get them to people who need them. I was just so stressed out. My friends who cannot sew were like, let me send you a pizza, let me send you some lunch. I was getting so many offers like this, I had to create an Auntie Care Facilitator. Now there are a few Auntie Care Facilitators, but I was like you have to redirect all these pizza deliveries to other artists so they don't quit on me, or, or riot or go insane. Auntie Care has been our staying power.
We were originally sending masks to hospital workers, grocery store workers, etc., and then we saw there was a need for farm workers. And then something clicked. There were all these communities out there that couldn’t find me on Facebook, that don't even have access to the Internet or the English language or running water. A special effort needed to be made to reach them. Because hospitals have marketing teams and communication teams, they can find people like us. But there were all these other communities that were really getting super hit hard. And so we created this team of Super Aunties whose purpose is to communicate with organizations that support First Nations, farm workers, migrants who are at the border seeking asylum, incarcerated folks.
We’ve sent out six relief vehicles to the Navajo Nation. We've done a coat and winter weather drive to Standing Rock, and Black Hills for the Lakota folks. We have sent sewing machines, fabric, and elastics to crews at Rosebud and the Navajo Nation. A lot of our masks have actually gone across the border to Mexico and some of our masks have gone into Canada to support some of the indigenous tribes up there.
We also sent a lot of solidarity masks to volunteers at getting the vote out in Georgia and masks to people participating in protests. People needed masks to make sure those peaceful protesters were safe and protected. So it became political very quickly. Once you realize that your time is not being valued by a government that should be stepping in and providing free masks for everyone, you start choosing communities that have historically borne the brunt of historical racism and structural violence. This is not an accident that these communities have been left behind. They had been left behind before this health crisis, and were really, really getting left behind now.
And for me it's very important that when I talk about our group that we continue to point to the failure of the government response to those people because this has been exhausting. It's been hard. We're not just like ladies who love quilting. We are people who are just horrified watching these communities faced with huge fatalities from this virus when there are basic protections in the form of cloth and elastic that can keep them from getting sick. It seems very logical to me that if we keep them safe, we keep us safe. Your health is my health. That’s what this is. That's what this pandemic could have been - a moment to really realize how interconnected we are. Instead, it became this weird partisan thing, which has had devastating consequences.
This whole situation in our country could have, and should have, been dealt with differently - declared that masks are important and prepared a supply chain ahead of time, instead of saying no, you don't need to wear masks, then maybe wear masks, masks are your choice, okay wear masks.
I don't want to preserve this pandemic, I don't want to preserve this level of work, but this level of connection that we've made with each other as total strangers, the love and care that we express for each other and for other communities, I would love to see that continue beyond this time. Not necessarily at this level of hellish work, but it has opened my heart in this way. I think if anyone is out there watching this and they've been feeling scared and helpless, I think the answer is to figure out how to give. That may sound counterintuitive, like if you are facing job scarcity or you're not even sure where your next meal is coming from, how to figure out how you can be generous. A lot of our Aunties are not employed and they're dealing with their own losses. Some of our Aunties came down with COVID. Some of our Aunties have parents who have been infected. Some have lost family members to it. So, you know, we're not bulletproof, we're dealing with our own losses. Sewing gives them a sense of purpose. You have to have a purpose, you have to have something that gets you up in the morning.
A book about the Aunties is coming out in Fall 2021. The book ties into the role of women's labor across history. My dream is that when this is over, all the Aunties from the different cities will come together and we'll sign the book like rock stars. I really hope that’s how this ends, that we retire from making masks. Then I’ll go on tour with my new show, Kristina Wong Sweatshop Overlord. It unfolds across the pandemic, playing out mostly here in my house. It chronicles what it has been like to run the sewing group, with no experience whatsoever, from my home, during a pandemic like none of us have ever seen. How I experienced the pandemic seems to be very interesting to people who have not run a national sweatshop out of their house.” - Kristina Wong, Auntie Sewing Squad #California