Irene Ching: “We could get on the subway without being harassed”

by Marta
Irene Ching

Like many others Irene Ching started roller skating as a kid. But once the red Kryptos came out in the 1970s they were a real game changer. The rough streets of New York didn’t stop teenagers anymore from hill-bombing and skitching rides from cars. It wouldn’t take long for Irene to discover her love for vert. While her friends would rather skateboard, Irene stuck with her quads and just emulated her tricks first from skateboarders and later from side surfing roller skaters from the west coast. Now, in her 60s, Irene is not intending to quit any time soon. A good time to take a look back. (This article originally appeared in our 2021 “Changes” yearbook. Note that it was done in November 2020 when the pandemic was raging)

Irene, many who were born after 1990 can hardly imagine a world without cell phones to make spontaneous dates for skating. How did you connect 40 years ago, especially passing on tricks and knowledge without the internet?

I didn’t. I looked to what and who was around me and it was mostly skateboarders. And all males, really no women involved, so it was my immediate surroundings and my people and every once in a while, I might have found something in a magazine from the West Coast or later on I would see stuff in Europe that I had no idea was happening. And it really blew my head when I discovered all that. It was like, wow, this is going on elsewhere. So, thank you for the Internet because I would never have known or met all of the people in maybe the past 20 or 30 years at this point.

When you started, especially vert skating, how did you learn about tricks and everything? Were you just getting creative with your skating and simply trying things without thinking about what a trick was called?

I didn’t really think in terms of trick names so much. I was just emulating a lot of skateboarding. The fact that I skate sideways, it takes a lot from skateboarding, the names, the tricks. So, I can’t say that I was very imaginative on my own about this at all. It was just whatever was already established through skateboarding. That’s my biggest influence for sure. I wouldn’t say that I was originally a skateboarder because I wasn’t. But there were no roller skaters around me. And there was no inline skating at that time. First, we all started with street skating, the usual jumping over things around your friends, going through traffic and just finding whatever obstacles you can find in a city. And we did a lot of downhill. We did a lot of dancing; many of my skateboarding friends did roller skate. We skated in Central Park and did the whole dance thing and stuff. They were all really pretty good at it, as well as really talented skateboarders. But they would skateboard more than anything.

So it was all about having wheels under your feet?

Yeah. I think it was a good way of transportation around the city, too, because no one in New York really owns a car. The parking situation is impossible. And during those times, we could get on the subway without being harassed or taking off our roller skates or we were skateboarding on the platforms of the train. It wasn’t an issue, now it’s not the same.

Irene Ching
Skateboard City, Staten Island, 1978, (from left) Chris Carlino, Rob Cusick, Papo, Irene

This changed at some point.

In the early nineties when rollerblading blew up in the city and everybody was on the train on their rollerblades, they would get confiscated and ticketed. And if you were busted at a public space that you are not allowed to skate on, security would come and take your stuff or attempt to try to take it. I think it’s much more relaxed now, especially now during Covid.

Are the streets emptier these days?

Not like it was back in March and April 2020, when it was really a ghost town. There were no cars, no people. No one was on the streets. That was fun because it was wide open, you didn’t have to worry about bikes, baby carriages or joggers or dogs, nothing.

Pretty unusual for New York.

We would not see one person for a few blocks. That’s really unusual and took a little getting used to, but I enjoyed it for the few months it lasted.

How were the streets back in the days? I imagine that New York didn’t have the best quality streets in the 70s and 80s and that they were pretty rough?

Very rough. And a lot of debris on the road. A lot of potholes. And we would always know the newly paved streets for sure, which ways to go uptown and downtown. We would definitely hang on the cars going uphill. Try to catch a ride on a cab.

Was it tolerated or was it rather tricky to not be seen holding on?

It was funny, mostly the taxi drivers were OK with it. It was fun for them too I think. They kind of went with it but then you would get some others that would try to shake you off. So initially you would hide, try to stay out of sight so they wouldn’t know you were there.

Irene Ching roller skating New York
Irene at Pier 62, New York. Photo: CharleyQ

You mentioned that most of your friends were skateboarders. What drove you to roller skating then? Why didn’t you like most of your friends, skateboard?

I didn’t own a skateboard until I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I happened to get a job at a sporting goods store and they at the time just decided to open up a skateboarding department. It was probably in 1978 or 1979 when those big red Krypto wheels came out. They were super soft so you could skate over everything. And that’s what blew it up really for city people. I started ice skating at around nine. And then from there, I did some roller skating. Since I worked at the shop I got a skateboard and a pair of roller skates. I tried skateboarding in the first skate park I ever went to, but I didn’t really know how to do it. Then I saw my friend roller skate and I thought I should try too. That’s really how it happened, because it would have never dawned on me, on my own, to try to roller skate. It being my first skate park, without knowing anything about what to do and not to do. Then I started seeing pictures of roller skaters from the West Coast in skate magazines once in a while. And I was like, OK, it’s a thing.

And they were all skating sideways? So, you also naturally went for it?

I can’t think of one that didn’t. Yeah, really, I would say at least four of us on roller skates and we all would side surf.

Was this hard to learn in the beginning?

No, because I think we all did it naturally. We all learned how to do it from just goofing around and doing dance moves on the street. We did slalom around soda cans and we would slalom down the hill in Central Park. And quite a few people did go side surf. I mean, a lot of them did ski stance and worked forward like that, but a good percentage of them did side surf as well. It’s interesting. I don’t know how that happened.

I learned how to side surf at as child when I was ice skating. I remember the move was a spread eagle. I would watch the Olympic figure skating and they did that move. And I was like, ‘Oh, I want to try it!’. So, it was already there. Little did I know it would come in handy later on.

Back in the days in New York you were the only female skater. Was it unconventional for women to go vert skating? 

It was very much a boy’s sport, like pre- teenagers, but predominantly adult males. And most of them were pretty cool about it. I think it was more the young boys that I would get crap from in the early days. It was things like, ‘What are those and how come you don’t inline?’. Nothing major, just silly boy stuff. It was nice when I started seeing more women coming into the parks, it definitely felt good to have that different type of energy instead of all the testosterone the entire time.

What were your female friends and parents saying? Would they be concerned that you were throwing yourself down a vertical wall?

I don’t think my parents knew what I was really doing. And it wasn’t like I was getting photos and showing them to them because, it’s not the same like today. I don’t think I wanted my family to know because they weren’t that supportive of it. It was more of a frivolous activity and not useful. I should be utilizing my time for more serious things. As I was working at a sporting goods store and I was surrounded by guys so most of my friends were males and I just don’t think a lot of girls were willing to pick it up. I mean, they might street skate and then roller dance and stuff like that, but actually did not try the skate park. On occasion, I would see one or two, usually younger girls at the skate park, but nobody really stuck with it.

Irene Ching roller skating New York

You said that later on, you learned that there was roller skating in Europe, especially in Germany in the 80s where the Münster Monster Mastership, the world cup, took place. It also included roller skating.

I knew it was a skateboarding contest. But then I discovered that there was a roller skating contest incorporated. Are you kidding me? And then when I really saw that footage, I was blown away. I was like, wow, these guys are just ridiculously killing it.

Yeah, it was pretty amazing. I found it interesting because most of them rode side stance, probably influenced by U.S. skaters, but there were some who went parallel like Tomas Kalak. Others even mixed it up.

I love anyone who can mix it up. It is freaking awesome. But I was always curious about the European skaters, how did they start side stance. It’s not a normal thing. The earliest roller skaters that I remember would be Jimmy Scott and Kenny Means and they both side stanced. But I don’t know who was the first guy doing it this way. Was it because its skateboarding influence? I don’t know.

It made it possible to do similar tricks. You have a true back side and frontside, which doesn’t really apply in parallel stance. Some people say there is a backside and frontside when you ride parallel but these are two dogmatic positions.

Yeah, I have a lot of issues, but I basically stay out of it. It gets me too crazy because I feel like the history has been established with surfing and skateboarding. And because they’re board sports where you go sideways. On the other hand, you have ice skating, skiing and inlining. And that’s already been established as well. So, for you to start making up names or naming it after yourself. It kills me, like, really, it takes a lot for you to come up with a brand-new trick that you can own and put your name to it.

In the early days of skateboarding and vert roller skating it kind of grew alongside that. So, some of the basic trick names are pretty simple. And then it got a little more complicated with street, Kickflips and stuff, that didn’t apply to roller skating at all. But if you’re talking about ramp tricks, transition tricks: a grind is a grind, a slide is a slide, a spin is a spin.

I mean, the guy already took it. I’s McTwist. He named it, it’s already been established. So where do you go from there? Because you add a little flair to it it’s a different trick? No, it isn’t.

But that’s part of the discussion. Is it just a combination of two or three moves or something new?

As things evolve and you add something to an existing trick, maybe then you have to come up with a different name. But now with this latest group of roller skating resurgence, it’s more of a gymnastics kind of influence. So, yeah, those are things that I guess need a new name, because that’s not stuff that anybody was really doing before. But some of the names get me crazy because I get confused with inline stuff which has already been named. I wonder how other sports feel about it? I don’t know if people care that much, honestly. I think people are happy to see you having fun and doing something they’ve maybe never seen before.

Invert, 2009. Photo: Tim Stanton

Sports like skateboarding, BMX or inline they established a whole scene with hundreds of magazines and even their own professional athletes. The knowledge is conserved and it‘s become more professional over time. So, the information is there while roller skating had its big black hole in history for some time.

But in-lining is the newest, I would say. And they’ve done a lot and it is still evolving. It’s not that popular in the States, but if you look up some videos and stuff now, they’re ridiculously shredding and I think roller skating in a parallel stance, it’s more like that than it is to skateboarding. You can take away from both, obviously, because we’re on trucks and we have skateboard wheels opposed to inline skating, but basically you can take from both to put it together. And there’s not a lot of skaters that I see doing that. It’s what they see on social media that they’re emulating. They’re not so much pulling from inline skating. But that’s up to you that your own personal preference. It’s my personal opinion but I think if you’ve been dedicated to park skating for, say, five, six years, you might want to try to elevate yourself and do something more challenging. At least that’s my own feeling, I’m a little jaded about that.

You’ve been doing it for a long time and seen both sides.

You can do lip tricks, you can do air tricks, and then the more advanced tricks are spins or hand plants. There’s so much to strive for and I don’t know, sometimes I get this when I see, you know, it’s like, OK, you’ve been doing this long enough, we need to step it up a little bit. I like to see that sort of progression, like someone going at it and seeing the falls and then finally making it. I really love seeing that kind of stuff. You’re paying and you actually achieve and accomplish it and it’s satisfying, there’s nothing like it.

I sometimes wonder whether the difference is because there are a lot of young girls and I think there are a lot of really rad skaters, especially if you look to South America today. Their skating is pushing boundaries and powerful. And you have this big group of women, many coming from roller derby, who started park or transition skating in their 30s or 40s. Most of them will only push their limits so far.

Right. I love the new kids coming out there. They are so good and I’m looking forward to it. To older skaters with adult responsibilities, we have our own limitations, so I understand. Let’s see what shakes out in the next couple of years.

Do you think park skating is staying for longer this time and evolving differently?

I think so. It’s here to stay because there’s so much accessibility to parks now. It’s not like it was in the past. And because skateboarding is so mainstream now that I don’t think it’s an issue for people to go into parks on their roller skates at this point. I wish that the companies that are leading would lead a little bit better without trying to sound snobby about it, but I think it’s time. I know during Covid there’s a whole pull back, but we’ll see what happens in the next few years. I’m not exactly sure which way the industry is going right now.

What would be a way, how could companies lead better?

I guess maybe to have their skaters who represent this company be much more diversified. That would be a start right there. You know, the style of their skating. The style of dress, they shouldn’t all be so uniform in look, taste and tricks. It’s boring. A wonderful and noticeable change is having women founding skate companies. I get that it’s marketing, but it’s not conducive to entice more males. And I feel it’s almost like a reverse discrimination in a way. So, I would like that to change in the future to keep growing and getting more kids roller skating. More diversity and inclusivity and mostly: It better be fun!


Follow Irene Ching on Instagram.
Want more history? Make sure to read the story of Thomas Kalak. Trick name discussion is more your thing? This way please!

Interview by Marta Popowska
Top photo by CharleyQ

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