“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?’
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 . . . "
[Excerpt from Kristina Wong's story in "Who We Are Now: Stories of What Americans Lost and Found During the COVID-19 Pandemic."]
Kristina's one-woman show about her experience -- "Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord" -- received rave reviews by The New York Times and won Wong a "Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama" award. There is even a book about it: "The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice."