Chong was attempting to manipulate sugar water into a sculpture, an ambitious undertaking that was proving problematic. Sometimes the sugar would harden too fast. Or sometimes it did not materialize at all. “There was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “It was not a material I was used to working with. If it did not set right, it would become a giant blob. Sometimes it would break off if it was not hard enough and get everywhere.”
Ultimately Chong was able to transform the botched batches into a bonsai moment. He produced a striking bonsai tree from the sugar water that displayed his creativity, skill, and vision. The bonsai became a centerpiece of the Cal State Northridge Invitational High School Art Exhibition this past year. “If you were looking at it, you would think it was made out of glass,” said Wendy Northup, Sierra Canyon’s Visual Arts Department Chair.
Ultimately Chong said it took about 15-20 batches over two weeks before finally perfecting the bonsai. “In the beginning, I did wonder if I could even do it in the first place. I almost scrapped it and went to cardboard or paper. Around the eighth batch, it really started to form and become the bonsai tree. I realized I could do it. I began to be able to build off the previous batch.”
The same meticulous and determined approach that allowed Chong to produce the bonsai has carried him during a distinguished career at Sierra Canyon, one that is culminating with the #StudentFirst award that recognizes multi-talented students in and out of the classroom. “He is always doing things that basically stand out,” Northup said. “He comes up with ideas that are very original. The other students always expected his works were going to be remarkable.”
Chong appears to be on the fast track to become a groundbreaking architect, though he said he is still deciding exactly what type of architect. It could be landscape architecture. Or commercial architecture. Maybe residential architecture. Whatever path he chooses, Chong will likely find ways to push to extraordinary results. Think Dubai, not Des Moines.
“From his freshman year, you could tell he had an aptitude for architecture,” Northup said. “You could see him grow. He went from making really beautiful designs to things that are more conceptual and difficult to create. He also has a strong influence from his Japanese heritage. You can see that in his work.” Chong said he pulled upon his Japanese heritage for his bonsai sculpture and another standout project in which he crafted a model of a small pavilion. He decided to use 50-60 mini origami cranes to create the roof. The details were both exquisite and magnificent.
“For my projects, I try to have a sort of personal tie to it. In my childhood, I would go to Temple and be immersed. I’d see the bonsai trees. I based the pavilion off the traditional temple roofs I saw.”
Chong also impressed with his cardboard chair project that displayed his practicality. “I was focused on how to put it together and take it apart so I could store it. I was proud that it was to a life-size scale and that it could support my weight.”
This year he has maintained a 4.01 grade-point average with a course load that includes multiple advanced courses, including four AP courses. He has made the Dean’s List every year in high school. He was accepted into Woodbury University, the University of Oregon, and Cal Poly Pomona, all with strong architecture programs, and is also applying to top-notch architectural schools like Syracuse University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Michigan.
“He was always up for the challenge,” said Jessica Ricci, who had Chong for 9th Grade biology and 10th Grade chemistry. “He was persistent. He wanted to take Honors Physics, and he was determined to make that work. He was very serious about his school work. A nice kid with a calm presence who was a really calm worker. He’s very caring and compassionate about other people.”
That was apparent when Chong joined the Sierra Canyon Human Rights Club. Last year, Chong said the club focused on the campaign Vote for Human Rights in conjunction with the presidential election. This year the club has focused its energy on climate change. “What drew me in was seeing my fellow classmates participating and seeing how they can help with the environment and other human rights issues. I found it was just as important to be part of the club as it was for me doing school work.”
Ricci said she was impressed that Chong reached out to her and shared the “I Am Greta” documentary about Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist. “It really speaks to the kinds of things he is thinking about,” she said. Chong also participates in the Tuesday Tea Time Club, where students gather for tea and a chance to talk with each other about a myriad of topics. It is something they have tried to maintain on Zoom during the pandemic. It was a chance to spill the tea. “We always have interesting conversations,” Chong said. “It’s a chance to hang out, de-stress, and talk about anything, not just school.”
Chong has been featured in the Sierra Canyon Rambler for his drawings and paintings and has also competed on the Cross Country and Track and Field Teams for the School.
Chong notes that part of his inspiration for architecture came from former classmate Spencer Clark because “his work does not reflect his age—I felt he could be a professional now.”
Chong said he wants to continue to push his comfort level in architecture and strive for excellence, like with the bonsai or the pavilion.
“I think what drives me to think out of the box and create designs that aren’t traditional is that I want to one-up each previous building or design that I made,” Chong said. “I keep trying to push past the limits that I think I have.”Click here
to view Jacob Chong's #StudentFirst video.