IN CONVERSATION WITH ASIAN AMERICAN PACIFIC ISLANDER STAFFERS
Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: Part 2
In recognition of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, we chatted with Levi’s® staffers, inviting them to share their stories and leave their mark on one of the most American garments out there: the Trucker Jacket. These custom creations will be housed at the Levi’s® Archives, where they’ll act as a reminder of the past, reflection of the present and celebration of the future we hope to build.
Photographs by Justin Chung.
Manager, Entertainment Marketing
My Trucker features plum blossoms—the Taiwanese national flower—and a mandarin collar. My intention was to weave elements of my parents’ culture, my culture, into a textile with a history rooted in Americana. What’s more American than writing our own stories into the fabric of this country?
My Taiwanese parents immigrated to the U.S. with my sister in 1984. They made a home in the San Gabriel Valley, an area of Southern California where nearly 65% of the population had eyes just like mine and jet-black hair and piles of shoes outside of their front doors. The main street in my small town was lined with Chinese shop signs that I couldn’t read, but that never felt foreign to me. My Asianness wasn’t something I thought about—a privilege I realize doesn’t belong to most Asians growing up in America.
My upbringing afforded me the luxury of being able to dream big and imagine myself in places that I would eventually learn were never meant for me. When I left my hometown, I was suddenly confronted with my Asianness all the time, reminded that my existence here was—and had always been—conditional at best. This dichotomy has shaped how I move through life and my career. I don’t often doubt my capacity for greatness, but I am constantly reminded that to my non-Asian peers I am the workhorse, forever carving a path for someone else, not quite what they imagine a leader should look like.
I’m proud of the tradition of resilience that runs deep in the veins of all AAPI folks. The poet Ocean Vuong conveys this tradition beautifully: “All this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
Taiwanese people are a proud people. And I think part of that comes from generations of being colonized—I think there’s a certain unwavering strength that lives in the bloodlines of people who have to hold on tightly to their histories, traditions and native tongues for fear of being erased. That’s what I’m most proud of: That despite being a tiny island, Taiwan and its people have fought to have a seat at the table among giants.
Sr. Designer, Global Brand Creative
In the Philippines, my grandpa served as a scout for the U.S. military during WWII, which earned him a Purple Heart and status as a U.S. Veteran. He was granted U.S. citizenship in 1970, petitioned for his family to migrate to the U.S. and, in 1973, my grandpa and my mom moved to San Francisco and stayed with my auntie, a registered nurse, who already migrated in 1965.
A year after my mom moved to the States, she went back to the Philippines to get married to her high-school sweetheart and one true love, my dad, so she could petition for him to move to the U.S. By 1975, they were both permanent residents, working long hours and multiple jobs to build a life in Daly City, California, which is where they settled to buy a house and raise our family.
Our community in Daly City was largely made up of Asians—it was a big cultural melting pot. Looking back on that now, I’m thankful I was exposed to so many different cultures and family backgrounds. I’m grateful my parents chose Daly City, because where I was raised, how I was raised and who I was raised with really had an impact on who I am today.
I wanted to make a Trucker that not only represented me as an individual, but all Filipinos. So my design incorporates a barong, which is a sheer, ornately embroidered overshirt that’s traditionally worn to formal occasions like weddings. Levi’s® was a symbol of the USA, and my cousins in the Philippines would always ask us to bring them jeans when we visited. I mashed up the two together to represent Filipino Americans and my own cultural background.
Director, Global Brand Styling
Both my parents were born and raised in Japan and came to the West via Canada shortly after they were married. My brother and I were both born in Montréal and then we moved to New Jersey when I was 3. We lived in a predominantly white upper middle class neighborhood. It was idyllic in many ways, but had its underlying issues.
My parents are very curious, adventurous people, which they passed down to me. We traveled a fair bit to other countries as well as in the U.S. I think this may have influenced my obsession with trends and style I’ve had from an early age. I love absorbing the culture, clothing, trends, food, music and experiences from all the countries that I’ve visited in my life.
I get bored easily and like change, so that influences my varying taste. I love expressing my mood through clothing—it’s the ultimate source of self-expression for me. So it felt natural to go into the fashion industry. I knew pretty early on it was what I wanted to do and I’ve never looked back.
“The white circle on the outside of the jacket signifies wholeness, my wish for whoever wears it, that they feel comfortable in their skin, whole and complete.”
I love my culture’s attention to detail and beauty in minimalism and find inspiration in nature. The philosophy of wabi-sabi resonates deeply with me and informs how I style. I like imperfections, which I find beautiful, and try to draw that out and capture that in imagery.
The ensō on the inside of the jacket is a Zen calligraphy form meaning emptiness, eternity and enlightenment—your state of mind needs to be fully present to draw it, and it requires concentration and certainty. It’s a constant reminder to whoever wears it to be present. The white circle on the outside of the jacket signifies wholeness, my wish for whoever wears it, that they feel comfortable in their skin, whole and complete.
District Manager, Northern California
I am fourth-generation Japanese American on my dad’s side and fourth-generation Korean American on my mother’s side. I was born in the Central Valley in Fresno, California. My great grandparents came over from Japan and Korea to make a better life from themselves. My Japanese great grandmother was a picture bride: She was paired with her husband from only a photograph. My Korean great grandparents fled their country to escape Japanese persecution during the occupation.
My grandparents and my parents sacrificed so much so my sister and I could have a better life. My Korean American grandmother, Marilyn Oh, attended three different universities to pursue her college degree. She didn’t have a lot of money, since her grandparents were farm laborers raising four daughters and two sons. My grandparents met in the incarceration camps during the WWII-era imprisonment of the Japanese American community. My grandfather chose to fight for this country and served during the war. My grandmother, Alma Saito, gave birth to my aunt in the camps and raised her alone while my grandfather was overseas fighting.
My jacket honors our Asian American family and history. The Manzanita tree on the back represents the growth and strong roots that my family has grown despite all the struggles they faced. It also represents the ten incarceration camps the Japanese Americans were forced into, places like Gila River (where my grandparents were imprisoned), Tule Lake and Manzanar, a camp whose name is closely connected to the manzanita. The two hands represent the solidarity amongst people of color, and the grapes are an homage to our grandparents, who worked in the fields in the Central Valley. The phrases are excerpts from poems written by my sister, Brynn Saito. And the poem by the hands is an excerpt from a poem she wrote for The People’s Inauguration, a movement inspiring collective action. There’s also a secret message written on the inside of the jacket, an excerpt from her book, The Palace of Contemplating Departure.
Garment Developer and Asian ERG Community & Outreach Pillar
I am a proud first-generation, born and raised San Franciscan. Both of my parents were refugees of war; my father came from Vietnam and my mother came from Laos. Both my parents come from well-educated families and can speak 7-9 languages fluently. Due to the Vietnam War in the ’70s, both families left everything they knew in hopes of starting fresh in the “land of possibilities and new beginnings.” Here in the States, my parents were rejected for all the jobs they applied for, despite their university degrees. Both spoke good English but were told their education didn’t mean anything here. When a company my dad applied to ripped his university diploma in an interview, it was a rude awakening and the last straw—my parents knew they had to change something in order to survive. So my father became a chef at a Chinese restaurant and later, a successful businessman. My mother went back to school, got her nursing degree and became a health worker, a job she maintained even when my brother and I came along. She retired with recognition for the work she had done for the community with two honorary plaques from the Mayor of San Francisco and City and County.
My culture’s values, the moral lessons and my family experiences have all shaped every aspect of who I am today. My family gave me the definition of what it means “to be American to them,” but they also made it clear to me and my brother that it is crucial we find what it means to be “Asian American to us” and pass down our story as first generations.
As a representative of the Asian ERG, I included our logo and all our core members’ names on the Trucker. I included waves at the base, as no matter what origins we come from, we are all connected through water, and our storytelling is like water. The waves symbolize transition, power and resilience. The peonies mean prosperity, honor and compassion. The red represents love and respect. Lastly, the phoenix feathers represent the stage we’re at currently as AAPI: rebirth. We’re redefining what it means to be Asian Americans now.
Director, US PR & Entertainment Marketing
I was born in the Philippines. When I was 7 years old, my parents wanted me to experience school in the United States, so I went to boarding school for my 2nd and 3rd grade. When I was about to move back to Manila, my parents found out my little sister was deaf, so they decided to move to the U.S. to give us better opportunities. They gave up everything they worked hard for. My dad, a successful surgeon in Manila, had to restart his requirements here. I remember the challenges we had with immigration and making sure our papers were in order. It took several years and financial sacrifices to become not only a legal immigrant but a United States citizen. It makes you realize that carrying an American passport is a privilege.
Growing up, I would always see family members wear a gown with these sleeves to weddings or formal events. I always thought it was a bold fashion statement for a Filipina woman. I wanted to incorporate the sleeves into a Trucker Jacket to achieve the same statement and strengthen Filipino pride.
The terno is the national dress of the Philippines. It evolved from the Maria Clara or Traje de Mestiza dress, which originated from the baro’t saya (blouse and skirt). It features butterfly sleeves—flat, oversized high-peaked sleeves that are rounded at the shoulders by pleats. The terno combines Western influences with Indigenous design and is considered a status symbol of wealth, social class, education and Filipino femininity. It’s worn primarily for formal functions such as government, social events or weddings.
Eureka Apparel Garment Technician
I left Vietnam when the regime changed to the Communist party in 1975. People were scared and wanted to leave—and I was no exception. I wanted to find freedom. In 1987, I was fortunate to get help to escape to Bidong Island in Malaysia. After 3 months, I was transferred to the Philippines to study and do a physical examination. On December 3, 1987 I entered the United States. I felt that it was a very free, democratic place. It was beautiful and grand. It made me feel so free and happy.
I worked a lot of different types of jobs before finding a job at a sewing factory in Chinatown as a sewer. Then in 1996, I saw an ad for a job in the Levi’s® production department. I went to apply, but I learned that it was an overnight shift. My daughter was still very young at the time, so I didn’t go through with it. But in my heart, I wanted to work here. In 1999, my friend Carmen told me that Levi’s® was starting a new line called Slate and was looking for a sample maker. I applied, was hired and started working at Levi’s® on February 8, 1999.
Now I work at Levi’s® Eureka Innovation Lab, where I’ve made so many happy memories. I distinctly remember making a Commuter jacket, which was so innovative and quite challenging to create. It looked very cool! I’m very proud that my supervisors and managers trust in me and provide me with many opportunities. Whenever there’s a new sample, I’d be first to make it.
My design was inspired by my life experiences: my journey coming to America, my time spent here and the challenges I’ve faced. My grandparents were from China and immigrated to Vietnam. My father and I were both born in Vietnam. My mother passed away when I was really young, so I was raised by my grandmother. My dad started a fabric weaving company in 1962 and it closed down by 1973. Due to the war, we were unable to buy supplies. Since I was surrounded by weaving, I learned to sew and make clothes for myself. I’m excited for my jacket to be housed at the Levi’s® Archive for a very long time.
Design Systems Coordinator
I was born and raised in New York, but both my parents were born in Guyana, a plurality Asian country on the Caribbean coast of South America nestled between the ocean and the Amazon rainforest. After the end of slavery in the British Empire, many plantation owners in the Caribbean and South America looked for a new cheap form of labor. To fill this need, the British started a system of indentured servitude, through which they would bring Asian workers to the New World to work the plantations for a few years in order to pay for their journey. Though some signed these contracts freely, many others were manipulated, intimidated or kidnapped in order to fill the demand for labor. Upon arrival, my ancestors were forced to work hard labor in the sugar cane fields, and many never actually saw freedom ever again.
My family has been living in South America since the early 1800s and to us it is more of a home than any place in Asia, yet we still carry on our traditions and culture from our ancestors though now with a Caribbean flair. I think it’s beautiful that despite all the hardships my ancestors faced, they still found a way to pass down parts of their culture to us today while incorporating elements of the other indigenous, African and European cultures that were also present.
I was raised in a predominantly Caribbean community, so I never felt out of place. However, when I moved to the Bay Area, I felt like people no longer saw me as a Caribbean person and only saw me as Indian. It felt like my complex and beautiful heritage was winnowed down to just one aspect. Though I am the descendant of Indian laborers, I don’t speak the language and the culture of mainland India is very foreign to me. There is a Guyanese saying that Guyana is “The Land of Six Peoples”: Indigenous, African, Indian, Chinese, European, and mixed. Though I’m predominantly Asian, I strive to honor all parts of our culture and keep my Caribbean heritage alive.
When I help make these garments, I channel the resistance and resolve of my ancestors who worked long hours cutting sugar cane in the plantations of Guyana. I channel the determination of those Asian laborers who built California and the American West. I channel the fortitude of those who came before and whose stories I will never know.
Often in the media, Asian people are depicted as meek and subservient, and I wanted to use this Trucker to push back against those stereotypes. Carnival is a time where we let loose and have fun: We dance in the streets, wear colorful, revealing outfits and celebrate the joy of being Caribbean. The feathers on the chest are supposed to invoke the feathers on the headdresses of carnival dancers
The chest pockets were inspired by the flag of Guyana. The red stands for zeal and dynamism, gold for mineral wealth, green for agriculture and forests, black for endurance and white for rivers and water. The embroidered map of Guyana on the back was inspired by a wall hanging commonly found in the houses of recent Guyanese emigrants, a sort of memento to remind us of our home. The phrase “Land of Six People” references the beautiful, multicultural heritage of our country.
The inside of the jacket features a copy of my great-great-great grandmother’s indentured servitude contract. Though it’s a very painful memory, I think it’s important to acknowledge that all the joy I feel today is only possible because of the back-breaking labor and resilience of her and all my other ancestors.
Through my work, I look to those who came before me and say, “You too have a place in this American story.” As the child of immigrants, it’s so amazing to me that I get to work on these quintessential American garments, that I have a hand in shaping American style; that it’s not in spite of my background, but because of my background I can write this snippet of American fashion history.
“When I help make these garments, I channel the resistance and resolve of my ancestors who worked long hours cutting sugar cane in the plantations of Guyana.”
Check out our interviews with designers for more. Looking for stories of AAPI leaders outside of Levi’s®? We’ve got that too.
Head over to a Levi’s® Tailor Shop to document your AAPI story on a denim canvas.