The New Jock
Originally Published on The New Jock on June 1, 2015.
In a city jam-packed with impressive people, Karen Wong can make even the most jaded New Yorker feel re-engaged with fashion, art, life, and our environment. We, at Jock, have been fan-girling and girl-crushing since the day we met her this past winter, and each interaction since has deepened our admiration and respect for this wicked smart, and thoughtfully engaged urban warrior. When not organizing multi-day festivals and promoting museum shows as the Deputy Director of New Museum, Cofounder of IDEAS CITY and NEW INC, Karen spends her free time on the board for Apex, helping mentor young, underserved Asian and immigrant youth. We caught up with her and Apex for Saturday basketball drills – entertaining, teachable moments for everyone, the Jock crew included, made the afternoon a celebration of athleticism, service, and good old-fashioned fun.
On Sports and Competition
I have a tiger mom who believed that my sister and I could conquer academics, piano and sports. I was encouraged to participate in both scholastic and extracurricular activities. At age five, I took ballet, art and drama classes, followed by piano lessons and sports and art camps. In high school, I captained the tennis team and was the statistician for the boy’s varsity basketball team. Athletic pursuits weren’t just relegated to my academic résumé; they were also a family affair – a family that plays together stays together. We had a ping-pong table in the basement and there was a lot of tennis. I competed often with my dad in father/daughter doubles tournaments. We actually have quite a few trophies from those years despite my lack of consistency; my dad was, and is, a rock. Looking back, I find myself grateful for the lesson of healthy competition that was instilled in me early through sports and academics. It’s definitely provided me with a confidence that has gotten me where I am today. For me, pushing oneself to excel in sports translates into a fierce determination to make a difference.
On My Professional Life
I’m the Deputy Director of the New Museum and oversee a wide spectrum of areas. I’m always learning something new and this keeps me completely energized. I’ve been with the museum now for eight years and I love my job. The New Museum’s spirit of entrepreneurship and our desire to be at the forefront of our field has led us to develop two initiatives that I co-founded with the museum’s director. IDEAS CITY was conceived in 2011 as a forum to co-join the cultural and civic, and to challenge ourselves to explore and engage in critical discourse on how to make our cities better. NEW INC was launched in September of 2014. It is the first museum-led incubator at the intersection of art, design and technology. We are in an age where the practice of design and art is more fluid and cross-disciplinary. We have created a community of almost 100 members who share co-working space and participate in a professional development program that caters to a new type of cultural practitioner who are launching platforms, apps, products, and businesses that flout traditional models.
On Giving Back
Additionally, I am on the board of directors of and have co-chaired the last three galas for Apex for Youth, an organization that supports underserved Asian and immigrant youth from low-income families in New York City. I became involved with Apex in 2010, when I was honored as an “inspirational leader” in the Asian American community. By the following year, I was part of the team. At Apex, I spend most of my time working with board members on fundraising and raising awareness on why Apex exists by disseminating important statistics like the fact that one in four Asian youth do not graduate from high school while one in two is born into poverty, and debunking the myth of the model minority or the 1% that cloud people’s perception. By providing support through mentorships and educational, athletic and afterschool programs, Apex has been successful at its agenda. The data doesn’t lie — kids who go through the Apex program graduate from high school, go to college and are more confident of their abilities and hopeful for their futures. As a toddler, I sat on my father’s knee and watched a championship caliber Knicks team, so I am partial to Apex’s basketball program. On occasion, I participate in the drills and try to expose the kids to the same critical lessons I learned when I was young and playing sports. There are so many life skills imparted through athletics. All kids need is focused attention and a high five. Then in no time, they are dribbling properly and smiling.
On Working Out
Often at the mercy of a typical NYC work schedule, I make a concerted effort to stick to my exercise routine. I started training at Gleason’s, the boxing gym in Dumbo – Brooklyn, after being introduced to the sport last summer by my BFF Anna, an amazing photographer and painter. Twice a week, I train with Elmo Serrano there, hitting the bag and working on the precision of how to move my fists, wrists, arms, head and waist. Not only is it intense and therapeutic, this sort of conditioning has the added benefit of improving my tennis game, so much so that the focus on hand eye coordination has really helped me hit the ball better. I am really excited by the training, but I am unlikely to spar—I have no desire to be punched! On the weekend, I stretch with Alicia “Slick” Ashley, a world champion boxer. She has the physique of a dancer and her core exercise routine leaves me sore in a good way. I try to play tennis several times a month and hit with different pros – I am forever trying to improve my backhand. If given the opportunity, I like to play with my friend Jacob (also a great soccer player) because he is stronger and more skilled, allowing my game to improve more rapidly (I hope!). I enjoy trying out different sports and fitness programs to see what else I can add to my roster. On the hit list is paddleboarding and I can’t wait to do more of it this summer. Other sports, I have found, are not exactly a home run. I tried to pick up skateboarding several years ago and very quickly concluded that it was best not attempted when you are middle-aged. I’ve tried some of the specialized, boutique exercise regimes as well, and I’m not into them – they just feel very retail. Although I don’t exercise every single day, for example, my rest days are exactly as they sound, I do like to be as active as I can, even if I am traveling. It’s not as easy to do if I am traveling for work, but I’ll try to balance it out by walking a lot and if there is a pool at the hotel, I will take some laps. I have two types of holidays – either I am on an urban expedition and I will race through four cities in 9 days or it’s a beach holiday where I can surf and run in the morning, then bike during the day, and then surf again at sunset. Finding time to exercise isn’t always a simple task. It’s even harder to do during the winter months when it’s dark and cold, but once you start skipping rope to your curated playlist, you arrive at a pretty nice place.
I am a pretty healthy person. I don’t smoke but I do partake occasionally in libations –Hibiki 12, a Japanese whiskey, is my favorite. My mom is a fantastic cook and we ate Chinese 6 out of 7 nights a week. My default is Asian and preparing a meal for friends is one of the most rewarding experiences. As a self-proclaimed foodie (like 90% of New Yorkers) I am partial to an omakase menu at Shuko or chowing down at low-key joints like Bunker in Ridgewood or Yun Nan Flavor Garden in Sunset Park. And assembling a crew for Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot in Flushing is one of the best ways to socialize! When exercising, I prefer water and tangerines to sports drinks and power bars any day. After a big work out in the morning, I will refuel with a fresh juice, a ginger shot and treat myself to a hardy breakfast at Mile End Deli on Bond Street.
On Beauty and Fashion
I don’t have an actual beauty regimen. I’m quite laissez-faire, there is no hair dryer in my bathroom and I only recently bought a brush. After a workout, it’s a quick shower and a spritz of Byredo’s Bal D’Afriqueperfume. With fitness wear, it’s a different story. I’m a diehard Nike loyalist and their current collaboration with Tokyo label sacai is brilliant. Recently, I discovered a niche label called Ula Sport designed by the wonderful Turkish designer, Gonca Gul who is based in Nosara, Costa Rica (an awesome spot for surfing). Gonca’s sportswear is so simple and her ingenious cuts are very fashionable. As for footwear, I wear different sneakers for different fitness and fashion functions. I’ve worn Nike’s Air Force 1 Riccardo Tisci to museum openings and I cannot get enough of Common Projects – minimalist and pseudo-anonymous, but with the tell-tale inventory number stamped on the back heel. These days, so much of fitness wear has crossed over into fashion. Like anything, though, regarding aesthetics, it’s about the right proportions. Some collaborations between sports brands and designers can look silly while some fashion designers take the “sports” in sportswear too literally. Céline’sminimalist take on track pants or the sporty humor that has infused COMME des GARÇONS for a couple of decades are examples of who is getting it right. On Fitness Goals My fitness goals for this year are pretty lofty – I will touch my toes for Alicia, I will stop punching like a girl for Elmo and I will beat Jacob in ping pong. Not necessarily in that order, but I will definitely do it all!
– Edited by Caroline Tran Follow Karen via her personal website, where you can learn more about the many projects she’s involved in. Visit New Museum, check out IDEAS CITY, NEW INC, and support Apex for Youth. View more of photographer Nil’s Ericson’s work here. Karen recently ran her first-ever race in Toronto. Read about it on our new blog, where she shares her experience and recipe for a successful first race!