Playing like a pro
Updated: 2017-03-31 07:09
By Evelyn Yu(HK Edition)
Tinkering with Lego blocks could earn you prestige and serious money, as HK's very own master builder Andy Hung illustrates. A report by Evelyn Yu.
When he was a stockbroker years ago, even as he stayed up nights to monitor the US stock markets, Andy Hung would use his hands to create Lego architecture, building temples, cars, even an entire housing complex.
Hung had no clue that he would eventually find a vocation in what used to be a pastime. He is the first Chinese to make it to the league of the world's 14 Lego certified professionals (LCP).
One of Hung's most prominent works, a 3.5 x 2.7-meter replica of Beijing's Forbbiden City, was exhibited at Macao Museum of Art in 2015. In it, Hung managed to re-create even the coiled dragons spiraling upward in the bas relief of the former imperial residence. Using 20 minute Lego bricks slightly bigger than rice grains, Hung managed to replicate the stone lions and copper cranes. "Small things aren't easier to build than a giant sculpture," he says.
He studied the architectural composition of Chinese wooden structures before putting 10 hours of relentless labor into building the structure every day for three months. "In traditional Chinese culture, numbers nine and five are symbolically connected to the majesty of the emperor; that's why the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the ceremonial center of Forbidden City, is nine bays wide and five bays deep. In building the model, I made sure I followed the original scale," Hung said.
Kenny Sham, senior marketing manager of Lego Group in Hong Kong and Macao, reveals that increasingly more mature people like tinkering with Lego blocks, although they are meant to be children's playthings.
Sham estimates around 20 to 30 percent of their customers in Hong Kong are actually adults. He believes Adult Fan of Lego (AFOL), an active community that consists of adult Lego hobbyists, has at least over 100,000 members worldwide.
There are also Lego master builders who are employed at Lego Group's Discovery Centers and its seven Legoland theme parks, engaged in creating new models, installation and maintenance. LCPs, however, are not Lego's employees, but work as the company's ambassadors in B2B business.
An LCP position is not open for public application. The company keeps an eye out for potential candidates who are invited to give it a go.
Hung's first Lego set was a gift from his mother at the age of five, and since then he has kept pretty much at it. In 2011, Hung and a few other enthusiasts from a Hong Kong Lego club built a replica of Taikoo Shing and had it displayed in City Plaza. Visitors did not mind queuing up for an hour to have a look.
More shopping malls in the city have invited him to create varied themed sculptures since then, assured that Lego sculptures are a great way to draw in the crowds. The buzz reached Lego's office in Hong Kong.
"Lego was eager to expand business in the Greater China region and was looking for a brand ambassador. I was invited to apply. I submitted my application in 2013 and was called to their office in Denmark for several rounds of interviews. It was not until a year later that they finally hired me," he said. His application was thus approved.
The clincher, he thinks, was his proposal to build iconic Chinese architecture that resonates with Chinese people in shopping malls, hotels, government offices and museums.
In China, the market for such an enterprise is far greater than in the West, he says. "The competition here is very intense. Shopping malls are heavily investing in displaying festive decorations which create many opportunities for Lego sculptures to fit in."
He enjoyed being a cultural ambassador for China. "The stereotype of Lego architecture is European, but now Lego watchers can see buildings that are very Chinese. I feel good to see many kids come to see my work, which helps spark their interest in traditional Chinese architecture and history."
The only person ever to have the honor of being both a Lego master builder and an LCP is Nathan Sawaya, formerly a corporate lawyer in New York. Sawaya won numerous awards for his three-dimensional sculptures and large-scale mosaics. His creations, blending pop art with surrealism, have been commissioned by companies, charities, individuals, museums and galleries all over the world.
Building a new life
In the last years of the 20th century, when video games were luring teenagers away from playing with blocks, the Lego brand took a massive beating. In 2002, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Then the company decided to invest more money and launch more products. Around 2,000 new elements in varied shapes and colors are added every year, Hung said.
For many of his commissioned pieces, Hung orders custom-made elements from the Denmark factory. Lego's collaboration with hit movies such as the Star Wars, Batman and Harry Potter series also played a crucial role in pulling the business back on track.
There are plenty of speculators anticipating the desirable new sets, buying and hoarding dozens of them until they are out of production. These are extremely eagerly awaited in Hong Kong as well. For instance, on e-commerce site eBay, a 2007 Lego Star Wars Ultimate Collector's Millennium Falcon set is priced at $12,500, 25 times its original price ($499.99).
There are also people who buy a set and sell it piecemeal, after dismantling it.
Hung reckons that grown-ups' obsession with Lego lies in the thrill of building something from scratch. Sham says adults' love for Lego is not that much different from that of the kids. He thinks Lego appeals to the part of an adult's brain that would like to stay young forever.
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(HK Edition 03/31/2017 page7)