She’s a veteran in the east coast fight scene. With more than 11 years of Muay Thai experience, she’s earned numerous titles and achievements, including but not limited to getting gold in the IFMA Pan-American games in 2017 and bronze in the same tournament in 2018. Born and raised in New York City, Jessica Ng is well-versed within the local fight scene. Walking at just 100 pounds, Jessica was ecstatic to learn that there was going to be a four-woman tournament at 102 pounds, right in her hometown of Queens. And the best part? She was going to be in it.
When Jessica started fighting almost 10 years ago, there was no one in the local fight scene her size and weight, and she constantly had to fight people at 105 pounds, never even getting close to hitting the weight limit. This tournament at 102 meant things were changing in the fight scene: 1) The obvious is that there are more women competing in Muay Thai and 2) Promoters are giving a much-overlooked weight class the center stage. “I never thought I would see the day where there was gonna be a four-woman tournament at this weight class,” Jessica says, unable to hide the excitement in her voice. “It shows us a lot about how they respect us as athletes, as people, as humans, not just as woman fighters. They respect us as athletes.” Jessica was in the middle of fight camp for this tournament when the COVID-19 cases started proliferating in New York. “The training was really great. I was feeling really good and pushing through everyday. I was eager and so excited for it,” recalls Jessica. “It was really disappointing when I heard it was going to be cancelled. I know it hurt Chris and Guch to do it.” Jessica is referring to gym owner and promoter Christian Tran and fighter James Guccione. Along with Eddie Marini, they took Christian Tran’s long-running The Warriors Cup promotion and revamped it into The Warriors Cup: Three Pillar Promotions. “The show was cultivated by such an amazing group of people,” gushes Jessica. “Really good human beings and great representatives of people in the sport and the community. That was going to be really exciting. But [cancelling the show] was the safe thing to do and the right thing to do.”
Shortly after the show was officially cancelled, New York City went on lock down. There is a significant shortage of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), especially for those in healthcare and people deemed “essential workers”. Jessica, unable to train and unable to fight as scheduled, is using her old Muay Thai shorts and her profession for something critically needed at this time: face masks.
Jessica has worked as a fashion designer for the past 15 years, specializing in functional undergarments. The main purpose of the cloth masks that Jessica is making is to prolong the use of N95 masks, which is a face mask designed to protect against airborne particles. N95 masks are notoriously high in demand and low in supply due to the overwhelming COVID-19-positive patients in New York. Some healthcare workers are given just one mask a week and need to reuse it for their protection, so they need something else to cover it daily, such a surgical or cloth mask. “There is an abundance of tunneled elastic in the waistband [of Muay Thai shorts]. I know this from being a bra designer,” Jessica laughs. “The elastics inside traditional Muay Thai shorts are facing elastics, which are basically the unplushed version of the elastics in the wing of a bra. When I noticed this, I was like, ‘It’s the same elastic!'” How is this elastic so useful in the making of face masks? They’re being used as loopholes for the ears. “I was getting a lot of calls and messages from my friends who can make masks and sew, but they said they have no elastics,” Jessica says. “I’m looking around and I’m like, there are elastics everywhere! Bra strap, shoe laces, the drawstring from your gym or sweat pants, and your Muay Thai shorts. So I cut up some Muay Thai shorts and made 20 masks out of a size large.”
Jessica mixes and matches the materials being used for her cloth masks. “They’re all lined with 100% cotton against the skin,” Jessica informs. “Usually, on the outside, I also use cotton, but I sometimes use what’s left of my Muay Thai shorts. This lets me get creative with designs. I also don’t want to waste the shorts [after taking the elastic out].”
Despite the process of figuring out how to make the masks being an organic and easy one, Jessica face some difficulties from her own self. “I’m a perfectionist,” Jessica admits. “And because I’m a designer, I create things to function. It has to fit, it has to be comfortable. In a different situation, I would use much better quality elastics and raw materials. But I have to work with what I can get. I’m trying to make do with whatever I can even though it’s not perfect, even though the elastic behind the ears is not the softest,” Jessica laughs. “I do come across functional problems with the raw materials but I’m doing the best I can.” Between her day job and her taking on the PPE shortage directly, Jessica runs into another issue. “There are just not enough hours in a day,” Jessica sighs. “I feel like they just fly by. I’m bouncing between my day job and making masks and orders coming in and people dropping off donations, and I feel like, oh, my God, this is so crazy.”
Of course, the stress from Jessica’s present day-to-day isn’t just limited to mask-making. In New York, the situation is getting worse. New York has been the hardest-hit state in the U.S., with a death toll of 6,268 to date (time of writing: April 9, 2020). New York governor Andrew Cuomo noted that number is twice as many people as the state had lost in the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. “It’s really…heavy,” Jessica says solemnly. “It’s hit home, but not just by being in the epicenter of the epicenter in Queens. Friends and family are testing positive and people on the front-line treating patients are passing away. There was a day last week where within three hours, we got news of three deaths. It was just the last couple of days where I didn’t receive a call of someone else passing away, but there were definitely days last week where, consecutively, someone passed away or got admitted to the hospital because of COVID.” A friend and former teammate of Jessica’s had a cousin pass away at 30 years old. “I don’t want to say it’s a domino effect…but the virus is causing a lot of death,” Jessica says grimly. “Sudden heartbreaking deaths, too. I think one of the craziest things right now is the fact that people are losing their loved ones but can’t grieve together. That’s really hard.” Jessica shares her first experience of a funeral via Facebook live. “It was just so weird. The priest was in an empty church and did a whole service. But it was in an empty church. You hear that sterile empty echo and everyone was grieving through the comments. It was the only way they could grieve together, but distantly. That was an awakening call.”
Jessica’s cousin, whom she was born and raised with, is a physician assistant in Corona, Queens. “It’s ironic, I know,” Jessica mentions, “What’s also ironic is that this is the neighborhood in Queens [county] with the most number of confirmed cases of COVID-19.” The cousin works in a community clinic. “It’s in a very under-served neighborhood. It’s the kind of clinic we went to when we were kids, because we were from there. The waiting rooms are packed. A majority of those seeking healthcare don’t speak English and don’t have health insurance.” Jessica recalls her cousin telling her that, even before people were told to “socially distance” from others, the clinic was packed with people from flu and cold symptoms. “We’re very nervous for her, but she told us they have gowns, hats, masks and stuff. But it’s hard because they don’t know enough about the virus and there’s yet to be a vaccine. She’s treating patients everyday, but she’s tough. They need her to be.”
Another friend of Jessica’s is a police officer for the NYPD. “She gets one N95 mask and has to keep reusing the same one. She wipes it down with an alcohol swab,” Jessica says unbelievably. “Domestic violence calls are happening more often now. They have to go into homes everyday with the mask they’ve been reusing, then go into another home the next hour. There’s risk of contamination.”
“I feel very overwhelmed by everything. I have to bury myself in my work,” Jessica says matter-of-factly. “I don’t have time to sit and try to decide if I should watch Tiger King or not. I don’t even know what that’s about.” Jessica was making masks for an ICU doctor at NYU Lagone when she got news that he tested positive for the virus. “He’s quarantined at home. He has symptoms but no respiratory issues. I’m still gonna work on the bulk order of those masks for him and his team, so he’s ready to get them as soon as he’s well.”
The shortage of PPE is endangering the health of everyone, but not just the lives of healthcare professionals. “I picked up a package at my door and asked my postal worker guy, ‘Where’s your mask?’ He said they didn’t have any left at the station. If people show up early and they’re the first ones to get there, they grab it all for themselves. The others are left with delivering mail with no face masks, going in and out of buildings and touching metal surfaces like mailboxes and doorknobs.” Jessica emphathizes, “Everyone is complaining about the lack of PPE for nurses, doctors, and others in the medical field, but what about PPE for all essential workers that are the backbone of the community? You have postal workers. You have grocers. You have home aid nurses that still have to travel to see senior citizens to keep them alive. You have the public bus drivers. You have so many people that are not given PPE’s at all. They’re also technically on the front-lines. The community can’t survive without them and can’t function.” And thus, a project to take on the mass PPE shortage was started. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” Jessica admits. “I just started making masks for people like my mailman and some nurses. These people need it.”
Shortly after Jessica started posting her project on her Instagram account, someone from NBC got wind of it and asked Jessica a few questions. Jessica gained recognition after the article was published, and she subsequently got requests from healthcare professionals and other essential workers for masks. “Certain hospitals don’t allow their staff to use the cloth masks, which means they’re lucky enough to have surgical masks to cover their N95’s, but, if they want, they can wear the cloth masks when they leave the premises,” Jessica addresses. “NYU Langone, departments in Mount Sinai, clinics in Washington, Boston, and Connecticut have reached out [to me] and said they need these cloth masks to cover their N95’s, and their hospitals allow it.” Federal agents that are working at Jacob Javits Center, now converted into a hospital, reached out to Jessica for masks as well. “They’re given two pieces of surgical masks for a month, to work everyday. How are they supposed to protect the facility when they can easily become the patients themselves?” Jessica adds humbly, “But it’s not just me helping out. I’m just one out of the entire country who’s doing it.” One of the models that Jessica used to work with saw that they were both making masks. She messaged Jessica and expressed that she wanted to make a group or organization of people who are making masks. “A lot of restaurants have been doing something similar with food,” informs Jessica. “They help feed hospital staff. There’s a group called Meals For Heroes, and they just contact all these hospitals and partner with restaurants and provide meals. She wanted to do something like that, collaborating with locals that are making masks. She had an order she had to fulfill and she asked for my help. I jumped on board. We made masks on our respective ends and we were able to get it done. She came over Monday morning on her motorcycle and dropped it off at Mount Sinai before it started raining.” The group has an Instagram account called handsonmasks.
As busy as Jessica is, she still longs to be taken back to less complicated times. “I’m kind of going stir crazy,” Jessica exasperates. “Not because of cabin fever, but I was just training for a fight. I always want to keep improving. I always wanna train.” This is a sentiment that’s been expressed now by athletes everywhere around the world. Most gyms, all over the world, have been told by their respective governments to close for the time being. This is true even in Thailand, the motherland of Muay Thai. “It’s very hard to not be able to train and just be in that amazing environment where everybody is on the same grind and pushing each other. My body is just itching to improve and train. It’s really hard not being in the gym. It’s my safe space.”
Sitan Gym in Astoria is where Jessica trains and fights out of, and Jessica is thinking about her coaches and teammates during this time. Many small businesses, especially gyms, like Sitan, are suffering financially during this time. “It’s hard because for a business to survive and flourish, it has to be supported [financially] by its members and customers,” Jessica begins. “But, at the same time, if there is a recession and the economy affects the students of the gym, it’s hard. I know a lot of us at Sitan are more than happy to continue our gym membership to help the business stay afloat. I think all of us want to contribute but it’s hard when a lot of teammates are out of a job.” Jessica reminds everyone that this is not charity, but something that is due. “Aziz, the head trainer and owner, never treated it like a company or a corporation with rigid strict payments. He always worked around our lives. Whenever someone was out of a job but wanted to train, he wouldn’t take their money. If they popped in while traveling, he wouldn’t take their money, even if people wanted to pay. At Sitan, it’s an honor system. When one person eats, everybody eats.” The gym, first opened in the late 90’s by Aziz Nabih, suffered from bad fire damage at its original location at the beginning of the year. The Muay Thai community banded together and raised funds for the gym to rebuild. Aziz had found a new place to call the gym home, but it was just beginning to go under construction when everything was mandated to close. “No matter what happens, we’re gonna come back and we’re still gonna flourish. We won’t let anything happen to the gym,” Jessica says fervently.
According to Jessica, the virus has not just affected businesses but communities. “Queens has a high population of immigrant communities and a lot of them are essential workers,” Jessica concedes. “There’s a rise in hate violence against Asian Americans with the pandemic. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to place the blame.” Hate crimes against Asian Americans and people of Asian descent are surging in the U.S. The crimes are ranging anything from verbal harassment to physical assault. Some examples that were documented are a man on a NYC subway train violently demanding an Asian man move away from him, the stabbing of three Chinese-Americans in Texas, and an Asian man being attacked as he was collecting cans for recycling. The FBI has even warned of a potential surge of hate crimes that’s to come. This is extremely ironic when you see the proportion of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants responding to the COVID-19 crisis. According to Forbes, “Asian Americans and Asian immigrants to the U.S. deserve our thanks for their role in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. First of all, they are vastly over-represented among the front line medical workers who are treating those who have been infected. Seventeen percent of doctors, 9% of physician’s assistants and nearly 10% of nurses in the United States are of Asian descent.” What doesn’t help alleviate hate crime is American President Trump has insisting on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus”, fostering further discrimination against Asians, namely Chinese people. The stigma from this term could have a long-lasting effect. “It’s really unfortunate but it’s given a rise to voices of Asian Americans,” Jessica says optimistically. “They’re creating a platform to speak up for themselves.”
Another positive note amidst COVID-19 is how it’s brought communities much closer together. “It’s basically forced a situation where, everybody that can, all hands are on deck,” Jessica says proudly. “People are coming out of retirement to help volunteer, such as former EMT’s, nurses, doctors, firefighters. Restaurants that are still fortunate enough to have the means to provide food, are helping those less fortunate. You have people like me that are making masks to provide for the community.” And, in Jessica’s opinion, New Yorkers, who are generally stereotyped to be a mean and aggressive group of people, are nicer during this time. “We’re fighting this together.”
Even with all the information out there and healthcare professionals scrambling to get their hands on more PPE, there are still too many not taking protective measures when they step outside. Jessica urges everyone to keep an open mind. “As Americans, we have to step back and stop believing that our way of thinking is the absolute right way of thinking,” Jessica comments. “Look at the countries that have been successful at handling the situation better, like Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Those places are so dense that it’s impossible to socially distance [in public]. In North America, news outlets are telling us to social distance but not wear a mask. In those countries, they can’t social distance but are wearing masks and gloves. There might be something to it, there might not. But if you wanna go outside, it’s not going to hurt to wear a mask.” The American government has recommended everyone use a cloth mask, made out of an old shirt or bandanna, to cover their faces in public. It’s been met with a lot of backlash, with people saying how they’re just as ineffective as not covering your face at all in preventing contraction of the virus. “Cloth masks aren’t used by themselves,” informs Jessica. “They’re to be used as a cover for other masks. A lot of people misunderstand that.”
Making the masks is time-consuming, but Jessica finds fulfillment in it. “I’m know I’m trying the best I can to contribute,” Jessica states. At this time, Jessica is continuing to make and donate her cloth masks to those in need, but is starting to take orders from the general public. There is a donation of $20 per mask. “It’s very basic but it still takes time,” Jessica explains. “I don’t just take donations of clothes out of a bag and start sewing a square. I have to spray it down with Lysol, leave it in my foyer for 24 hours or more, then take it to the wash, then dry, and then press.” Another problem with orders from the general public is that sizing needs to be taken into consideration. “Everybody wants a mask but everyone’s face distance from earlobe to earlobe is different.” The donation will go towards Jessica’s out-of-pocket expenses and will help her continue her relief efforts towards the PPE shortage. “I’m just a chick sewing some fabrics together,” Jessica laughs, “but, y’know, if you need the help, I’ll do it.”
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The majority of our masks are made with denim or cotton twill lined with a cotton jersey. Durable fabric to block dust & particles and a comfortable cotton inside to line your face. ☑️Washable ☑️Reusable ☑️Eco-friendly ☑️$20 suggested donation per mask. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org . . All proceeds will go towards sourcing, making, and delivering masks to our local NYC essential workers. . . #stayhome #stayhealthy #masks #masks4all #covidkindness
For those that don’t know how to sew, you can still do their part by adhering to the social distancing and isolation guidelines. “Do your part and stay home,” Jessica pleads. “Keep social distance, quarantine, stay home. Use this time to be productive in other ways. Other people have it much worse, where they’re literally trying to save people and they don’t have the necessary tools to do so.” Jessica also wants everyone everywhere to support each other. “Spread love and be kind, but do it with empathy and compassion,” says Jessica. “This virus does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are or what your age is. The more we live by empathy and compassion, the easier it is for all of us to get through this.”
Thank you, Jessica, for everything you’re doing during this time. Thank you for putting your time into helping those in your community keep doing what they need to.
If you have the skills and resources to make masks, contact handsonmasks via Instagram.
If you would like to order a mask made by Jessica, send an email to email@example.com.