Tings worked as OPIRG’s Resource Centre student staff for the last two years – her handiwork adorns the office and her many beautiful posters were ubiquitously scattered across campus. Go see her show at Hamilton Artists Inc during the Art Crawl. Congratulations Tings!

A fresh look at a gritty city

<!– PUBLISH DATE TimeSincePublished(“2009-04-06-06:45:42″,”2009-04-06″,”Apr. 06, 2009”);–> , The Hamilton Spectator
(Apr 6, 2009)

When she was in Grade 9, Tings Chak travelled from her home in suburban Toronto to see the alt-rock band Incubus at Copps Coliseum.

It was her first time in Hamilton and she didn’t think much of the place. “Everything seemed so grey.”

But four years ago, Tings returned and enrolled at McMaster.

Many Mac students learn little about the city. They get as far off campus as the Snooty Fox and the Westdale Theatre.

But Tings has come to know Hamilton as well as many who were born here.

Test her if you like, this Friday night during the monthly James North Art Crawl. She will be at Hamilton Artists Inc., James just north of Cannon, along with a window of her work.

Tings was born 21 years ago in Hong Kong. She and her mother and father lived in a tiny apartment in a highrise in the middle of the city.

In 1989, when Tings was a toddler, she came with her parents to visit an aunt in Toronto. While they were here, the Tiananmen Square massacre broke out. That, and the looming handover of Hong Kong to China — then eight years away — convinced her parents they should move to Canada.

They got a little place in Thornhill, on Toronto’s northern fringe.

When it was time for Tings to start school, she was placed in an ESL stream. She was still there in Grade 3. “Maybe I was slow.”

But that year she won a spelling bee and it all changed. At Thornlea Secondary, she got 90s.

Suburban life, however, did not fit her well. “I became a wanderer.”

She would take York Regional Transit to the subway, then ride all day. She would get out at every station, look around. She would take the streetcar to different parts of the city — the Junction, the Beaches, everywhere.

She wanted to really wander, take a year off after high school. Her parents said that wouldn’t be happening.

So Tings applied to several universities and got acceptances at all of them. Environmental science. Fine arts. But she decided on arts and science — at Mac. There are only 60 people a year in the program.

The first year Tings lived on campus, the second in Westdale. But she found herself always going to the core — shopping at the Farmers’ Market, teaching art to at-risk youth at the Welcome Inn, just exploring. “I realized I was doing what I did in Thornhill, getting out of the suburbs to go downtown.”

So last year she and her roommate got an apartment in an old brick building right behind City Hall. And she got to work on her thesis, exploring urban spaces in Hamilton through everyday stories. She wanted to know how and where people move about within the city. What do they need? Do they use the green space? What are their favourite places?

She talked to about 50 people — shopkeepers, poets, artists, lawyers, teachers, students.

“I talked to one man who came to Hamilton for love. He lived with his sweetheart for 35 years and sometimes they sat and enjoyed the gardens at Whitehern. Then she passed away and he scattered her ashes there.”

Until then, Tings thought of Whitehern as just a handsome old house. But with that story it became a richer place, the kind of place city planners need to consider in their work.

Tings took the process a step further and sketched some of those places. “I draw the buildings to get to know them better,” she says. “It feels quite intimate.”

Tings turned in her 15,000-word thesis yesterday. Her art will be on display on James North April 10 to April 20.

And two days after that, Tings and Hamilton part company. She will spend the summer with Kingston inner-city kids on canoe trips in the Algonquin wilderness.

Then she will get her year off. She wants to do three things — bicycle through Europe; learn to build a cob house; turn her Hamilton project into a “graphic novel.” (She says that’s “just a fancy word for a big comic book.”)

Then on to graduate school, probably for architecture or urban planning. And if in class one day they’re looking at Canadian centres and this gritty city comes up, Tings will be able to tell them another side of the Hamilton story.

StreetBeat appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday