Meet Chaya Tong -- Lafayette resident, student, gymnast, craft inventor, writer, award-winning artist and designer of one of six medallions that will adorn the fourth bore of the Bay Area's Caldecott Tunnel for 75 years.
And she's 9 years old.
Which is why her first question -- after being asked what she will think of her medallion when she is 84 and visiting with her someday grandchildren -- is, "Why only 75 years? Isn't it going to be up forever and ever?"
The query is total Tong.
"I've been through the tunnel many times. It's a little bit dirty looking and it has big holes that look like ugly gashes, but it's OK, other than that. It's cool how when you come out, you're in a whole different city," she says.
Chaya entered the competition along with 300 other school-aged children from Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Two panels of three judges, one from each county, determined the six winners, whose three-foot Art Deco Revisited designs will continue the stylistic traditions set by the 1937 medallions atop the first two Caldecott tunnels.
One afternoon at the Lafayette Community Center, with her friends careening around the room grabbing lunch bags and hollering for her to join them, Chaya is pure concentration.
"My mom got books from the library," she begins, "and I learned that Art Deco has geometric patterns, lots of shapes, and bigger details. It can be intricate, but it isn't always."
With only one day to
"I was in the kitchen and used a pencil," Tong says. "My mom told me, 'You have to think about what the people would like, not just what you'd like.' "
She sketched a weeping willow, but rejected it because it looked misplaced. She drew a jumping fish, bit thought it looked more like a big circle with a weird face.
"It looked like this," she announces, puffing her cheeks and pressing her lips into a grim line.
But then she hit on the ideas that won over the judges, who based their decisions on composition, originality, visibility, and adherence to the contest theme.
"In the end, I put a sun, plants bending in the wind -- and I put the wind in, to fill up space at the top. And I put the mountains, because those are the hills where the tunnels are!" she finishes happily.
Chaya was anything but happy on the day the good news of winning arrived, and it was a welcome brightening of her day. She was at a friend's house and didn't want to leave.
"I was sad and frustrated. My mom told me I had won. I started jumping up and down and my friend starting jumping up and down too, even though she didn't know why."
Other than "pretty much thinking 'yippee' and 'yeah' at the time, Chaya projects a cool sophistication, demonstrated when she opens a portfolio with other award-worthy art. Three winning bookmarks for a Lafayette Library and Learning Center competition are tucked under a recent landscape with an imposing cat, skillfully rendered and artistically placed just off center.
"I like painting, but I'm not good at it yet," she confides.
Her mother says the interest in art was "there from the beginning" and that her daughter is largely self-taught.
Chaya nods in agreement, then whispers, "I like writing stories too, but I can't tell you about them because it's my mother's birthday present."
Moments later, with mother out of earshot, Chaya describes a mystery, involving a girl who escapes an orphanage, becomes a detective, and solves a jewelry and bank heist.
She then she offers a suggestion.
"The medallion should be lower down, maybe in the walls of the tunnels so it would be more for kids to look at."
Meet Chaya Tong: awarded designer, innovator, kid.