NEW YORK, NY – In a community hall in Brooklyn on a rainy day in May, seven women team up for a series of exercises. They practice backing up toward building exits, as if moving away from an attacker. They shout “stop!” again and again. And they learn the fundamental hand and leg strikes.
This is a self defense class taught by Jess Ng, a Muay Thai fighter who grew up in Queens. Since August, she has taught more than 20 of these self-defense seminars to Asian and Pacific Islander women looking for ways to feel safer in the midst. rising anti-Asian violence in the city.
“A lot of people started feeling very unsafe when traveling outside and on the subway,” said Ng, a first-generation Chinese-Hong Kong American. “Even going in and out of supermarkets and bodegas.”
Fear grew further earlier this year after the brutal murders of two Asian American women. In February, Michelle Go was pushed in front of an oncoming train in the Times Square subway station. A few weeks later, Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed to death by a man who followed her to her Chinatown apartment.
Ng attended a community healing event following Go’s death. During the session, the 30 Asian and Pacific Islander women in attendance were asked: Who feels unsafe when they are outdoors?
Almost every woman in the room raised their hands, Ng recalled.
“It really broke my heart and it really, really touched me,” said Ng, who was one of only two women who didn’t raise her hand.
Ng said she felt her past as a fighter had equipped her with skills to protect herself.
She discovered Muay Thai in her early twenties after taking a class with a friend, which eventually turned into multiple classes. At some point, she was learning to clinch, a technique that involves grabbing at close range.
“I couldn’t defend myself no matter how hard I tried. I kept getting pinned to the ground,” she recalled. “Body first. Face first. Head first. Elbows first.”
Ng took it as a challenge, taking up the sport. She traveled to a camp in Thailand, where she trained six days a week for three weeks.
After returning to New York, she joined a gym and decided to take part in a fight.
She didn’t stop there – nearly 15 years after stepping foot in her first Muay Thai class, Ng has fought internationally – in Mexico, Argentina, Thailand and Malaysia.
After Go and Lee were killed earlier this year, Ng said she felt increasingly obligated to other Asians in town.
“I really felt that weight. I can do something and I want to help in any way I can,” she said. “I feel like I have to take responsibility to help, arm and empower the community to look out for each other.”
Ng teaches self-defense classes differently than Muay Thai classes, where fighting is taught as a sport. In self-defense seminars, the goal is to teach people how to remove themselves from dangerous situations with as little physical contact as possible.
“It’s really about acknowledging the power of your body and your voice,” she said. “The goal is not to engage in hand-to-hand combat.”
During one of the Brooklyn seminar’s final drills, Ng guided two women as they learned to strike with their palms. To avoid the risk of injury to the knuckle bones, Ng does not teach women to hit.
While holding concentration mitts, Ng reminded the women to breathe and encouraged them to shout “stop!” with each palm stroke.
“It feels good,” exclaimed one of the women, Akiko Yabuki.
“Embrace the power of your body,” Ng replied.
After the seminar, Yabuki said she was “pleasantly surprised” by her own strength. The 46-year-old has avoided traveling on the tube in recent months because she was worried about her safety and wanted to take the course to feel more confident going out in public.
As she practiced the exercises throughout the afternoon, she thought of her 5–one year old girl.
“I have to be ready if we ever come across a situation where I have to protect her,” Yabuki said. “When I think about it, I don’t have time to be scared and scared.”
Robie Evangelista, a Filipino-American woman, said she has taken self-defense classes led by men in the past. But learning from Ng and Monica Liu, another martial artist who co-taught the class, felt different.
“I appreciated that it was taught by Asian American women, in particular,” she said. “You just have to see women in this position of power and be able to teach other women that it is within them to be able to defend themselves.”
Liu has trained in Muay Thai and kali, a Filipino martial art, for almost 14 years. Every time an act of violence is directed against an Asian person, the demand for self-defense classes increases, she said.
During the seminar, the Brooklyn native taught the women how to use pepper spray and demonstrated the use of other devices, including a tactical pen. Liu said it can be heartbreaking for an Asian American woman to process her own feelings about rising anti-Asian violence while telling others how to protect themselves.
“I wish we lived in a society where there was no need to teach self-defense classes,” she said. “I’m happy to teach them, but I wish the security burden was not placed on Asian women themselves.”
For her part, Ng said she noticed a difference in women as each class progressed. They start the day nervous or feeling depressed, and leave feeling more confident and empowered.
She also noticed how united the members of the community were. At some seminars, local Asian businesses donated baked goods and bubble tea. And she saw a small group of Muay Thai fighters across town band together to develop and teach self-defense classes.
“It was a really tough time with the upsurge in hate crimes and the acknowledgment and acknowledgment of those hate crimes,” she said. “But there’s more community help than I’ve ever seen.”
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.