Kristina Wong brings satire — and earnestness — to Portland Center Stage with ‘Sweatshop Overlord’

Kristina Wong needs elastic. She asks the audience in the blackbox theater to throw onto the stage any items they have made of rubber. A few hair ties land at Wong’s feet, and after more solicitation, a black bra.

Running at Portland Center Stage, “Sweatshop Overlord’’ is a 90-minute performance piece recounting Wong’s attempt to solve America’s early pandemic mask shortage. She created the Auntie Sewing Squad, a “work-from-home sweatshop” of hundreds of volunteers, mostly Asian American women, to sew masks for frontline healthcare workers and underserved communities.

Humorous and self-effacing, Wong’s performance is a meditation on mutual aid, Asian American identity and the meaning of legacy within the broader context of the last two years — somehow without bogging the audience down with a long-drawn reality from which we have all at some point wished to dissociate.

“A lot of my shows seem to be book reports about something crazy I attempted to do with the community,” Wong said. “In this case, I naively thought I could save all of America.”

We sat across from each other in chairs placed on stage in the Ellyn Bye Studio, in the first in-person cast-member interview at Portland Center Stage since the start of the pandemic.

Intended to be a parody of Wong’s apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, the set included the artist’s own red and white Hello Kitty sewing machine, as well as a gargantuan pair of scissors, pin cushions big enough to stand on and other brightly-colored sewing materials a giant would use.

In April 2020, a month after creating the Auntie Sewing Squad Facebook group, Wong premiered on Zoom the genesis of “Sweatshop Overlord,” a monthly recount of her most interesting and bizarre experiences as “L. Ron Hubbard of sewing group leaders” — buying a thousand dollars’ worth of elastic in cash in the L.A. garment district and sending them to Aunties across the country, telling an Auntie she could not sew a mask with the elastic in her son’s old underwear, receiving a request for homemade masks from the Walter Reed Medical Center, where President Trump was treated for COVID-19.

Aunties attended the monthly performances, reflecting amongst each other in the Zoom chat box.

In contrast to most Zoom theater, Wong’s performance was physically dynamic. She placed her laptop on two plastic boxes stacked on a rolling chair, bringing the audience into different rooms in her Los Angeles home. The live production premiered 18 months later at the New York Theatre Workshop, later deemed a 2022 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama.

Through “Sweatshop Overlord,” Wong documents a period of gross irony. The pandemic gave rise to heightened anti-Asian violence and bigotry, fueled by President Trump’s references to COVID-19 as “Kung Flu” and the “China Virus.” L.A.’s China and Koreatown became “ghost towns” as people feared going near Asians, Wong told the audience. Seeing news of the Atlanta spa shooting and other anti-Asian hate crimes, Wong’s mother signed them both up for virtual self-defense classes.

The women who feared for their safety in America were the same women cutting elastic out of their clothes, making post office runs and sitting for hours in front of the sewing machine to help protect other Americans.

“I had never witnessed this level of generosity in my life,” Wong said.

Asian American women’s ability to sew is a product of history: late-19th century anti-Chinese laws and sentiments barred Chinese immigrants from most trades except laundry and restaurant work. Chinese women working in laundromats learned sewing to repair their own and customers’ clothes.

PCS - Sweatshop Overlord

“Sweatshop Overlord” continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, and at 2 p.m. select Thursdays, through Dec. 18, Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio.Jingzi Zhao

The 44-year-old performance artist frequently plays herself in her work, recounting a personal experience and parsing through the broader social implications. In “Kristina Wong Runs for Public Office,” Wong recalled her campaign as an elected representative of Koreatown, Los Angeles, diving into the intersection of performance and politics. “Wong Street Journal” shared her time volunteering with a microloan organization in post-conflict northern Uganda, confronting what it means to help in the global south as a benefactor of western colonialism.

A culture jammer, Wong crashed Miss Chinatown pageants and community events as “Fannie Wong, Former Miss Chinatown Second Runner Up.” The long-running performance character wore glasses, smoked cigars and did whiskey shots off people’s stomachs — a foil to Miss Chinatown, whom Wong described as the “perfect Asian American woman.”

Wong’s work is loud, subversive and “endearingly inappropriate” — far from the quiet grace and obedience that I and many Asian women had been taught growing up. Onstage and in clips of previous work, I watched Wong, a third-generation Chinese American woman, draw attention to herself, create laughter and discomfort to make a larger statement — a type of inspiration I sought for while growing up and mostly found in non-Asian artists and leaders.

Wong said for years, her parents didn’t understand her work. They had wanted her to be what so many Asian immigrant parents ask of their daughters: a doctor or engineer who marries a Chinese doctor or engineer.

“‘You don’t strive to be happy, you strive to be successful.’ So much of my twenties and thirties has been having to unlearn that and learn for myself what happiness looks like,” Wong said.

Wong said “Sweatshop Overlord” is her most hopeful show. There is plenty of satire, but even more celebration — of an evolving mother-daughter relationship, generosity in a time of crisis, and living far enough into the pandemic to watch live theater again.

“Sweatshop Overlord” continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, and at 2 p.m. select Thursdays, through Dec. 18, Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.; $25-$67,, or 503-445-3700.

— Rose Wong covers early childhood education for The Oregonian/OregonLive. Contact her at, call her at 248-914-5525, or follow her @rosebwong

This story was brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America. Learn how to support this crucial work.

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