Representing the Movement: Fong Tran on the Power of Presence and Passion

With over 200,000 views on YouTube, thousands of subscribers and more than 500 reblogs on a single poem, spoken word poet Fong Tran speaks to quite the extensive audience who want to hear what he has to say.

And he has a lot to say. Earlier this year, Fong’s poem “Don’t Be An Activist” circulated all over social media, revealing the hard truth behind activism and the call for compassion in community organizing. Prior to that, “Dear Young Man of Color,” his piece about the struggles of being a man of color in America, prompted powerful discussions across the Internet. Fong also delivers the truth beyond social media, securing performances across the United States from Wisconsin to the Bay.

But there’s more to Fong’s activism than his ability to drop the mic. With a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Community Development from UC Davis, Fong has committed himself to activism as an educator and continues to represent his values of social justice and intersectionality through his work.

Kollaboration had the chance to speak with Fong about his roots as an activist and how he pursues his passions today – right on the UC Berkeley campus where it all began.

Nicole Arca & Fong Tran – from

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and how does that influence your work?

I grew up in South Sacramento. My mother fled from Vietnam and raised five of us – I have three older siblings and one baby sister. In that context of being in a big family, being raised under welfare, food stamps, not having a father in my life… that informs what I do in terms of activism in my poetry. So I was lucky enough to be the first in my family to go to college and even luckier to go to Berkeley…I had the mentality that I just slipped into the thing – the “imposter-syndrome.” My philosophy of always giving back and helping others – people in Richmond and Sacramento – to go [back to] college was instilled in me. I wanted to help others overcome the barriers I went through.

How did you get into poetry?

I studied abroad in Vietnam for about six months, traveling all over Southeast Asia. The day I came back, President Obama was inaugurated…. the world [was] different. And I came back with the mentality: “I wanna try new things.” That’s when I was like, “Ima try poetry.”

In the beginning, I always thought of and saw myself as a bad writer. And so I internalized that. But what ended up happening was in the process of writing, and getting a little bit better each week, I started really enjoying it for what it was, which is really doing the art and writing for you versus writing for somebody else.

The poem that changed everything was when we got the prompt of writing something traumatic in our life… I decided to talk about what it was like to not grow up with a father and being raised by a single mother, and it was one of the very first times that I had been public about that issue. In that poem, I just kind of let it all out – and the revelation was not making this just about pain and oppression but also about strength, resilience, and triumph.

When I performed it, I started shaking, trembling and stuttering and I think the crowd kinda knew that the words were very personal to me. [At the end of the poem]… practically everybody was crying. And that was the moment where it was like, “I get something out of this and I think the audience can get something out of my piece [too]”

How else did you further your activism?

I worked at a non-profit in Sacramento called Asian Resources, an all-around social services organization. I mainly focused on job development for young people as well as higher education: helping young people get internships and jobs, as well as getting them to sign up for community college classes.

Why do you think the arts are important in the API community – especially when they aren’t seen as valuable?

I think the conservative thinking that most API parents may have is informed [by] trauma and oppression and larger institutions of poverty. So, when your folks are coming from a place of “I need to survive,” they’re gonna want the same thing for their kids: “I want you to survive and thrive.” And in their eyes, thriving is high income, high status positions like being a doctor or being a lawyer.

I think it’s vital for Asian Americans to engage in art because on the surface level, we need to diversify the archetypes of what Asians can be and what we see in media and what we see in society. I also believe that stories, essentially, [its] one of the most vital things in our community. It’s a political act to tell stories, to reclaim history. If we’re not telling [your] history, then someone else is telling it for [you].


You ended the poem “Don’t Be an Activist” with a call for compassion. How do you think people can show compassion through activism in whatever they do?

I think [in a lot of activists spaces], there’s a “call-out” culture. I really think that’s unproductive. I mean, there’s a space [for that], but otherwise, I always take the approach that somebody may not be quite sharp about a certain issue[s] or particular community – so I really want to work with them to create empathy around this issue or this topic. Compassion is systemic and essential to activism. It’s wanting equity because we don’t currently see equity that meets people’s needs.

A lot of people are on the defense when it comes to these conversations, about race and identity and gender and sexuality and social justice, but you have to approach it from an open-mind standpoint – even if I’m an advisor, I’m still learning from my students, and I can never approach it like, “I know more than them.” I may have more experience in certain arenas and that’s valuable to them and I can gift that to them, but they are teaching me just as much as I am trying to teach them.

How would you communicate the need for social justice to spaces that do not believe in its necessity?

The best form of social justice is to always represent it. I think that’s the most sustainable and most impactful [way] in my life – to represent the values that you want people to follow and emulate. That within itself is difficult sometimes – to be resilient, especially within your families, to come home and bring these conversations to them – which feels like leaps and bounds sometimes.

Who are your activist role models?

I think I thrive much more in group settings, so I can’t really pinpoint individuals who model how I work. I think it’s being in spaces – Key Club, REACH! (Asian Pacific Islander Retention and Recruitment Center), SASC (Southeast Asian Student Coalition).

My students are always gonna be the biggest form of mentors for me. Tupac has this quote: “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” I might not change the world myself, but I know I’m gonna help develop the young people that will. If that could be my form of activism or my legacy, then I’m good.

If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Generally, I don’t think from a regret model – I really believe that everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for the events that took place. But ultimately, something that all young people don’t get enough of is love and affirmation. I would probably just tell my young self, “Hey, do what you’re doing, do it hard, be confident, be un-wavered, be relentless at learning.”

Learn more about Fong and his work at his website


The Originals’ Lawrence Kao talks Kinjaz, Witches & the Pursuit of Acting

Being falsely accused and arrested for attempted murder on his 18th birthday may have been a blessing in disguise for actor/dancer Lawrence Kao—it solidified his pursuit in acting.

Born and raised in Hacienda Heights, this California native has been known in the dance scene on America’s Best Dance Crew with Kaba Modern and his time now with The Kinjaz. However, he can be seen more often pursuing his primary passion: acting. He’s appeared on shows like Hawaii 5-0, The Walking Dead, and soon—the CW’s supernatural drama The Originals. Kollaboration recently had the opportunity to sit down with him as he talked about Kinjaz, his role on The Originals, and his pursuit of the craft.


The Kinjaz were just announced to perform at Kollaboration Star next month in Los Angeles as special guest performers—How did you get involved with Kinjaz?
It all stems from me doing Kaba Modern in college. All our group of friends are dancers—Mike Song, Anthony Lee—he was on CADC—we were all friends and stuff. They’ve always wanted to create a group.

Kinjaz competed on America’s Best Dance Crew‘s comeback. What was it like sitting on the sidelines this time?
Dude, I thought it was awesome because, obviously, I had to do nothing. All I had to do was watch and support. These guys are guys I grew up with for a very long time, so it’s awesome to see them on such a big stage at the level they are at now knowing how we used to be when we were younger. It helps me appreciate it a lot and all the hard work they’re putting into it not just for themselves but for the whole team in general.

Muneer Katchi (left), Lawrence Kao (center), David Reivers (behind), & Vijaya Kumari (right) in the film CIrcle

Has your dance background helped in the development of your acting career?
It’s funny—after ABDC and after the show—I started going to auditions because the dance stuff was done now. But I had ABDC on my resume—and it was so popular at the time. At these acting auditions they were telling me to dance. So it was like “oh can you dance for us!” So then I took it off my resume. I set it aside because I felt like at that time, I didn’t want to be just known for dance. I had a really weird relationship with dance right after [ABDC.] I didn’t really enjoy doing it. I mean, I had a good time, but I didn’t really—but looking back at it now, I should have appreciated it more. But at that time, I was like “F— this shit—I want to focus my attention on doing acting” when I could have used dance to propel me toward bigger things. I feel like I had to separate it a bit, so I could go back to [dance.] So now [dance] is so cool. I still dance with Kinjaz.

What made you decide to pursue acting?
It’s a crazy story. So in Senior year [of high school], we were doing a Shakespeare play—Midsummer Night’s Dream—I was playing Lysander. We were doing previews for the English classes just so people can go and watch the show. During one of the previews, I get arrested in school. They take me to jail, and it’s my 18th birthday. I’m suppose to do this show at night, but I’m in jail for over 3 days…and what [the police] said I did was attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. So I’m trippin’ out. They’re telling me I’m going to be there for 40 years minimum. So that whole week, I was thinking: “What do I want to do with my life?”

But by the end of the week—for some reason—they let me go, and I got to go back to school. It was the closing night of my performance, and the director’s like “Hey, do you still remember your lines?” So I do the play and I’m on stage, and I’m like “Aw, man, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Because I’ve been thinking about it that whole week. I changed my major [to drama] and went to UC Irvine. I did some main stage shows at UCI—still loved it. I knew that after I graduated, it was still something I wanted to do. Dance obviously took over for a little bit. I love dancing—it’s still a passion of mine—but it was never as strong as my passion for acting.

Did they even find the guy who committed the crime?
They didn’t even find the guy. I don’t even know what the story was; there was a couple stories as to why I was arrested. The people who got really messed up pointed me out in a yearbook. Obviously, it wasn’t me. It was definitely a blessing in disguise—it really solidified what I wanted to do. I feel like knowing that at such a young age is so powerful.

You were recently cast on the CW’s Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals as Van Nguyen. What can you tell me about your character?
I’m a witch. And something happens. And I get pissed. So far, he’s been pretty ruthless and stubborn as to what he wants to accomplish in terms of revenge. He doesn’t want to get involved with what’s going on in the quarters, but because of certain situations, he feels like he’s forced to and he has to. I feel like he’s a very passionate character—he really believes in the things he believes in.

Danielle Campbell and Lawrence Kao on the set of The Originals
Danielle Campbell and Lawrence Kao on the set of The Originals

He’s sort of like your co-star’s character, Vincent (Yusuf Gatewood), in that sense.
Yeah, he’s sort of pushed toward that direction. He has no choice but to do that. I feel like once he gets that [goal], “It’s like alright, things are good again.” But then I feel like it’ll be him having to do more things. Obviously he’s pissed. Like he wants justice for what’s been wronged to him and his people.

What’s it like playing a supernatural character?
It’s fun. I love supernatural things. You get to use your imagination more. I feel like it’s still such a young character too—like early 20’s. I still think they think I’m pretty young, or I feel like the cast does when I’m walking around and talking about stuff. It’s such a roller coaster though. I never know how long my characters are going to last, so I’m sort of hanging on a string.

According to your social media, you’ve worked with Danielle Campbell (Davina) and Yusuf Gatewood (Vincent). How was it working with them?
They’re awesome. It’s just fun. Everyone is just super professional. Everyone’s on top of their game. It’s just fun working with a great cast and great crew. Everyone’s so nice and hospitable.

Have you watched the show?
I started watching it recently—maybe last month. I’m in the middle of the second season. I like it a lot. At first, I was like “oh man, this is going to be like a teen TV show.” But after a couple episodes, I was like “Wow, this is really good.” The actors are actually really damn good—That made me excited. Joseph Morgan is awesome. The sister (Claire Holt)—she’s awesome too.

Do you have any future projects lined up?
I’ve been asked to audition for a couple plays. There’s also a film I shot 5 years ago—it’s in post right now finally. I just ADR’d it maybe two months ago. It’s taken a while. But it’s a cool little movie. It’s a romantic comedy with me and some girl. I’m just waiting for it to come out.

You also had a strong YouTube background too. Can you tell me about that and are you still making online content?
Yeah, like 2 years ago when I was not booking anything—I was like, oh I got to make my own original content. I have a lot of dancer friends that choreograph a lot, and they’re always able to show what they can do [online]. I had a strong desire for people to see my storytelling capabilities and just me being able to act. That was fun. It lasted for about a year. I used to put stuff up constantly, and then I got busy, which is cool. But I still want to go back to YouTube doing stuff and creating content. But right now it’s just focusing on other things that are in the way or are happening right now.


For more of Lawrence Kao, follow him at @iamlawrencekao on Twitter and Instagram.

Also, be sure to catch his debut as Van the witch on The Originals this Thursday, October 15 at 9pm ET/8pm CT on the CW.


Photos Courtesy of Lawrence Kao

Anna Akana on Conducting Interviews, Show-Biz Lessons, and Being Honest

Anna Akana is everywhere.  Well, not literally.  However, Anna figuratively has an egg in a lot of baskets.

While she’s mostly known for her hilarious and thought-provoking YouTube channel, Anna has also appeared in feature films like Ant-Man, and Hello, My Name is Doris, and has had roles on television shows like MTV’s Awkward, and ABC Family’s The Fosters.  Along with this, Anna stars in live improv shows and designs t-shirts for her fashion line, Ghost and Stars.

Even with all this on her plate, Anna was gracious enough to take the time for us and answer some questions about what she’s working on now and more:

What were you doing right before this?
Interviewing people for an assistant position.

I’ve never interviewed someone to work for me!  Is it as nerve-wracking as being the interview-ee?
It’s not nerve-wracking at all.  It’s more monotonous.  You hope that every single person who comes in will be the right person.

What was the last YouTube Video you saw?
I watched The Fine Bros most recent Last Moments that I was in.  I played a girlfriend who wanted to make up a grandiose story about how we met.  It was great!

Is it more fun to act, direct, or write on a project?
I love acting.  That’s my favorite part of filmmaking.

What is most important to you when you are working on a project?
That I give it my all.

Do quality, quantity, the number of views, etc. play a role in this?
As long as I learned something that I can apply to my next project, I am happy.

What is one of the biggest lessons you learned from this line of work?
I learned that you have to be ok with being a boss.  And when hiring friends, beware.  Relationship dynamics may be messed with.

What do you do when you have a creative block/when you’re stuck?
Reading helps.  I enjoy Steven King.

Your vlogs are very genuine, funny, and personal.  Is it scary to share so much of yourself with your audience? 
I used to be a pathological liar, so honesty is always the best policy for me.  It can be scary, yes, but ultimately I’m happy that I was at least honest.

What’s next up for Anna?  While we are keeping our fingers crossed for another Marvel movie (she is too!), check out her most recent short film, “Loose Ends,” on YouTube.

Discussing Baldies and Dystopia with Author Peter Tieryas Liu

In Peter Tieryas Liu’s debut novel, Bald New World, the world declines into a dystopia that leaves everyone mysteriously bald.  We’ve previously mentioned Liu as one of our 3 Asian American Authors on the Rise and recently got the chance to interview him via email about his new novel.

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Interview with Ruby Ibarra

Despite the growing number of Asian Americans in the rap and hip-hop landscape today, it’s still difficult to come by a female API artist in the industry. But if you do, you’ll undoubtedly come across the name Ruby Ibarra.

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