Ae Xiong sells her handmade polymer clay earrings on her online store, Happy Girls & Co., which she started at the beginning of the pandemic. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Ae Xiong spent the better part of the spring creating earrings in a messy spare bedroom in the basement of her home in Brooklyn Center. For inspiration, she looked through magazines, at home decor, and even television shows. 

One day, she rolled out a slab of light pink polymer clay with splotches of yellow and blue scraps she needed to use up. Then she pressed them into geometric shapes with cookie cutters. In April, she sold those earrings in her newly launched online store, Happy Girls & Co.

But while Xiong was working in her basement, a pandemic was spreading. Small businesses were hit hardest by the economic crisis that accompanied it, with nearly half of them closing temporarily across the country. Yet, Xiong decided to go ahead and open her online shop in April. As a new business that launched at the start of the pandemic, Xiong said Happy Girls & Co., named for her 5-year-old and 1-year-old nieces, is progressing largely as she had expected. 

“With all the things that are happening right now, it feels silly for me to feel like, ‘Why is nobody buying earrings from me?’ ” Xiong said. “I recognize that it’s very insignificant compared to what’s going on right now.”

Even so, she has created four collections since opening and made about 100 sales for prices ranging from $18 to $35 a pair. But selling earrings wasn’t her only goal. A key part of the 29-year-old Xiong’s mission was to host workshops and events for Hmong women like her mother, whose lives often are defined by work and family obligations. She wanted them to be able to come together, learn how to do something creative for the sheer enjoyment of it, and make some friends along the way.

“I just wanted to be able to provide that opportunity for women to feel safe, to feel empowered, to come and just be really open and free in a non-judgmental space,” Xiong said.

Her plans to build community through jewelry are on hold indefinitely. But Xiong continues to come out with new collections. 

Ae Xiong works from a studio she set up in her basement. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Xiong and her husband, Kong, share the spare bedroom in the basement of their Brooklyn Center home. One side of the room has a desk surrounded by two walls full of Kong’s fishing equipment. On the other side, Xiong has a long L-shaped desk where she works. She stores her clay and some tools in drawers. Her shipping supplies are stacked on another desk. Xiong will often start an earring design, leave a slab of clay or cut shapes sitting around, and then pick up where she left off days later. 

Xiong released a new collection September 11, the Rattan collection that takes inspiration from rattan patio furniture that was popular in the ‘80s. Now that rattan has made a comeback as furniture (and even handbags), Xiong purchased a rattan chair, bookshelf, dresser, and plant stands. She loved it so much she started to think about ways she could replicate rattan’s woven look in her clay earrings. It took her three weeks to figure out how to smooth out the clay coils and “weave” it into a rattan-like design.

Xiong already restocked the collection Friday. As her sales increase, Xiong is thinking about how to expand her business. Most of Xiong’s customers found her through her friends and family or through Instagram. Because of the word-of-mouth nature of Xiong’s clientele, most of her customers are from Minnesota.

She’s connected with a few people on Instagram who promote her earrings as brand ambassadors. Xiong gifted Kristi Moua, for example, four pairs of earrings. Moua, based in Saint Paul, posted the earrings on her Instagram account where she promotes thrift store fashion. 

“I prefer Ae’s polymer clay earrings over others because they look clean and smooth,” Moua said. “I also love how creative she is, especially with the new release of her rattan earrings.”

If she took on jewelry making full-time, she joked that she would kick her husband and his fishing gear out of her studio. But with the pandemic still raging, Xiong decided to stick with her day job. Xiong currently works in an administrative role for a nonprofit called Think Small. The organization works with educational trainers throughout the state to host training sessions for teachers and childcare providers.

Xiong said she spent her early 20s bouncing from job to job, trying to figure out what she wanted to do professionally and using her creativity as an outlet. At one point, that outlet was baking, at another, it was weaving. 

Xiong stumbled upon polymer clay art on Instagram and went down a rabbit hole of Youtube tutorials until she decided she would just try it herself. She spent about $20 on supplies, started to make earrings for herself and realized she might eventually make a job out of it.

One day her sisters came over to learn how she creates her earrings and she found she really enjoyed the teaching process. Xiong decided that if she was going to monetize her earrings, she would also use that platform to cultivate a community—especially for the Hmong women in her family. 

Women like Xiong’s mom, for example, might not have activities they do for fun outside of work or domestic duties. Xiong said her mother got sick at one point and started spending a lot of time at home. She urged her mother to pick up a hobby. Her mother responded that she does do things for fun—she cooks, she sews clothes, she embroiders.

“It didn’t really click with me until I had brought those things up with my mom,” Xiong said. “A lot of the things that they ‘do for fun’ is actually labor, or something they had to do to make some sort of living.”

So Xiong asked her mother about it. She responded: “I do it because this is what I was raised to do, this is what I was taught, and this is how I survived back in the old country.”

Xiong wanted her mom to pick up a hobby simply for herself, with no obligations.

“She just looked at me like I was crazy,” Xiong said. So Xiong took matters into her own hands, signing them for a painting class. 

During the whole class, her mother silently painted. When it was time to leave, Xiong asked her mother what she thought. She said, “Oh, it was fun.” But then she paused for a few seconds and said she actually felt really good about herself. It was the first time in a long time that she learned something new, just for the sake of it.

“I realized that it wasn’t just my mom who had thought this way. It was my aunts, my mother-in- law, the older women within our community,” Xiong said. “Times are changing now for our generation, but for their generation, they were just there to have babies, and take care of the house.”

The next generation, her young nieces, are very different. “Every time I see them, they’re just always so happy,” Xiong said. So she nicknamed them the “Happy Girls.”

Xiong’s vision of her company is to create a space where women can come together and spend time with their friends while making earrings, or meet new people who share a common hobby. She plans to host workshops and charge per person to attend. Xiong said she would charge an affordable fee for these workshops, but eventually she would want to host more advanced classes at a higher cost, too.

“I really just wanted other girls and other women to be able to talk and unload and vent and just have fun,” Xiong said. Rolling out clay slabs together and cutting them into earrings might help them through their own difficult times, just like her creative endeavors helped her through her own uncertain times, Xiong said. 

At her workshops, Xiong said she wants to emulate the same sense of happiness and freedom that she sees in her young nieces. But until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, she’ll have to settle for spending her evenings in her basement making earrings by herself.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.