Star Wars fan builds walking and talking R2-D2

Singaporean Ng Hak Beng spent more than $15,000 building his own version of the iconic R2-D2 droid in his kitchen

Wherever it goes, this working life-size replica of Star Wars droid R2-D2 elicits squeals of delight from children and adults alike.

Yet its builder, Mr Ng Hak Beng, has for years declined to take public credit for pulling off the impressive feat.

"If people knew so much about the guy behind it, it would spoil all the magic of R2-D2. People like to think of him as real and autonomous, right?" the IT consultant says earnestly with a grin.

It took much persuasion for him to agree to this interview. The 42-year-old puts in much effort to preserve the illusion that his 120kg aluminium creation - said to be the only one in Singapore - is real.

Whenever he takes it out for appearances at events, he stands far from it, controlling the robot covertly with one hand hidden in a messenger bag. This, despite the fact that the remote control is so heavy that his hand starts trembling after prolonged use.

Apparently, remaining incognito is a code of sorts for R2-D2 builders around the world - a community of about 7,000 Star Wars lovers who have attempted to build their own versions of the beloved droid.

Whenever a girl tries to kiss the droid, it will quote the famous line by Princess Leia in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): 'Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.'''

MR NG HAK BENG

Mr Ng is one of about 130 of these builders who have completed the task, according to an online registry open only to members .

Featured in all of the popular Star Wars movies, including the upcoming instalment The Force Awakens, R2-D2 is a white-and- blue machine known for its playful beeps and whistle sounds as well as its cute cylindrical shape.

In all the films, the character is portrayed in parts by English actor Kenny Baker donning a costume, on top of remote-controlled bots and computer-generated imagery.

R2-D2, whose nickname is Artoo, is certainly Mr Ng's favourite Star Wars character, even if that was not always the case.

He says: "When I was a kid, my favourite was Luke Skywalker because he's the main hero. As I grew older, I realised how charming and cheeky R2-D2 is.

"He's quite the smart aleck, which I find hilarious, and that has made me a fan," says Mr Ng, whose earliest Star Wars memory was catching The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with his uncle at the now defunct Odeon Cinema.

Still, however much fans love R2-D2, most of them would stop at collecting its toys and assorted paraphernalia. Few would think of building an R2-D2, let alone one that moves, flashes lights and makes sounds just like the one in the Star Wars movies.

Amid chuckles, Mr Ng recalls: "It all started when I met a fellow Star Wars fan for drinks, who suggested that we try to build one. We were probably not very sober at the time and I agreed. Before you knew it, I was doing research on how to do it."

Many of the major parts, such as the legs, can be ordered from the United States, where hardcore Star Wars fans have them cut to official specifications. "Technically, you can order the parts from different buyers and they should fit together. Fans go to Star Wars conventions with measuring tapes to get the exact dimensions," he adds.

But the building process is a lot more complex than just buying the parts and putting them together like a Gundam scale figure.

Some of the parts, such as the dome on top, require plenty of cutting and shaving by hand as they do not come ready-made.

He says: "It's the dome that killed me because you need to be very precise or else it won't fit. I wanted to give up on the project so many times while working on that part.

"So my advice to anyone who wants to attempt it is this - if you can finish the dome, you will be able to finish the rest of it," says the bachelor, who took about 1½ years to build the droid in the kitchen of his five-room HDB flat. He completed it in 2010.

The rest involves everything from electrical wiring for the mechanics to move, which he says he is no expert at ("I always worry it will burn") to painting the body.

His R2-D2 can make 25 different sounds - all recorded from the films - including beeps and shrieks.

Whenever a girl tries to kiss the droid, it will quote the famous line by Princess Leia in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."

Just buying the parts alone has cost Mr Ng more than $15,000 and he has since spent more money to customise it. "After a while, you stop counting the cost. People ask me when I finished building R2-D2, but honestly, you never quite finish," he says.

He can control his R2-D2 from 3km away and says he plans to install a camera in it so that he can control it without being near it.

Given how much he has spent on building the droid and how often he is invited to take it to promotional events, does he charge appearance fees to recoup the cost?

He says he declines payment but adds: "If organisers sponsor me for things such as parking fees, that's enough. It's not much fun to talk about the money part lah."

In recent months, he has been busy taking R2-D2 to Star Wars-themed promotional events in the lead-up to the newest movie, which opens in cinemas on Dec 17.

"Whenever kids see R2-D2, they get really excited and run to it or try to jump at it. I'm so worried that someone will get hurt."

This is why he had tried to buy insurance for his robot - to protect not just the machine but also himself, in case of accidents.

In fact, R2-D2 once ran over a fan dressed as a Stormtrooper at an event when a friend of his was over- enthusiastic with the controller.

But Mr Ng failed to buy an insurance plan for R2-D2. He says with a laugh: "My insurance agent friend checked and said it's not possible to be covered for this. I guess it's too specific."

So, will he be building C-3PO or The Force Awakens' new droid BB-8? "Of course, I'd love to, but those would be really difficult. That's not feasible now."

But while his R2-D2 will not have C-3PO for company, it may have a new robot friend, which Mr Ng jokingly calls R2-SG.

"I actually bought enough spare parts to build another R2-D2. I was thinking of painting it red and white to make it Singaporean. We'll see if that day comes," he says.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in cinemas on Dec 17.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Star Wars fan builds walking and talking R2-D2'. Print Edition | Subscribe