From the Stage to the Front Lines: Performer Kristina Wong’s Journey as the “Sweatshop Overlord”

While many of us are melting in the existential dread of working in live performance when gathering has been deemed dangerous, Kristina Wong has taken the unexpected turn from her usual jobs as performance artist, comedian, and public official, to becoming an “sweatshop overlord.” In just 10 days, Wong went from being in despair about all of her shows and tours being cancelled, to running a team of Aunties cranking out PPE for those in need. I was lucky enough to catch the first ever performance of her new show Kristina Wong Sweatshop Overlord as part of TeAda Talks Creative Lab Series

In this two part interview series, I learn more about Auntie Sewing Squad and Kristina Wong Sweatshop Overlord from Kristina Wong herself.

Part 1

Non Kuramoto (NK): How soon did you switch gears from being an artist out of work to being a sweatshop overlord? 

Kristina Wong (KW): On March 20th, I sewed my first mask. By March 24th, I had created a Facebook group called “Auntie Sewing Squad” to have the support of a few friends who sew. About a week later I was a full blown sweatshop buying out supplies of elastic from vendors online and setting sewing folks up with materials and patterns. I also had Amy Tofte (a screenwriter/ playwright) help me manage stuff. 

About a week after that, I had a full on care system in place because I was so exhausted. This is what has kept Aunties sewing, knowing that they aren’t just sweatshop workers but also people who get care and appreciation in the form of an occasional Thai food delivery and cookies. 

NK: When did you decide that you wanted to write a play about it? 

KW: Somewhere here I was like “The only way I’m going to make it through this hell is if I look at it as research for some kind of show.”

NK: How was that emotional journey? 

KW: I am still in the emotional journey.  I have spent a lot of time being really annoyed while simultaneously being the most generous I’ve ever been in my fucking life. I am just so wowed by how close I feel to this crisis. I can’t get over the fact that I am making medical equipment on a Hello Kitty sewing machine. I can’t believe that we have people on our team who are talking to the heads of medicine on some of the Tribal Nations.  I am feeling so much by connecting to the communities we are in contact with that need our masks or materials.  

I also am completely bitter when my time is taken for granted and when people who really could stand to step up to help others are just sitting back freaked out. I also know that what we are doing is the work of the government. We are also standing in defiance of the state governments that are reopening states too early by arming their citizens with the PPE that [the state governments] are not.

NK: Who have Auntie Sewing Squad made masks for? 

KW: The first requests I took were from “anyone who is immuno-compromised and can’t get a mask.” Oh man, what a fucking mess that created.  Who knew that EVERYONE needed a mask the first week?  I was slammed and went to bed every night feeling totally guilty that I hadn’t churned out the hundreds of requests I was getting. Once I got those non-essential people taken care of, we focused on essential workers– nurses, grocery store workers, bus drivers.  Now that there are more masks on the market we have pivoted to communities that have NO RESOURCES to purchase or access masks. These include farmworkers, day laborers, people in transitional housing, people transitioning from ICE detention and incarceration, and First Nations. At this point because this has been so much work, we only want to support communities with absolutely no access.

Last week we set up mini sewing factories at Standing Rock and the Navajo Nation so that their sewing crews can create their own PPE. This week (two months in) we will be doing our own SECOND relief van to the Navajo Nation.

NK: Who are you making masks for now? How many masks do you think you’ve sent into the world?

KW: We ask the Aunties to sew what they are passionate for. Usually an Auntie or Auntie HQ puts up a request for masks and different Aunties pledge towards that goal.  And then they spend the week sewing those masks and then mail it off to the recipient.  This is different from some of the other mask groups that are organized regionally, where the sewing volunteers just sew, and a coordinator picks it up and sends it to a nearby hospital. As it turns out our group has very specific interests in communities all over the US that are very vulnerable and they want to have direct connections to the recipients. 

NK: You’ve mentioned that your squad is majority women of color and includes a lot of artists. Why do you think so many artists and women of color have been the ones to quit moping and start sewing? 

KW: I think artists are naturally resourceful and are used to bypassing bureaucracy to make stuff happen. And artists like me who are used to producing objects, we were already hoarding a ton of fabric and thread!  But as natural empaths, we see a need that we can fill and that keeps us connected to other humans.

As for why women of color are also the ones to take action and join our squad, I have a few things to say of that. We didn’t intend to be a mostly WOC group. But it seemed that a lot of the people in my life who could sew were Asian American women. A lot of [Latinx and Asian American Aunties in the group] have mothers and grandmothers that sewed when they came to America for their livelihood. Some of the Aunties were reflecting on how many memories were coming up as we opened up old fabric stashes to find swatches left to us by our mothers and grandmothers. Because materials have been so scarce, we have literally had to excavate our lives for this and revisit a lot of personal fabric that carries memories. 

Part 2:

NK: I was so impressed by the show you put together while being swamped by the amount of masks you are making everyday, as well as managing the fellow Aunties and the logistics of getting the masks delivered. How did you manage to make time for yourself to make the piece in the midst of the chaos?

KW: I don’t make time for myself. This whole situation has been a nightmare in terms of setting boundaries around my own time. Today is the first time in two months that I’ve taken a break from looking at Facebook. When you have 500+ volunteers who can’t leave their homes for materials they can’t readily access, it’s just a logistical gymnastics somersault of organization.  

I cannot wait until the need for us becomes obsolete so I can go back to exercising and sleeping. That’s partly why we set up a “Auntie Care” system within our group. I was going all day without stopping to eat.  It’s hard to stop sewing when you know lives are on the line. So we set up deliveries of treats which force the Aunties to stop and enjoy something nice before going back to sweatshop labor.

I did buy myself an expensive massage chair, I can’t tell if it’s injuring me though. 

NK: I’m also a live performer so I’ve been feeling really skeptical about digital performances. Did you discover any advantages to digital performances that you hadn’t thought of before the process?

KW: I was really reluctant to translate my career to Zoom. I still think it’s a terrible replacement for theater. That said, the standards are so low for Zoom theater that audiences are quite open. I was really surprised how well my first show of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” went. Because I’ve been so rushed, I put that script together in a few hours, mostly from cutting and pasting a lot of my old facebook rants.

I do appreciate how performers now have to be their own prop and costume department with Zoom theater. It kind of reminds me of being a kid and re-enacting Star Wars with kitchen gadgets. I think it forces us to connect to that level of resourcefulness. 

NK: In your performance, you talked about the pushback to calling the operation a “sweatshop,” and that it’s a political statement to CHOOSE to use that word. I thought it was so true and powerful. Could you elaborate on that choice and the statement it’s making? 

KW: Here’s the monologue from my show about it.

“I use the term ‘sweatshop’ not to diminish the experience of actual sweatshop workers globally but to make clear that this work is unpaid, difficult on our bodies, performed by mostly women and women of color– AND to point a finger of SHAME to the Federal Government for not preparing us better for this situation, and creating this one for us.

Yes, we can pee whenever we want and take breaks. But my experience with this is that I have had no choice but to put a lot of my money-making obligations aside just to tend to the day to day of keeping fabric, elastic and sewing help going. I also go a lot of the day without being able to stop for exercise or eating. This has been that consuming. Even when I have said ‘Ok, today I’m going to exercise,’ inevitably 20 alarms go off and I’m running in and out of the house with fistfuls of elastic, exposing myself to this virus, and feeling exhausted and emotionally depleted.

This is ridiculous. Making up for millions of medical masks not available in this country is the work of factories that we are trying to make up for in our homes on home sewing machines. In my case, on a Hello Kitty sewing machine. So for this reason, I am using the term ‘sweatshop’ and sometimes in quotes. You don’t have to use it, but I will use it for this political reason.

Shame on you Federal Government for not being prepared for this situation and turning our homes into sweatshops.”

NK: Has there been a particularly uplifting moment in your interactions with your volunteers or the people you have given masks to? 

KW: So many. I think the first time I met with a nurse in LA who needed masks and she was teary-eyed because she was in a situation where this was a real “Oh shit, this is really happening” moment. 

We also had some N-95 cover masks to offer the same nurses but they said “We want you to give it to the nurses in New York, they need it more.”

There was a picture just posted today of two Aunties doing a “drop off” in the parking lot and having breakfast with each other from two parking spaces away while sitting in a car. It’s so sweet to see the ways we connect with each other. 

When the picture of the van with supplies was unloaded at the Navajo Nation, I wanted to cry.  I couldn’t believe we pulled that off. I never imagined two months ago when I was an out of work performance artist, that I’d ever have any part in setting up an ad hoc medical supply factory on tribal land. 

NK: What’s something you want people to be doing right now? 

KW: I want people to recognize this is a moment to understand that while everything is in free fall they have a lot of power to do something. There are volunteers helping us with cutting, sewing and driving who are not financially stable and it’s so moving to see them want to participate. I also want people complaining that they are “bored” to slap the shit out of themselves since I can’t touch their faces right now. 

NK: What do you do for self-care?

KW: It’s been really hard to self care.  I used to do yoga every day and have done it twice since the pandemic. I have no boundaries and find it impossible to set up “office hours.” Food has been the best self care. And our system of community care has been really helpful to force me to take breaks. I was running so non-stop the first week that I lost a ton of weight because I wasn’t stopping to eat. 

NK: How can interested Aunties join the Sewing Squad?

KW: If folks aren’t happy with sewing groups in their area, they can find us online. We mostly work through a Facebook group.

NK: Do you have any other works/performances that are happening soon that you want to bring attention to? 

KW: Yes, I am performing excerpts of “Kristina Wong for Public Office” and “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” and I’m also giving commencement speeches this month.  People can check my calendar for my next events: http://kristinawong.com/upcoming/

I’m finding Zoom events book very last minute!  

NK: Thank you so much for all the work you are doing and taking the time to chat with me! 

You can support the Auntie Sewing Squad and their efforts in a variety of ways!  

Support their capacity to purchase bulk materials and postage by Venmo’ing @GiveKristinaWongMoney

Support the Auntie Care Fund (so Aunties can take breaks and rest) by Venmo’ing: @gayleisa

Donate to their Relief Caravan to Navajo nation through this Amazon Wishlist:

tinyurl.com/navajowishlist

**When you CHECKOUT, look for “Theresa Hatathlie-Delmar’s Gift Registry Address”

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Author: Non Kuramoto
Non Kuramoto is a New York based comedian, queer-feminist-art-slut, and icon.