Out of college, Jessica Ng landed a designer job at Calvin Klein. But after a decade working for the brand, she decided it was time to work on something for herself. She ended up leaving the iconic fashion company and taking a sabbatical from the corporate world.
But that didn’t mean stepping away from fashion as a whole.
Over the years, Ng has made a name for herself as a fighter and designer within the New York Muay Thai scene. If you don’t know muay thai, you might not know that it’s a flashy sport. But when Ng began attending local muay thai competitions in 2008, fashion’s role in the ring immediately appeared to him. Muay Thai fighters not only drifted towards colorful and exceptionally short shorts, but they also personalized them by adding intimate touches like their country’s flag or the names of their family members. It wasn’t just the fighters who showed up either; coaches and their assistants also sported personalized cornermen’s jackets.
Getting this custom gear, however, took some time. “A lot of people would place an order in Thailand,” says Ng. “It would take about three months to ship.” Spotting an opportunity, Ng stepped in and started taking custom orders herself. At first, she balanced her side hustle between her day job at Calvin Klein and her own muay thai training. Eventually, in 2018, Ng traveled to Thailand and Hong Kong to visit factories to launch her own brand.
But almost immediately after returning to the United States, the pandemic hit. At the time, Ng had just teamed up with fellow muay thai practitioner Hannah Ryu to launch Southpaw Stitches, an active lifestyle brand whose name is a nod to the southpaw stance that Ng uses. They had debuted in January 2020 – but when COVID hit they saw that Southpaw Stitches needed to change tactics a bit.
At first, New York City was considered one of the epicentres of the pandemic. The city’s essential workers were among the most at risk. For Ng, their vulnerability was close to home. “My dad works for the United States Postal Service and he’s in his 60s,” says Ng. “When the pandemic hit, a lot of people were getting COVID. Luckily he didn’t, but a lot of people were afraid to work.
Watching his father continue to work amid a virus crisis, Ng took note of the lack of personal protective equipment and support for communities of color in New York City. It didn’t take Southpaw Stitches long to go from designing muay thai apparel to serving the immediate needs of communities.
“We have friends and family [who] worked in maintenance, cleaning, at airports, nursing homes,” Ng recalls. “So we got all of our raw material and distributed it to whoever wanted it. Rubber bands, all that. But Ng, whose design background was in lingerie, realized: “The molding machines used to make N95 masks are essentially the same machines we use to mold bra cups and foam pads. “
With this knowledge, Southpaw Stitches could do more than give away raw material. He could design and manufacture masks in bulk. First, antimicrobial silver fiber face masks. Then, when winter came, Ng noticed that the longer nights made delivery people more vulnerable to accidents. “We decided to take the reflective material from our combat shorts to make masks,” she explains, to help give delivery drivers increased visibility.
“[Southpaw Stitches] became a brand that gave the community what it needed,” says Ng. Companies often pay a lot of superficial talk to help their communities or prioritize diversity; in many ways, it has become a checkbox on a corporate to-do list that reflects no bigger, more meaningful action. But as Southpaw Stitches grows, Ng wants to not only empower people to lead active lifestyles, but also celebrate their own identities – and those of others.
It’s a goal very close to Ng. “I was very lucky 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 get to know different foods, say ‘thank you’, ‘how are you’ and ‘hi’ in different languages to each other’s parents and grandparents… We learn to empathize with each other, other cultures and different people.
This commitment to empathy, in fact, grounds the other part of Ng’s work. While Southpaw Stitches was making masks to respond to one part of the crisis, another needed attention: Nationwide, hate crimes against Asian communities were reaching unprecedented levels. Last February, Ng attended a Rise Up Against Asian Hate protest where she carried a cardboard sign that read: Love Our People Like U Love Our Food.
“It’s about the contributions of immigrants and people of color who have been in this country,” Ng says. It didn’t take long for the phrase to go viral.
“I’m not here to shout, scream and be on the microphone. I show up to make sure others are safe,” Ng told Mic of his state of mind during the protests. “I don’t know if it’s my muay thai training or being the eldest in my family. I always grew up look[ing] after everyone.
Of course, given her 5-foot stature and slim build that qualifies her for the international division between 99 and 100 pounds, Ng may not be the tallest person at a protest. But having competed in Muay Thai for over a decade, her experience as a fighter is impressive. She competed four times as a member of Team USA for the International Federation of Muay Thai Associations (think of it as the Muay Thai Olympics) and in 2017 won the IFMA Pan American Championship title. for its weight class.
“I’m definitely a lot more confident than others when I’m out there,” Ng says. “Training all those years…it helps when something happens and you can defend yourself without thinking because it becomes a subconscious reaction.”
As reports of attacks on Asian communities continued to rise, Ng decided to enforce it expertise more formally. Following the February murder of Christina Yuna Lee in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Ng partnered with Soar Over Hate, a nonprofit supporting AAPI communities, to run a self-defense class at Two Bridges Muay Thai, a nearby gymnasium.
“So many attendees have come into this class feeling scared and anxious about the rise in crimes against Asian women,” Soar Over Hate co-chairs Michelle Tran and Kenji Jones told Mic in an email. “Jessica transformed the energy and guided the room to find inner strength and confidence with tangible skills and situational awareness.”
Since then, Ng has continued to teach self-defense classes, which she finds both emotionally and physically helpful. It’s a bit ironic given that Ng was skeptical of self-defense classes herself. “I always thought…you take a class and you’re not going to knock somebody out or gouge their eyes out or anything like that.”
“But that’s because I’ve seen self-defense classes that look like hand-to-hand combat,” Ng continues. And of course, the classes she teaches definitely touch on combat. For example, Ng uses fundamental muay thai techniques to teach people how to walk away without tripping, and she focuses on palm strikes so people don’t hurt themselves throwing punches with their bare hands. But it also teaches broader skills, like how develop situational awareness and what to do when you are a bystander. One of Ng’s co-instructors has been practicing weapons training for over 10 years, so she teaches people how to use whatever they can grab to their advantage.
Ultimately, Ng’s classes are about empowering and confronting decades of gaslighting Asian communities. As she explains, “The violence that is happening is not something new. He has just grown bolder in recent years. … All of this happens to us and we are expected to compartmentalize all of these traumatic experiences.
The response to Ng’s lessons has been tremendous, which Tran and Jones of Soar Over Hate crediting Ng with being “a fierce fighter and also an incredibly compassionate person, constantly giving up her time to help teach others how to protect themselves”.
While people sometimes come into class feeling helpless, says Ng, “they come away uplifted. They leave accompanied. And the greater NYC community has played a vital role in extending that support beyond the gym. “We have people [in the food industry] who would just show up to seminars, set up a table outside, and feed everyone out of his own pocket. People contact us and deliver baked goods for the seminar,” Ng shares. “They would give money so everyone could leave with a security alarm.”
Anyone who has organized even a single event can attest to the frequency of burnout in activist spaces. Despite having worked several jobs before, Ng found herself saying yes to every seminar; once, she lasted three in 30 hours and became physically ill as a result. Learning that it’s okay to take time is always something she is working on. But for now, she can at least count on being an essential part of a community that helps take care of each other.
“We Venmo each other money like, ‘Lunch is on me. Dinner is on me,'” Ng says. These small actions are incredibly meaningful to her and shape the lifeblood of her work. she tells Mic, “activism doesn’t pay.” People who show up at rallies, host events, and feed each other do all of this, and more, because they care. For this type of work to continue, people need to support each other, especially in times when government and local authorities are not.
“There will always be hard and difficult times,” Ng says. “But at the end of the day, we all have to do what we think is right and care, not just about each other, but really care about the future.”