The Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK) are pushing to create a multimedia performing arts center in St. Paul's East Side—while preparing for a comedy show at The Ordway on Saturday, April 16. Credit: Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK)

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A group of Asian American women comedians is lobbying the state legislature to establish a first-of-its-kind performing arts center on St. Paul’s East Side. It would be the nation’s first Asian American women-led performing arts and multimedia center.

The Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK) is seeking $1 million from a state bonding bill to establish the Asian American Center for Media and the Arts. 

FAWK is hosting a comedy show at The Ordway Theater in St. Paul on April 16 to raise awareness about the needs of Asian American performers locally and nationally. The event will also promote their efforts to secure funding for the arts center.

FAWK was founded in 2018 by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, May Lee-Yang, and Naomi Ko. The St. Paul-based group uses comedy to combat the dehumanization of women from Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American backgrounds.

Lee-Yang, a playwright, poet, prose writer, performance artist, and teacher, said the visibility of Asian people increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and contributed to a rise in anti-Asian violence.

“We would love for people to just come see our shows or support our work when we’re not dying,” Lee-Yang said. “We use comedy to combat the dehumanization and invisibility of Asian women. And that means, come support our stuff even if there isn’t a tragedy happening.”

Vongsay said a performance center would create financial and creative opportunities for the East Side arts community. The space would include 300 seats, a multimedia center for videography, a sound stage, and a gallery space. The center would also serve as a meeting place for groups like FAWK.

Lee-Yang said they expect the space will also be accessible to Black and Indigenous people, and other communities of color. The venue will also offer affordable rental fees to increase its accessibility, they added.

“We don’t really have a professional theater in the East Side,” Vongsay said. “We’re looking to employ at least nine full-time people. This is a center that would create jobs. And even within those full-time positions, we envision having workshops so we’ll need to hire people to facilitate those.”

Other theaters in St. Paul such as The Ordway, The Palace Theater, and Park Square Theatre, are concentrated downtown, said FAWK members. 

“The reality is a lot of these spaces have their own audiences, their own needs,” Lee-Yang said. 

Minnesota theaters are also predominantly white-led, Vongsay added.

“Minnesota is home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States. We’re home to the third-largest Southeast Asian population,” Lee-Yang said. “Our Asian American population is very specific and unique–we’re super pan-Asian. We’re also home to a lot of refugees even beyond the Asian community. And our stories are often not told.”

Crossing their fingers

When asked about the project’s current status, Vongsay jokingly crossed her fingers and said, “We’re doing this.”

In 2021, FAWK received some development money from the East Side Funders Group, a group of grantmaking partners working to improve St. Paul’s East Side. They also received financial support from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, an investment group. FAWK then hired Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer for arts centers, as consultants. Artspace predicted that the Asian American Center for Media and the Arts would cost $25 million to build.

Representative Jay Xiong (DFL-St. Paul) caught wind of the FAWK project early on and authored a bill to secure funding. FAWK members pitched the center to the House Capital Investment Committee in April 2021. Committee chair Representative Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis) and Xiong proposed including funds for the performing arts center in the bonding bill

The Walz administration has proposed a $2.7 billion bonding bill focused on capital reinvestment and racial equity in public spaces and infrastructure.

Under Lee and Xiong’s proposal, FAWK would receive $1 million to acquire the property, design the center, and begin preconstruction of the building. Lawmakers are expected to discuss which projects to include in the bonding bill during the rest of the legislative session through May. FAWK members are unsure when they will open the center since they are still trying to find additional funding.

Reclaiming space in St. Paul’s theater community

When FAWK was founded it received funding from the Knight Foundation to launch a comedy series in St. Paul. Every month, 50 to 100 guests attended comedy shows featuring local and national performers. FAWK held these events at Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center in St. Paul.

“We realized we wanted a more formal space to highlight people’s work, a space that could host more than 100 people,” Lee-Yang said.

The group hosted The FAWK Super Show at The Ordway in 2019 and drew 900 attendees. It was the first time they saw themselves represented.

“All of us were really excited,” Lee-Yang said. “Then the pandemic hit three months later.”

FAWK will host its first indoor live performance since COVID on April 16 at 7:30 p.m. at The Ordway. Tickets cost $37 and are available for purchase at The Ordway.

The show will address issues such as race, misogyny, white supremacy, and sex, and will feature local and national performers. FAWK also sees performing at The Ordway as an opportunity to address the theater’s staging of the controversial musical, Miss Saigon, which takes place during and after the Vietnam War. The show, presented more than once at The Ordway, has been criticized by the Asian American community for the dynamic between the lead female character, who is Vietnamese, and her white male love interest, among other issues. 

“It was also about us demanding power back from The Ordway, because they had mounted the musical Miss Saigon, and our communities protested against it,” Vongsay added.

In 2015, Patricia Mitchell, who was president of The Ordway at the time, issued an apology for the theater’s presentations of Miss Saigon. Protesters called the musical racist and misogynist for its portrayal of Asian women.

Vongsay said FAWK is working with The Ordway’s leadership to heal the theater’s relationship with the Asian community. Some community members refused to attend FAWK’s first show at the venue because of its history with Miss Saigon, said FAWK members.

While Vongsay said their conversations with The Ordway have been positive, Lee-Yang stressed the importance of creating their own space at the Asian American Center for Media and the Arts.

“It’s weird to hear Asian women yelling, swearing, talking about sex in a way where they’re not being victimized,” Lee-Yang said. “It’s revolutionary for marginalized people, especially Asian women, to take up space.”

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