Where the Concrete Desert Blooms

by HRM on January 30, 2012

interview with Tings Chak, by Harriet Alida Lye

Tings Chak

For four years, Hamilton was my playground. This is a story of its stories… Mostly, this is a story of how I came to fall in love with a place, with its imagination and creativity, and how I began to see that the spirit of activism lives in stories, our collective visions of what we can build, the grass through concrete.”
– Tings Chak

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Thornhill, Tings Chak chose Hamilton, Ontario, for a home for her university years. Her graphic novella, Where the Concrete Desert Blooms, tells the stories of Hamilton – the hammer, steel city, lunch bucket town – through its history, intimate interviews with its residents. Linking all this is the desire to find a home. As she says, it is “a story of being present, or seeing the place you live as a place in and of itself, a story of where we go from here.”

In a way, then, Hamilton is irrelevant. The book is about place-making and relationships, activism and a belief in social change. “All I knew,” Tings says, “was that I wanted to have a reason to meet with people, listen to stories, and wander around unfamiliar places, all in the discovery of what makes a space a place.”

After she graduated, Tings moved to Paris, but part of her was still in Hamilton: it was here in Paris that she compiled her notes and worked on Where the Concrete Desert Blooms. Tings and I sat down for a dinner of soup and winter squash at her home, a vegan co-operative in Toronto, to talk about placemaking, art, architecture and inspiration.

Tings Chak

1. You’ve been painting and drawing and writing, independently of one another, for a long time, right? What drew you to making comics? How is it different to work in this medium?
It’s a bit of cheating, really. I draw the things I can’t describe in words, and write the things that are too difficult to draw. I think that drawing and painting are often about fixing a moment in the world onto a two-dimensional space, whereas sequential art is in motion. I find this to be an exciting challenge, to convey the passage of time, the atmosphere of a setting, and the hierarchy of moments with words and images.

Tings Chak2. Your book is very rooted, in its discovery and documentary nature, in the city of Hamilton. Could you have made this book about a different place? Why Hamilton?
One of the things that I learned in the process of making the book, and this is the main theme, is the importance and possibility (and even neccesity) of understanding the place that you live in as a place in and of itself. Hamilton, living in the shadow of Toronto and its more glorious industrial history, is always a place relative to elsewhere and to another time. I wanted to change that feeling in me, to create a space, a home in the present, from which I could begin to engage with Hamilton. This process of placemaking is not unique to Hamilton. I believe that it can happen anywhere. I think I am finding it a bit harder to do this in Toronto, though, which is where I live now.

3. Why would placemaking in Toronto be more difficult?
When I was living in Paris, I found it amusing that I would spend my time drawing and writing about Hamilton of all places. As it turned out, Paris was a perfect place for this. I cannot think of another place, real or imagined, that has had more words, paintings, music, and art of all forms dedicated to it. Paris exists in most everyone’s minds (and hearts); it certainly doesn’t need me to make art about it. Likewise, Toronto is validated as a place of its own, whether loved or hated, by most Canadians. For me, there was Hamilton, unknown and without a reference point to me, with its arms wide open, proclaiming, you are here. Nevertheless, I still believe that in both Paris and Toronto, one can find one’s place in in-between spaces, however small or difficult to create.

4. What came first for you in this project – the text or the images? What was the original idea or impetus that started you?
The text came first. After transcribing the dozens of personal interviews that I conducted with artists, activists, educators, and steel mill workers, I tried to string together the bits of stories that really stuck with me into the loose themes of placemaking, activism, and oral tradition. What came out was a version of narrative journalism comprised of retold stories and personal reflections.

The commitment to writing a graphic novel came as a surprise to me. While helping a friend at the maker’s market in Hamilton, a painter I had just met asked me, “Do you make things too?” I confidently replied, “Yes, I am writing a graphic novel.” I had told a lie, but I liked the way it sounded, so I spent the next two and half years making that lie true.

Tings Chak

5. You are currently completing your Masters in Architecture. Do you see a connection between comics and architecture?
For me, the relationship between comics and architecture is about narratives in spatial production – which stories are told, and retold, and which stories are silenced through the places that we construct. It is also about representation. Beneath the dominant story of a place, be it written in history or built with stone, there are diverse and often contesting narratives. I believe that it is important to give voice to these stories, what Michel de Certeau calls “pedestrian speech” – the everyday footsteps that architects, planners, and urbanists in their “aloof space” should be better attuned to. How is our built environment experienced, imagined, and used in the everyday life, and most importantly, how do and can we come to know this? So yes, I see a connection and I try to reinforce this in my work.

6. What, or who, are you inspired by right now?
I am really inspired by the activist communities around me. As an immigrant/settler in Canada, a country built on the continued occupation of indigenous lands and the oppression of indigenous peoples, I am constantly thinking about the occupation of space. Maybe my being an immigrant here, searching for my own place, heightens this. The Occupy movement brought some of this criticism to the forefront for the mainstream, questioning what forms occupation takes, what has been occupied and continue to be occupied, who are the occupiers and occupied, and why? To me, the idea of contesting space and dominant narratives is a real struggle for space, a struggle about cultural and ecological survival, and a struggle that is a constant source of inspiration.

Tings Chak

6. There seems to be an “I” in graphic novels that is different to the “I” in traditional memoirs. Most of my favourite graphic novels are autobiographical (Blankets, Fun Home, Maus, Persepolis…), and so is yours. (I don’t know how to phrase this question but I want to say something like “What about comics enables this fluidity”?)
I agree, but this is too hard to think about or answer!

8. Could you be the artist or illustrator for someone else’s story, or do you think that the text and image have to both come from you?
Unless I was involved in the development of the story itself, I don’t know if I could ever visually represent someone else’s intention and vision. We live in a visual culture that is saturated with images, and so we are quick to respond emotionally to what we see (before responding to what we read). There are many choices one makes in terms of stylization, linework, framing, colours, and textures in illustration – that is just too much responsibility for me!

9. What is your next project?
I have always wanted to illustrate the stories of my childhood roadtrips throughout Eastern Canada and the United States. My mother always insisted on bringing my non-English-speaking grandparents along, so the five of us piled into our little white Corolla and drove to every small town we could find, from the towns outside of Toronto to Cape Spear. Over the much-cherished winter holidays, we’d end up in places like Sault Sainte Marie (pronounced SOO saint marie), a steel-making shipping town at the mouth of lake Superior, home to the largest shopping mall in northern Ontario.
On these trips, while we were always an interesting spectacle for the locals, we would often find that one Chinese restaurant run by that one Chinese family in town. I now appreciate these quirky experiences, and over the years I have developed a more serious interest in diaspora, particularly in the relationship between the forces of migration and cultural transmission.

Tings Chak

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