Photo credit: Justin Hoch
For Chinese-American writer, performer, and comedian Jen Kwok, creativity has always been central to her identity. From acting to pursuing her own music and podcast, Kwok is known for creating space, conversation, and representation through her work. Leveraging her online presence to connect with followers across platforms, she’s built a loyal audience over the years.
She recently talked with Squarespace about the role of activism and advocacy in her creative pursuits, what representation means to her as an Asian woman, and how she cultivates an engaged following online.
Squarespace: You’ve defined your own success as a writer and performer. What inspired you to pursue a creative career?
Jen Kwok: I always felt like such an outsider growing up as a Chinese-American kid, but I discovered pretty early on that humor and art were the best ways for me to connect with others and myself. The times I spent writing alone in my room or performing onstage at recitals were when I felt most fully myself, and that is still true to this day. After a brief stint in the corporate world, I realized that the only way to move toward my true potential — and away from any huge regrets — was to stop hiding or fighting against my creative nature. Simply put, choosing a creative career has been an act of self acceptance. It has been my way of taking full ownership of who I am and who I believe I’m meant to be. And being a woman of Asian descent has actually given me even greater motivation to pursue a creative life. There’s power in finding an unconventional path that’s all your own, despite what the world has told you. And growing up with so few role models, I also feel a sense of responsibility to say what no one else is saying, tell the stories that no one else was telling. I view my career as a constant opportunity to contribute what I want to see more of in this world. The ability to create on my own terms — and to reach another human being in the process — is ultimately what defines my success.
SQSP: How did you start to build a platform to connect with and grow your audience?
JK: I started performing around the time that YouTube was just getting popular, and those early music videos helped me book college tours around the country and live performances in NYC. Over time, I started experimenting with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to share my work, and I also use those platforms to speak openly and frankly about the things I’m passionate about, whether it’s representation, mental health, Chinese home cooking or social justice. The most rewarding thing about social media isn’t the number of shares or likes — it’s the lasting connections that are made. Sharing stories and ideas with other artists, writers and fans over the years is what creates meaningful change. For me, each of these platforms is about putting out work that’s a starting point — a starting point for conversations and inspiration to take action in our offline lives. That’s what I appreciate about the people I follow, and that’s what I try to put out into the world as well. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue, rather than a one-sided artist-to-audience relationship.
SQSP: You make music, podcasts, and work as a professional actor. What guides your decision-making around content creation and which projects you’ll participate in?
JK: I have learned to always trust my gut in decision-making. For me, that initial reaction — whether it’s an idea that pops into my head or an audition that lands in my inbox — reveals what kind of energy a potential project might bring into my life at that particular moment. There’s a balance of interests, skills, time and energy that I try to maintain, and if a project aligns, my gut tells me to go for it. An example of that is my work with a multi-cultural, woman-owned production company that tells stories from underrepresented communities. They booked me to perform a comedic medley at a live show featuring women storytellers, and later hired me to work on the music for a podcast they produce for an organization focused on domestic workers’ rights. These projects checked off a lot of boxes for me: working with a group of women with a mission similar to mine, having the freedom to bring my musical perspectives to the table, and supporting conversations between women leaders and advocates.
In terms of my own projects, I always go for the ones that bring the greatest sense of immediacy and ignite my passions. In May I’m re-launching my podcast Unsquishing, which features conversations with creative Asian women about their artistic journeys, careers and personal experiences surrounding identity and mental health. Putting these conversations out into the world is very important to me right now, and it is in direct response to the anti-Asian violence we’ve been experiencing in our country. When the Atlanta shooting happened, there was a sense of sadness in our community that the stories of the women, the victims, were not properly told. In many ways, the fact that Asian women’s stories have never been adequately reflected in the mainstream is what has contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes and our dehumanization — all of which have led to the rise of these horrific hate crimes. If we are able to control our own narrative and broadcast our own voices, we can represent ourselves exactly as we want to be seen — as the intelligent, worthy, complex, multi-faceted human beings that we are. I am endlessly inspired by the women I’ve been speaking to throughout this series, learning their stories of perseverance, and how they constantly work to “unsquish” their own mindsets to create more space for others and themselves.
SQSP: How do activism and identity inform your work?
JK: Identity informs and impacts almost everything I do. I strive to be personal and truthful in my work, so the evolving experience of being an Asian-American woman affects everything in my career, whether it’s my artistic viewpoint, self confidence, or how people perceive me when I walk into an audition room. Being aware of my relationship with my own identity has been crucial to finding my power and defining who I am for myself, regardless of what other people think. And activism and advocacy have played a huge role in that, because empowering myself means empowering others. Having true accountability for that type of power means speaking up when I have the chance, and creating the opportunity for others to speak up as well. It means marshalling my resources and skills towards projects and causes that reflect the change that I want to see in the world.
SQSP: What role has your online presence played in your career success?
JK: Building an online presence has allowed me to explore and express so many different facets of myself. Posting a song or music video online reaches a lot more people than playing at a bar in NYC on a Tuesday night. Twitter has allowed me to share my opinions and experiences in a relatively unfiltered way, and there is a lot of value in communicating clearly and unapologetically as a woman of color. On Facebook and Instagram I’ve been able to share more deeply about different aspects of my identity and personal life. And having a website has allowed me to represent myself professionally in one place. Together, these different platforms have allowed me to book work, find outlets for my creativity, build community, and continue documenting the story of who I am as an artist and a person.
SQSP: How do you see your platform evolving over time?
JK: I see my platform evolving to support whatever work I’m creating at the moment. We all go through different seasons and phases of our creative and personal lives, so I try to be in the flow of that. That means I don’t pay attention to trends unless they resonate or make sense for me. It’s more about using platforms and tools to reflect what I think is important, and using them to contribute to the world in a meaningful way — be it more music, comedy, or hosting conversations between artists. For me, the next stage is about deeper engagement and community building. I don’t want to shout or sing into the void, and I think so many people are looking for greater connection beyond just clicking a heart on a video. I want to find new ways to support others in building their own connections, and developing the tools they need to create their own success.
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