Flights of fancies

Mr Ignatius Lee has completed more than 500 airplane models in the last 40 years.
Mr Ignatius Lee has completed more than 500 airplane models in the last 40 years. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Mr Peter Chiang, owner of Hobby Bounties & Morgan Hobbycraft Centre, has been organising an aeronautical modelengineering competition for the past nine years.
Mr Peter Chiang, owner of Hobby Bounties & Morgan Hobbycraft Centre, has been organising an aeronautical modelengineering competition for the past nine years. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Student Faris Sirraj won the Most Creative Award at a competition with his SG50 airshow model.
Student Faris Sirraj won the Most Creative Award at a competition with his SG50 airshow model. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, PAIGE LIM
Student Alicia Ng (seen with the prize-winning Supermarine Spitfire Pr XIX airplane model she built) is one of three female members in ITE’s Aero-Design club.
Student Alicia Ng (seen with the prize-winning Supermarine Spitfire Pr XIX airplane model she built) is one of three female members in ITE’s Aero-Design club. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, PAIGE LIM

The old-school hobby of scale aircraft modelling is being kept alive by avid hobbyists in Singapore

Step into Mr Ignatius Lee's new office in Tannery Lane and the first thing you notice are the rows of intricate miniature airplane models in different sizes in the glass cabinets.

Every one of them was painstakingly built by the Republic of Singapore Air Force helicopter pilot, who has completed more than 500 airplane models in the last 40 years.

The 50-year-old - who is retiring from his full-time job soon and has just started a professional model- making business - has spent more than $300,000 on his hobby and buys model kits almost every week.

He is one of a small number of avid scale modellers in Singapore who are keeping the old-school hobby of scale aircraft modelling alive in today's digital era. They are mostly middle-aged men who have been building these models since they were young.

  • Aircraft fixers

  • HOBBY BOUNTIES & MORGAN HOBBYCRAFT CENTRE

    Where: Katong Shopping Centre, 02-91/92, 865 Mountbatten Road

    Open: 1 to 8pm (Monday to Saturday), 1 to 6pm (Sunday and public holiday)

    Info: Call 6440-1890 or e-mail linda.toon@hobbybounties.com

    TAMIYA - STARGEK

    Where: 178 Paya Lebar Road, 01-03

    Open: 10am to 6pm (Monday to Saturday), 10am to 3pm (Sunday)

    Info: Call 6746-2168 or e-mail cust.svc@stargek.com

    M WORKSHOP

    Where: Sunshine Plaza, 01-58, 91 Bencoolen Street

    Open: Noon to 7pm (Monday to Saturday), 2 to 7pm (Sunday and public holiday)

    Info: Call 6334-1180 or e-mail enquiry@themworkshop.com

    MINIATURE HOBBY INTERNATIONAL

    Where: Trivex, 14-16, 8 Burn Road

    Open: Noon to 8pm daily

    Info: Call 6336-0862 or e-mail sylee@miniaturehobby.com

    THE ORCHARD STORE

    Where: Orchard Plaza, 04-39, 150 Orchard Road

    Open: 12.30 to 7pm (Monday to Saturday), 1 to 6pm (Sunday and public holiday)

    Info: 6737-4159 or e-mail sales@orchardstore.com.sg

    HOBBY POINT

    Where: Bras Basah Complex, 03-37B, 231 Bain Street

    Open: 11am to 8pm daily

    Info: Call 6336-7542

    Where: Century Square, 05-08, 2 Tampines Central 5

    Open: Noon to 9pm (Monday to Thursday and Sunday), noon to 9.30pm (Friday, Saturday and eve of public holiday)

    Info: Call 6260-0056

    Where: Safra Jurong, 1A-03, 333 Boon Lay Way

    Open: 11am to 8pm (Tuesday to Sunday)

    Info: Call 6316-4380

    HIGH PLANES MODELS

    Where: Midview City, 05-133, 28 Sin Ming Lane

    Open: 10am to 6 pm (Monday to Friday), closed on weekends

    Info: This is an online store. Visits to the physical store is by appointment only. Call 6659-9319 or go to www.hpmhobbies.com

    HOBBY KULTURE

    Where: Peninsula Shopping Centre, 04-23, 3 Coleman Street

    Open: 7.30 to 10pm (Monday to Friday), 2 to 10pm (weekends)

    Info: Call 9656-2409 or e-mail sales@hobbykulture.com.sg

There is also a mini-resurgence in aircraft modelling among the young here, with a growth in entries in an annual competition dedicated to the hobby and more taking it up as a co-curricular activity (CCA) in schools.

Overall, shops selling scale-model kits tell Life they have seen sales decline over the years.

Scale modelling has been around for decades. There are different kinds of plastic scale model kits available in the market, from aircraft, military tanks, automobiles and ships to science-fiction figurines such as the Japanese Gundam robots. Popular brands include Airfix, Tamiya, Revell, Italeri and Hasegawa, which can be bought in local hobby shops.

Aircraft model kits can range from $12 to more than $400, depending on the scale and level of difficulty. For example, an aircraft model kit manufactured by Airfix costs $13.65 for a 1/72 scale de Havilland Tiger Moth and $330 for a 1/24 scale Hawker Typhoon Mk.lB.

So what is the fascination with these plastic, static airplane figurines?

Hobbyists say the appeal of scale aircraft modelling lies in the impeccable realism of the completed models, right down to every single part. All the kits are based on actual airplanes.

Software technologist Yee Soon Tuck, 43, who has been building aircraft models for 30 years, says: "Boys would naturally be fascinated by planes and, at some point, they may find that toy planes are just not manufactured up to scratch. For realism, the next closest thing is a scale model."

In fact, scale-model kits have evolved to become even more "vivid and realistic" in recent years, says Mr Lee. "The kits were simple and basic in the past and were not that accurate. Thanks to technology, these models can now look as good as the real thing."

While the construction process is tedious - from painting the right shades on the plastic to assembling minute parts such as the cockpit, scale modelling helps to develop motor skills and qualities such as patience, precision and attention to detail, say hobbyists.

One can also learn more about the evolution of aircraft technology as model kits range from propeller planes used in the two world wars to the jet planes of today.

Mr Peter Chiang, owner of 37-year-old scale-model kit shop Hobby Bounties & Morgan Hobbycraft Centre in Katong Shopping Centre, says: "It takes discipline and time to build a model. You need to sit there, build it according to the sequence stated in the manual, have it painted and all this cannot be done quickly."

The 51-year-old adds: "Your hand-eye coordination improves because you have to put together small parts. It also tests your ability to have a three-dimensional perspective."

Working on such models also allows hobbyists to let their creativity run free, especially when they construct dioramas to place their aircraft in.

For example, Mr Lee spent more than four months creating an elaborate 1.5m-long diorama of a World War II setting. It encompassed land and sea elements with 20 models of tanks, ships and aircraft.

He says: "I like to put in tarmac or terrain such as trees, plants and buildings to beautify the surroundings. It's like an art piece; I want to give meaning to my model and tell a story through it."

His WWII diorama yielded him a commemorative prize in local scale-modelling competition M CON in 2012, which is organised by hobby shop M Workshop once every four years.

His most recent diorama - a 1/24 scale British Spitfire Fighter and WWII German Stuka Dive Bomber shot down into a lake - won the Best Airfix Model at this year's National Airfix Aeronautical Model Engineering Competition, which is organised by Mr Chiang.

To reach out to other scale modellers in Singapore, Mr Yee set up a website in 2006 (www.spruecutters.com) to showcase all his completed scale models. The website also teaches construction techniques and contains video tutorials.

But in this age of mobile devices, hobby shops such as Hobby Bounties and Miniature Hobbies have seen business decline over the years. There are around eight to 10 such shops here now.

Mr Chiang says his sales have dipped by 95 per cent since the 1990s. To encourage more youngsters to pick up scale modelling, he started his competition in 2007.

And it appears to be working. Mr Chiang received 20 entries for the Aircraft Inter-school category for modellers aged 16 and below - the most since the competition started. The other two categories are Senior and Master Class.

Mr Chiang says: "Parents are beginning to see the value in this hobby. You get a different kind of satisfaction from building as compared to playing a computer game. When you build something, you will treasure it more."

At ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio, more students have been joining its Aero-Design CCA every year since it was set up in 2011, says teacher-in-charge Brian Lee, 40. The CCA, solely dedicated to scale aircraft modelling, is open to all students in ITE's three campuses.

About 25 to 30 students joined the CCA in its most recent intake in April this year and the club now has close to 100 members.

Not surprisingly, scale modelling traditionally attracts men, but some women are now taking it up as well.

ITE's Aero-Design club has three female members. One of them is Alicia Ng, an 18-year-old aerospace technology student who joined last year. She has so far constructed one airplane model - a 1/72 scale Supermarine Spitfire Pr XIX - which won a consolation prize in the Inter- school category at this year's National Airfix Aeronautical Model Engineering Competition.

Ms Ng, who hopes to be an aircraft engineer, says her girl friends think her hobby is "weird". "Some of the boys in my CCA also ask me why I'm there and say I should be more into girly activities such as baking or flower arrangement."

Faris Sirraj, a 14-year-old student at NPS International School, took up scale aircraft modelling last year after learning about the National Airfix Aeronautical Model Engineering Competition. Two of his models have won the Most Creative Award in the competition's Inter-school category for two years in a row. He spent a week constructing this year's winning entry - an SG50 airshow model with three 1/72 scale planes - using recycled materials.

He says: "Putting the model together is very methodical and helps me de-stress. It's like a science lesson - I learn about aerodynamics and how an aircraft is built."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Flights of fancies'. Print Edition | Subscribe