ST PAUL, Minn. — Sometimes the most effective way to combat racism and dispel stereotypes is through laughter. Three women who are Asian have been doing just that for years in St. Paul.
Naomi Ko, Saymoukda Vongsay and May Lee-Yang make up the Funny Asian Women Kollective, or FAWK.
"FAWK's mission is to use comedy to combat the dehumanization and invisibility of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American women," said Lee-Yang.
To be clear, these women have no professional training. They're all English majors according to Lee-Yang. But don’t get it twisted - there is experience and arguably, a lot of it.
For Ko, she said it was easy for her to fall into comedy. She grew up watching Margaret Cho, Bobby Lee on MADtv, and Korean variety shows. Ko also had parents who had a distinct way of discipline.
"My parents are all about the sick burns," Ko said. "Even to this day, you know, you say something wrong, you do something wrong, you know you don’t get hit but you get slapped with a burn and that hurts more," Ko said.
Vongsay said she had funny people in her family. "It was encouraged to use humor to dispel awkwardness or use humor to get through your trauma," she said. She argues they are just doing what their aunties have always done. "All they did was crack jokes while they were preparing food or taking care of the babies," she said.
Lee-Yang said people were always laughing in the kitchens while telling stories when she was growing up. She remembers older people being the most hilarious. "People knew how to deliver a punch line!" Lee-Yang said. "I mean, even our Hmong riddles are full of, just full of sexual humor, I’ll just say that," she said. "We’re very good with sexual metaphors," she added.
In its more than six year existence, FAWK has made audiences laugh, whether that’s through a monthly cabaret series, or a super show at The Ordway in St. Paul. The trio said the pandemic forced them into pop-up trunk shows, or virtual shows. They've done a virtual show with Blackout Improv.
The FAWK founders said they're also about professional development. For example, the group has held workshops on how to write a joke and have had guest artists attend to help.
"We also host clapback workshops, which use comedy and improv as tools to help people fight against micro aggressions," Lee-Yang said.
Some adjectives that have been used to describe their comedy are racy, risqué, or edgy.
"It’s so easy to be edgy as an Asian woman because people don’t expect anything from us," Lee-Yang said. "Wow we’re speaking English, that’s so edgy, or wow you’re from the Midwest, I didn’t know people of color lived in the Midwest, or 'Oh, you’re talking about sex, usually you’re an object' or 'It’s kind of cool that you’re sexualizing men as a form of empowerment or you’re dissing men or you’re owning your own sexuality,'" Lee-Yang said.
Vongsay laughed and chimed in. "May, I was gonna say it’s funny that the standards for us are so low," she said. "So low," Lee-Yang agrees.
The time for this kind of comedy by Asian women has been long overdue. The three agree they have all been censored in some way throughout their artistic careers and in their lives. In fact, they said the impetus for starting FAWK was because of what happened to Ko when she was starting out in comedy. She had booked a poetry reading and was told to keep it "family-friendly." Ko said she bombed. That's when the three got together to talk about why that happened. You can read more of FAWK's story on its website.
"We’re constantly being censored by not only greater society, greater Minnesota society, greater American societies but also but our own cultures," Ko said. "That’s why FAWK, we really wanted to create a space where APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) women could just be and be whatever they wanted to be," Ko said.
"We have the audacity," Vongsay said. "We’ve been put down we’ve been denied opportunities and so we just have to resolve to going for it," she said.
They are, in fact, going for it. The group is hoping a bonding bill item introduced by Rep. Jay Xiong will be added to a larger bonding bill at the end of the year. It would allocate $1 million to FAWK to build a state-of-the-art multimedia arts center in east St. Paul. As of Wednesday, FAWK's money is still in the House version of bonding bill. There is still a ways to go, but FAWK says it would be the first-of-its-kind in the country.
"We’re going to place all Asian American stories and we’re going to center them right here in Minnesota and I think that’s going to be really revolutionary," Ko said. They also want to be intentional about staying in St. Paul. The group said they and many other artists have had to cross the river to do gigs and it's time the art stays in their community.
They said if you think Ali Wong or Margaret Cho are funny, you don’t need to get on Netflix or go to a show in San Francisco. "You can just come to the east side and watch us," Ko said. "You get more bang for the buck that way too," she said.
"We're very accessible in terms of price," Vongsay laughs.