Self-defense classes help Asian and Pacific Islander women feel safer in New York

Jess Ng is shown in a defensive stance, with city buildings and sky behind her.

Portrait of Jess Ng in Dumbo, Brooklyn on May 11, 2022. (Mengwen Cao/NPR)

Inside a community room in Brooklyn on a rainy day in May, seven women pair off for a series of drills. They practice backing toward the building’s exits, as if moving away from an attacker. They yell “stop!” over and over. And they learn 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 searching for ways to feel safer amid surging anti-Asian violence in the city.

“Many people started to feel very unsafe traveling outside and on the subway,” said Ng, a first generation, Chinese-Hong Kong American. “Even walking in and out of supermarkets and bodegas.”

The fear was further heightened earlier this year after the brutal killings of two Asian American women. In February, Michelle Go was pushed in front of an oncoming train in the Times Square subway station. Weeks later, Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed to death by a man who followed her into her Chinatown apartment.

Ng attended a community healing event after Go’s death. During the session, the 30 Asian and Pacific Islander women in attendance were asked: Who feels endangered when they’re outside?

Nearly all of the women in the room raised their hands, Ng recalled.

“That really broke my heart and that really, really hit home for me,” said Ng, who was one of only two women who did not raise their hands.

Jess Ng practices self-defense moves in a gym with another person.
Jess Ng and Akiko Yabuki practice moves in the self-defense seminar for AAPI women and femmes in Camp Friendship in Brooklyn, New York on May 7, 2022. (Mengwen Cao/NPR)

Ng said she feels her background as a fighter has equipped her with skills to protect herself.

She discovered Muay Thai in her early 20s after attending a class with a friend, which eventually turned into more classes. At one point she was learning how to clinch, a technique that involves grappling at close range.

“I couldn’t defend myself no matter how hard I tried. I just kept getting slammed on to the floor,” she recalled. “Body first. Face first. Head first. Elbows first.”

Ng took that as a challenge, throwing herself into 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 participate in a fight.

She did not stop there – nearly 15 years after setting 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 an increasing obligation to other Asian people in the city.

“I really felt that weight. I can do something and I want to help in any way that I can,” she said. “I feel like I have to take responsibility in helping and arming and empowering the community to look out for each other.”

Ng instructs self-defense classes differently than she does 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 recognizing 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 last exercises at the seminar in Brooklyn, Ng guided two women as they learned how to strike with their palms. To avoid the risk of injury to bones in the knuckles, Ng does not teach women to punch.

As she held focus mitts, Ng reminded the women to breathe and encouraged them to yell “stop!” with every palm strike.

“That feels good,” exclaimed one of the women, Akiko Yabuki.

“Embrace the power that your body has,” Ng responded.

After the seminar, Yabuki said she was “pleasantly surprised” by her own strength. The 46-year-old has avoided traveling on the subway in recent months because she worries about her safety, and wanted to take the class to feel more confident about going out in public.

As she practiced the drills throughout the afternoon, she thought about her 5year-old daughter.

“I need to be ready if we ever came across a situation where I had to protect her,” Yabuki said. “When I think about that, then I don’t have time to be afraid and fearful.”

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, especially,” she said. “Just seeing women in that position of strength and power teaching other women that it’s in them to be able to defend yourself.”

Liu has trained in Muay Thai and kali, a Filipino martial art, for nearly 14 years. Each time an act of violence is targeted against an Asian person, demand for self-defense classes increases, she said.

During the seminar, the Brooklyn native taught women how to use pepper spray and demonstrated the use of other devices, including a tactical pen. Liu said it can be heartbreaking as an Asian American woman to process her own feelings around rising anti-Asian violence while instructing others on how to protect themselves.

“I wish that we lived in a society where it wasn’t necessary to be teaching the self-defense classes,” she said. “I am happy to teach them, but I wish that the burden of being safe were not being put onto Asian women themselves.”

For her part, Ng said she notices a difference in the women as each class progresses. They start the day nervous or feeling down, and walk away more confident and empowered.

She has also noticed how community members have pulled together. During some seminars, local Asian businesses have donated baked goods and bubble tea. And she has watched as a small group of Muay Thai fighters across the city have banded together to develop and teach self-defense classes.

“It’s been a really challenging time with the surge of hate crimes and the recognition and acknowledgement these hate crimes are happening,” she said. “But there’s more community aid than I’ve ever seen.”

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