“When was the first time you felt represented in popular media?”
“Watching America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV.”
People always get a chuckle out of my response to that question — at first, it does seem quite unusual. But as I explain my nostalgic love for this niche reality show, it becomes clear why ABDC was such a groundbreaking television show for so many people.
Where Asian America wasn’t welcomed in entertainment, dance and YouTube created a world where Asian Americans could thrive. Although I myself didn’t participate in dance, I was mesmerized by the creativity and movement of the groups featured on the show, like Kaba Modern, Jabbawockeez, Quest Crew, Poreotics, and Kinjaz. Other programs and movies barely had any Asian representation, while ABDC had Asians and Asian Americans front and center stage, literally.
One group that I’ve followed since their appearance on the show is the Kinjaz, created in 2010 by Mike Song and Anthony Lee. What originally started as a dance crew has now grown into an international multimedia brand and collective across industries. Although I felt a strong connection to the Kinjaz, it wasn’t until I came across these incredible, multihyphenate Asian women on social media — Tu DeVera, Addy Chan, and Gabri Nguyen — that my world opened up exponentially.
Finding Community and, Ultimately, the Kinjaz
Coming from different lived experiences spanning from Apple Valley, the 626 in the SGV, and all the way up to Vancouver, British Columbia, these three definitely had no set path for their way into the Community (the thriving dance culture and community prevalent in SoCal) and eventually into the Kinjaz.
Starting with her involvement in her high school’s drill team combined with her experience in jazz, Tu wasn’t introduced to the world of hip-hop until college. “[UC Riverside] had their Filipino Culture Night and a Modern section, which was basically hip-hop dance. And that’s how I joined this other scene of dance that you would call, ‘The Community,’ which Kinjaz is a part of,” she details.
“I can’t say that I was drawn to it, as much as I was thrown into it,” Gabri says with a laugh. “I started dancing when I was three, so I really didn’t have that much choice in the matter, but I’ve been dancing ever since. Eventually, I found my way up to dancing in the NBA, which is like a totally different realm, different industry, and I actually didn’t know of this dance community and the Kinjaz until I met my now-husband, Vinh.”
Dancing since the age of five, Addy talks about the stark contrast between growing up in Canada and the dance culture that she encountered when coming to the States. “In Canada, we have ‘Community,’ but we don’t have this thriving collegiate community that is so deep in SoCal, so this whole thing was quite new,” she explains. “It’s very lovely, and there’s rad people [who are] a part of it. Definitely, moving out here helped me to understand it better.”
In the description of almost any YouTube video on the Kinjaz’s channel or in the caption of an Instagram post on huge milestones, you’ll most likely see the words “Produced by or Special Thanks To: Addy Chan, Gabri Nguyen, or Tu DeVera,” truly taking their group’s mantra “Movement in the Shadows” to the next level.
For Tu, what started as a job posting on Facebook inquiring about an event producer for the LA extension of Arena Dance Competition has now evolved into her current position as Director of Operations for Kinjaz as a whole. “We just enjoyed our working relationship, and [Anthony] brought me on for more projects little by little, with Kin Aesthetik, Dojo, Komplex, and things like that. Now, I’m just doing all of it four years later, besides Arena,” she laughs.
On the flip side, despite their initial introduction being through their partners, Addy and Gabri now take part in everything, from production and management to helping out whenever an extra hand or voice is needed. Describing the natural progression of being the “supportive girlfriend or wife,” Gabri speaks on how second nature it was for them to become more involved. “As Kinjaz began to grow and as the intention got bigger, there was this need for more energy, other skill sets, and strengths being poured in. It led to transitioning from a supporting role to being like, ‘Oh, we’re in this with you guys.’”
Balancing and Maintaining Individuality
In September 2021, Koko Sweet, Addy Chan, and Bailey Sok were announced as official Kinjaz, marking the first women to officially join the crew on the performance side. As Kinjaz pivots into a new era, Gabri emphasizes that even when there weren’t public-facing women, they were still making Kinjaz what it was behind the scenes. “It’s interesting because the Kinjaz have a male public image, but I don’t feel that’s what the Kinjaz are or ever have been. It’s not shaping a new identity, it’s being outwardly what we have always been, which is a family,” she explains.
Emphasizing the importance of evolution, Addy shares her excitement for the future of who a Kinja can be. “Joining a group felt different. Not necessarily because of gender, but I’ve never had to work with the same group for so long,” Addy states. “The ladies have been here, but you had to piece together who these women are behind the scenes. It reflects where the company’s at and also societally that people care. It feels nice to have recognition.”
At the intersection of many identities, existing as an Asian woman in America right now is far from easy. Talking about the culture shock she felt within the dance community and day-to-day life, Addy dives into how she felt being surrounded by people who looked like her. “I have never worked with so many Asians in my life. It was like, ‘Oh shit, this is amazing!’ Kinjaz has helped me feel more Asian, to feel connected to my culture. I grew up in a very white town, and this industry is often very white. Being in a group where we are about progressing and representing Asians is something that I never envisioned being a part of but has become so meaningful in my life. That’s been a cool result of marrying into this role, and then it generates so much more purpose in what I do.”
“Normal” Working Day
Upon asking what a “normal” workday looked like, I am met with a Zoom room of laughter and giggles.
Just when you think their involvement with Kinjaz takes up a good chunk of their time, Tu elaborates on what it takes to be a mom of two young boys, run a small business (she is the Co-Director of Elements Dance Space in Pasadena), ensure Kinjaz-related things are running smoothly, and tend to any other dope project. “I’m a creature of habit, so I do have a normal routine. And having kids has kept me as routine as possible, with just a little bit of craziness dipped into it,” she said.
Working off Tu’s energy, Gabri talks about the level of flexibility she has needed to adapt to navigate this industry. “I’m the opposite of a creature of habit. I have three main jobs that I juggle and projects on top of that, and all of them fluctuate so much. I’m running full-speed ahead from eyes open to eyes closed. Sometimes we don’t get to eyes closed,” she laughs.
Recounting her experience working in a pandemic, Gabri expands upon the headspace that she was in and things she began to realize. “I will be honest. I did crash and burn a little. I think it was really difficult because we work in such an ‘up and down’ industry, so when COVID hit, there was a lot of ‘down,’” she says. But sometimes, through the stress and anxiety, there are moments of clarity, and she talks about a very monumental moment for her and how she views her work and what was important to her. “I realized that so much of my value could be stripped so easily, and that kind of led me to a very difficult place where I had to reevaluate my life.”
Regardless of the exhaustion she faces from time to time, Gabri highlights a silver lining underneath it all. “There is something empowering about getting to have your hand in so many pots and putting your skill and passion towards that,” she notes. And she’s thankful for the women in Kinjaz helping her whenever they can. “Tu is my constant rock, the brain behind it all that’s like, ‘Here’s our tasklist,’ and I love that about working with her. It’s all a balancing act,” she says. “I’m actually just a circus performer.”
Despite the fast pace of their personal and work lives, Addy talks about the importance of understanding the chaos and prioritizing the things that matter the most. “The nature of the line of work that we’re in is you have to be reactive to what the project, shoot, or gig is at the time.” Whether it be choreographing for the West End’s production of “The Prince of Egypt” or the global powerhouse “League of Legends,” Addy stresses that it isn’t always a highlight reel of cool things happening one after the other (though she has done some pretty rad stuff). “There’s also a lot of living in front of my computer and dying in an email, so it’s not just some glamorous shit,” she laughs. “It’s a lot of grind too.”
Doing Life With Those You Love
From starting a clothing company, making a successful noodle company, working with Red Bull, to consulting with global brands like Nike, these women have had a hand in almost every major Kinjaz project. But there’s one thing that Gabri says takes the cake: “I think who we are as a family is the coolest project of all. We put a lot of love and work into building that because it’s very hard to maintain relationships with such different personalities, such different life journeys. That is what is going to stand the test of time. Everything else is come-and-go, but we keep moving forward as a unit.”
Gabri adds, “The things that stand out the most are the relationships we’ve built. We’ve celebrated weddings, baby showers, engagements, and all of these ‘life projects/life seasons’ together. The coolest part is that the work is work we’re passionate about, and we love it. And what we’ve created in our community is so much bigger than that.”
Visualizing Success and Seeing People Like You
For many, something always seems impossible until you see someone like you doing it. Addy puts it perfectly: “When we talked about ‘What does it mean to have women be Kinjaz?,’ a big conversation was what could that mean to kids, maybe young girls, that could finally look at Tu and Gabri and be like ‘Hey, I could do that too!’”
After I finish this interview with Tu, Addy, and Gabri, I immediately call my older sister on the phone and cry. I’ve never seen women (let alone Asian women) sit in this intersection of movement, culture, community, production, and management until finding these three on social media. People have been putting in the work, and it is incredible having these women usher in a new way to approach purpose and its interconnection with career.
Through the sobs and happy tears, I feel honored to have the opportunity to share with the world just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing impact that these three have made and continue to do every day. Whether the work is center stage or backstage, Tu, Addy, and Gabri have helped to reimagine an environment that doesn’t have to sacrifice purpose or meaning for the sake of a job. Instead, they’ve shown the power of collective unity and how success can truly be meaningful when achieved together.
Cover photo credit: Kinjaz
Last modified: May 3, 2022