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

When the pandemic hit and anti-Asian attacks spiked, Jessica Ng was uniquely positioned to help protect her fellow New Yorkers.

Jess Ng in the southpaw stance, training Muay Thai in colorful shorts
Courtesy of Jess Ng
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Coming out of college, Jessica Ng landed herself a gig as a designer at Calvin Klein. But after a decade working for the brand, she decided that it was time to work on something for herself instead. She ended up leaving the iconic fashion company and taking a sabbatical from the corporate world altogether.

But that didn’t mean stepping away from fashion as a whole.

Over the years, Ng had made a name for herself as both a fighter and designer within New York City’s 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 was immediately apparent to her. Muay Thai fighters not only drifted towards colorful, 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 only fighters showing out, either; coaches and their assistants also sported customized cornermen’s jackets.

Getting ahold of this bespoke gear, however, took awhile. “A lot of people would place an order in Thailand,” Ng says. “It would take about three months to ship.” Spotting an opportunity, Ng stepped in and began 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 headed to Thailand and Hong Kong to tour factories in preparation for launching her own brand.

But almost immediately after she returned 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’d debuted in January 2020 — but when COVID hit, they saw that Southpaw Stitches needed to change tack a bit.

Early on, New York City was regarded as one of the epicenters of the pandemic. Essential workers in the city were among the most at risk. For Ng, their vulnerability hit close to home. “My father works for the United States Postal Service and he’s in his 60s,” Ng explains. “When the pandemic hit a lot of people were contracting COVID. Thankfully, he didn’t, but many people were afraid to work.”

Ng and her business partner, Hannah Ryu.

Courtesy of Jess Ng

Watching as her father continued to work in the midst of a viral crisis, Ng took note of the lack of personal protective equipment and support for communities of color in NYC. It didn’t take long for Southpaw Stitches to pivot from designing muay Thai apparel to answering the communities’ immediate needs.

“We have friends and family [who] worked in maintenance, housekeeping, at airports, nursing homes,” Ng recalls. “So we got all of our raw material and gave it out to whoever wanted it. Elastics, all that stuff.” But then Ng, whose design background was in intimate apparel, had a realization: “The molding machines used to make N95 masks are essentially the same machines that we use to mold bra cups and foam pads.”

With that knowledge, Southpaw Stitches could do more than give away raw material. It could design and make masks in bulk. First up were antimicrobial masks made out of silver fibers. Then, when winter came, Ng noticed that the longer nights made delivery workers more vulnerable to accidents. “We decided to take the reflective material from our fight shorts to make masks,” she explains, to help give delivery drivers increased visibility.

“[Southpaw Stitches] became a brand that gave the community what they needed,” Ng says. Companies often pay a lot of shallow lip service to helping their communities or prioritizing diversity; in many ways, it’s become a checkbox on a corporate to-do list that’s not reflective of any larger, more meaningful action. But as Southpaw Stitches grows, Ng wants to not only empower people to have active lifestyles but also to celebrate their own identities — and each other’s.

It’s a goal that’s very close to home for Ng. “I was very fortunate to grow up where every one 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’, ‘how are you’, and ‘hi’ in different languages to each other’s parents and grandparents … We learn how to be empathetic to each other’s cultures and different people.”

That 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 stating: Love Our People Like U Love Our Food.

“It’s about contributions of immigrants and people of color that have been in this country,” Ng says. It didn’t take long for the phrase to go viral.

“I’m not there to scream, yell, and be on the mic. I show up to make sure other people are safe,” Ng tells Mic of her mindset at protests. “I don’t know if that’s my training in muay Thai or being the oldest in my family. I’ve always grown up look[ing] after everybody.”

Of course, given her 5-foot stature and a slim build that qualifies her for the between 99-100 pound division internationally, Ng might not be the biggest person at a protest. But having competed in muay Thai for over a decade, her experience as a fighter is impressive. She’s competed four times 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 her weight class.

“I’m definitely a lot more confident than other people when I’m out there,” Ng says. “Training all these years ... it does help when something happens and you can defend yourself without thinking, because it becomes a subconscious reaction.”

As reports of attacks against Asian communities continued to spike, Ng decided to apply her expertise more formally. Following the murder of Christina Yuna Lee in February in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Ng partnered with Soar Over Hate, a nonprofit supporting AAPI communities, to lead a self-defense class at Two Bridges Muay Thai, a nearby gym.

“So many participants walked in that class feeling scared and anxious with the uptick in crimes against Asian women,” Soar Over Hate’s co-presidents, Michelle Tran and Kenji Jones, told Mic in an email. “Jessica transformed the energy and guided the room to find their inner strength and confidence with tangible skills and situational awareness.”

Since then, Ng has continued instructing self-defense classes, which she finds to be both emotionally and physically helpful. It’s a bit ironic considering that Ng used to be skeptical of self-defense classes herself. “I always thought ... you take one class and you’re not going to knock somebody out or eye gouge or anything like that.”

“But that’s because I saw self-defense classes that are like hand-to-hand combat,” Ng continues. And sure, the classes she teaches certainly touch on combat. For example, Ng uses foundational muay Thai techniques to teach people how to move away without tripping themselves, and she focuses on palm striking so people don’t get hurt throwing punches with their bare hands. But she also teaches broader skills, like how to develop situational awareness and what to do when you’re a bystander. One of Ng’s co-instructors has practiced weapons training for over 10 years, so she teaches people how to use anything they can grab to their advantage.

Ng teaching self-defense classes near Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Photo by Cindy Trinh
Photo by Cindy Trinh
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Ultimately, Ng’s classes are about empowerment and confronting decades’ worth of gaslighting of Asian communities. As she explains, “The violence that’s been happening isn’t anything new. It’s just been emboldened in the last few years. ... All of this happens to us and we’re expected to compartmentalize all of those traumatic experiences.”

The response to Ng’s classes has been tremendous, which Soar Over Hate’s Tran and Jones credit to Ng being “a fierce fighter and also an incredibly compassionate individual, constantly donating her time to help teach others how to protect themselves.”

If people sometimes come into class feeling powerless, Ng says “they leave uplifted. They leave supported.” And the greater NYC community has played a vital role in extending that support beyond the gym. “We have people [in the food industry] that would just show up to the seminars, set up a table outside, and feed everyone out of their own pocket. People contact us and deliver baked goods for the seminar,” Ng shares. “They would donate money so everyone can leave with a safety alarm.”

Anyone who has organized even one event can attest to how common burnout is in activist spaces. Despite already working multiple jobs, Ng found herself saying yes to every seminar; she once held three in 30 hours and became physically ill as a result. Learning that it’s okay to take time off is still something she’s working on. But for now, she can at least rely on being an essential part of a community that helps care for 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 cornerstone of her work. As she tells Mic, “Activism doesn’t pay.” The people who show up to rallies, lead events, and feed each other are all doing that, and more, because they care. In order for this type of work to continue happening, people need to support each other — especially in moments where the government and local officials fail to do so.

“There are always going to be hard, challenging 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.”