Meet Jess Ng, the fashion designer turned muay Thai trainer teaching her community to fight back

 Meet Jess Ng, the fashion designer turned muay Thai trainer teaching her community to fight back

Coming out of college, Jessica Ng landed herself at a gig as a Calvin Klein designer. But after a decade of working for the brand, he decided it was time to work on something for himself. She left the iconic fashion company and took a sabbatical from the corporate world.

But that doesn’t mean leaving fashion altogether.

Over the years, Ng has made a name for himself as an advocate and designer within the muay Thai scene in New York City. If you don’t know muay Thai, you won’t know that it’s an attractive game. But when Ng started attending local muay Thai competitions in 2008, the role of fashion in the ring he saw immediately. Muay Thai fighters not only drift into colorful, unique short shorts, but they also personalize them by adding intimate touches like their country’s flag or the names of their members. in the family. It’s not just warriors who show up; the coaches and their assistants also wore customized cornermen’s jackets.

Getting this special tool, however, takes a long time. “A lot of people will order in Thailand,” Ng said. “Shipping will take up to three months.” Seeing an opportunity, Ng went in and started taking custom orders himself. At first, he balanced his side hustle between his day job at Calvin Klein and his own muay Thai training. Eventually, in 2018, Ng traveled to Thailand and Hong Kong to tour factories in preparation for the launch of his own brand.

But almost immediately after his return to the United States, pandemic struck. At the time, Ng had recently teamed up with fellow muay Thai practitioner Hannah Ryu to launch Southpaw Stitches, an active lifestyle brand whose name is an allusion to Ng’s southpaw stance. tools. They debuted in January 2020-but when COVID hit, they saw that Southpaw Stitches needed to change a bit.

Earlier, New York City was considered one of the epicenters of the pandemic. The town’s labor requirements are one of the most at risk. For Ng, their vulnerability hit near the house. “My father worked for the United States Postal Service and he was 60 years old,” Ng explained. “When the pandemic hit a lot of people contracted COVID. Fortunately, he didn’t, but a lot of people were afraid to work.

Ng and his business partner, Hannah Ryu.

Courtesy of Jess Ng

Watching as his father continued to work amid a virus crisis, Ng noticed the lack of personal protective equipment and support for NYC’s communities of color. Southpaw Stitches soon moved from designing muay Thai clothing to meeting the urgent needs of the communities.

“We have friends and family [who] working in maintenance, housekeeping, at airports, nursing homes, ”Ng recalled. “That’s why we take all our raw materials and give them to anyone who wants it. Elastics, everything. ”But then Ng, whose design background is in close -fitting clothing, realized:“ The molding machines used to make the N95 masks are the same machines we use to mold the bra cups and foam pad. “

With that knowledge, Southpaw Stitches can do more than just provide raw material. It can design and make masks in bulk. The first are antimicrobial masks made of silver fibers. Then, with the arrival of winter, Ng noticed that longer nights made delivery workers more vulnerable to accidents. “We decided to take reflective material from our fight shorts to make the masks,” he explains, to help give delivery drivers more visibility.

“[Southpaw Stitches] has become a brand that gives the community what they need, ”said Ng. Companies often pay a lot of shallow lip service to help their communities or prioritize diversity; in many ways, this has become a checkbox in a list of corporate tasks that do not reflect any larger, more meaningful action. But as Southpaw Stitches grows, Ng wants to not only empower people with active lifestyles but also to celebrate their own identity – and each other’s.

It was a goal very close to home for Ng. “I was very fortunate to grow up where each of my friends spoke a different language at home,” says the Queens, New York native. “When you make friends with people, you learn about different foods, how to say‘ thank you ’,‘ hello ’, and‘ hi ’in different languages ​​to parents and grandparents. to each other … We will learn how to be kind to each other. culture of others and different peoples. ”

That commitment to empathy, in fact, is rooted in the rest of Ng’s work. While Southpaw Stitches is making masks to address one side of the crisis, another needs attention: Across the country, hate crimes against Asian communities have reached unprecedented levels. In February, Ng attended the Rise Up Against Asian Hate protest where he carried a cardboard sign that said: Love Our People Like U Love Our Food.

“It’s about the contributions of immigrants and people of color that are in this country,” Ng said. Soon the phrase went viral.

“I wasn’t there to shout, shout, and mic. I showed up to make sure other people were safe, ”Ng told Mic as he thought about the protests. “I don’t know if that’s my muay Thai training or I’m the oldest in my family. I always grew up to look[ing] after all. ”

Of course, because of his 5-foot stature and a slim build that makes him qualify for the straw-weight division (for fighters weighing between 106 and 115 pounds), Ng is probably not the biggest man in a protest. But having competed in muay Thai for over a decade, his experience as a fighter has been invaluable. He twice competed as a member of Team USA for the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (think of it as the Olympics for muay Thai) and, in 2017, won the IFMA Pan American Champion for his weight class.

“I’m definitely more confident than other people when I’m outside,” Ng said. “Training all these years … it helps when something happens and you can defend yourself without thinking, because it becomes a subconscious reaction.”

As reports of attacks against Asian communities continue to rise, Ng has decided to apply him. skills more formal. Following the murder of Christina Yuna Lee in February in Chinatown in Manhattan, Ng partnered with Soar Over Hate, a nonprofit that supports AAPI communities, to lead the self -defense class at Two Bridges Muay Thai, a nearby of the gym.

“Many participants walked into class feeling intimidated and worried about the rise in crimes against Asian women,” Soar Over Hate co-presidents Michelle Tran and Kenji Jones told Mic in an email. . “Jessica adjusted the energy and guided the room to find their inner strength and confidence with tactile skill and knowledge of the situation.”

Since then, Ng has continued to teach self -defense classes, which he finds helpful emotionally and physically. It’s a little ironic considering Ng had previously been skeptical of self -defense classes on his own. “I always thought … you take a class and you don’t knock someone down or scratch an eye or anything like that.”

“But that’s because I see self -defense classes as a hand -to -hand fight,” Ng continued. And sure enough, the classes he taught were definitely related to combat. For example, Ng uses foundational muay Thai techniques to teach people how to stay away without falling themselves, and he focuses on hitting the palm so that people don’t get hurt by throwing and punches with their fists. hand. But he also teaches a broader skill, such as how to developing situational awareness and what to do if you are a bystander. One of Ng’s co-instructors has been practicing firearms training for over 10 years, so he teaches people how to use whatever they can get for their benefit.

Finally, Ng’s classes are about empowering and tackling the decades-long cost of gaslighting in Asian communities. As he explains, “The violence that has happened is not new. It has only intensified over the last few years. … It all happens to us and we expect to share all the traumatic experiences.

The response to Ng’s classes has been overwhelming, with Soar Over Hate’s Tran and Jones tribute to Ng who was “a fierce warrior and also an exceptionally compassionate individual, always donating his time to helping teach others how to protect themselves.”

When people sometimes enter the class feeling powerless, Ng says “they leave elevated. They leave supported.” And the larger NYC community has an important role to play in raising awareness. that support is beyond the gym. ”We have people [in the food industry] to just show up at seminars, set a table outside, and feed everyone out of their own pockets. People will contact us and deliver baked goods for the seminar, ”Ng shared. “They’ll donate money so everyone can leave with a safety alarm.”

Anyone who organizes even one event can attest to how often fires are common in activist areas. Despite already working several jobs, Ng finds himself saying yes to every seminar; once he held three for 30 hours and became physically ill as a result. Learning that vacation is okay is still something he works on. But for now, she can at least be confident that they are an integral part of a community helping to take care of each other.

“We Venmo each other with money like,‘ lunch than me. I have dinner, ‘”said Ng. These small actions were extremely meaningful to him and shaped the foundation of his work. As he told Mic, “Activism is free.” The people who show up at rallies, lead events, and feed each other all do that, and more, because they care. For this kind of work to continue to happen, people need to support each other – especially in times when government and local officials fail to do so.

“There are always hard, challenging times,” Ng said. “But at the end of the day, we all have to do what we think is right and take care, not just of each other, but really care about the future.”

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