Ally Maki | The History at the Heart of It All

The actor and entrepreneur on her Heart Mountain pilgrimage, Asian American Girl Club, and resilience

Written by

Brendan Le

Photographed by

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Styled by

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Ronnie Wolfe Studios courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

Despite a present collective consciousness that tends toward short-term memory, there remain those who faithfully traipse a path laid by a lineage of resilience and ambition. It starts from within, allowing generations of life lessons to guide movement through the world. Only when we live by inherited wisdom can adopting a dogma that memorializes ancestral struggles and values become a community affair.

Actor and entrepreneur Ally Maki, a fourth-generation Japanese American, understands intimately how her personal and professional lives intertwine with her family history. This summer, she took a trip to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, where her grandmother Miyo was interned during World War II. The visit was a lifetime in the making, Maki says.

“I just never would have thought that in going to Cody, Wyoming, that I would feel a part of my identity being healed,” she reflects. “It's so beautiful to see incarcerees there that are a hundred years old and still making the pilgrimage out to Wyoming to be there. And then their kids. And then the grandkids. So it is this very multi-generational experience, but I think [it’s] very healing for everyone involved.”

Healing, as it turns out, often circles back to the home. “I couldn't have done it without my family and having the support of them,” Maki says of learning to love her Asian American identity. “Also, my grandmother is one of the strongest people I've ever met, ‘cause as a teenager, she was sent to a Japanese American incarceration camp. She always filled my mind with these stories of resilience and strength, and that I can be anything.”

The ability to “be anything,” in spite of the circumstances, is a family-taught assurance that Maki looks to pass onto members of her Asian American Girl Club. Founded by Maki in 2018, AAGC is an apparel line, lifestyle brand, and affinity space for Asian American girls across the nation.

The idea for the brand emerged following the commercial and critical success of Asian-led films in 2017. She recalls, “That was a very glass-shattering moment in my head, because I just thought, ‘Wow, if this is possible and we're able to have a movie with an all-Asian American cast that is crushing it in the box office, what else is possible?’”

Maki soon realized that the endless possibilities she could envision for herself would also resonate with the community she held dear. Equipped with an idea, but not yet a direction, she piloted a logo for AAGC on Instagram one night. The next morning, she woke up to emails and DMs from all over the world, and people began writing “college-style dissertations” about their identity. She had struck some kind of cultural nerve—whatever AAGC was, whatever it would become, it was necessary.

It began with a black tee with “Asian American Girl Club” emblazoned in pink, available for all sexes and ages. Maki remembers seeing kids as young as six years wearing the shirt with a confidence that she says she didn’t have at their age. “That to me is the most fulfilling thing,” she says. “‘Cause I feel like I'm in my 30s, and I'm just discovering my own self-worth and confidence and being like, ‘Can I wear this shirt in a whole stadium of people?’”

A simple t-shirt grew into hoodies, bucket hats, hair claws and more with designs polled from the AAGC community and in collaboration with Asian artists. As the audience expanded, so did mediums for engagement: a lifestyle blog filled with skincare tips and Q&As with fashion industry figures; panels and film screenings; a semi-monthly book club highlighting novels written by AAPI authors; a 400-member Discord server.

In the founder’s missive on the brand’s website, Maki ruminates on the innate isolation of club exclusivity. Raised in the suburbs on Seattle’s outskirts, she felt like an outcast as an Asian American girl in predominantly white spaces, surrounded by whitewashed media. On trying to fit in, Maki remembers thinking, “‘When can I wear contacts to make my eyes blue?’ Looking back, it makes me so sad to think of the ways that I wanted to change myself, or the ways that I didn't feel like I was beautiful or important at all.”

AAGC, as a result, is both a love letter to and reconciliation for the young Japanese American girl from Washington who sat on the outside looking in. The girl who pushed parts of herself away to feel included, even though her beauty lied in her differences. In establishing an all-inclusive space for Asian American women, Maki finally found the club that she once longed for.

Like all journeys of becoming, Maki’s is still ongoing. We undergo the trek of self-evolution in perpetuity, with no final destination in sight—yet, the root will always keep us centered as long as we acknowledge where we come from. On her Heart Mountain pilgrimage, Maki physically connected with her family’s past strife. At its peak, the internment camp housed 10,767 people, all of which contributed to making a town for themselves within the confines of Heart Mountain, despite losing their livelihoods.

“The thing that was so beautiful is the community that they built there,” Maki says. “They created dances and schools, hospitals, baseball teams. They even created a root cellar...Babies were born there and people were buried there, and it really is such a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that even when they were discriminated against, they still came together, and they found ways to still create life and create memories.”

The resilient spirit is like an heirloom, passed down through holding those who came before us close. Penning a letter to her late grandmother, Maki tells Miyo, “Despite moments of despair, I am fueled by you, Grandma. Your tales of community and hope found amid confinement fuel me to keep pushing.” Maki does not simply pay tribute to her grandparents’ sacrifices. She navigates life with their thick skin, abiding by their persistence like it’s her truth.

Ronnie Wolfe Studios courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

When asked about the biggest lesson her grandparents instilled in her, Maki answers, “It’s just to never give up.” After the war, she says her grandparents were left with $25 and a bus ticket, without any property to their name. “But it didn't stop them from having a beautiful, amazing family, amazing life. … And the most important thing is that my grandparents were madly in love until the day they both passed. To have that kind of love built from nothing and built from such a horrible time in American history, there is beauty to that and showing that family and community are the most important things.”

Today, resilience entails more than memory; it’s a joint effort. Maki emphasizes the necessity of cultivating a supportive community that will remind you of “what’s really important in life.” And one of her top priorities lies not in the past, or the future, but right here, in the now.

“Now I’m in my thirties. I’m like, ‘How do I see my family everyday? How do I make them a priority?’” she says. “‘How do I see my niece and nephew and fill them with great memories?’ That is what keeps me strong.”

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Ally Maki, Heart Mountain, Asian American Girl Club, Brendan Le