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Lego with a local touch

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 15, 2013

A hobby has turned into a lucrative business for some Singaporeans.

Take private tutor Gene Tan, for example. The 36-year-old used Lego to create a figurine dressed in the uniform of St James' Church Kindergarten for his daughter in January just for fun.

Four-year-old Talia, a Nursery 2 pupil at the kindergarten, was not the only one who was thrilled with his creation.

Mr Tan had posted pictures of the figurine on a Facebook page run by parents of the school in Dempsey. It was accompanied by a caption that said he would make more pieces for sale if he received enough "likes". He got 70 likes within one day.

Spurred on by the interest, Mr Tan set up a booth during a fun fair at the school in February and sold these uniform-clad figurines at $25 each. About 200 of them were snapped up at the one-day event, with the profits going to the school.

He then expanded on the collection by creating a miniature version of the school's main building. He added a school bus and figurines of the kindergarten's principal and a pastor of St James' Church, then sold the items as a set for $200 at another school event.

Word spread and now, eight months on, he has helped two other schools - Methodist Girls' School (MGS) and the Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS) - to fashion miniature models of the school buildings out of Lego products. He also creates toy-sized models of wedding couples.

So far, he has sold several hundred miniature figurines and building sets inspired by the three schools. They are priced from $20 to $25 for a single figurine and $200 to $300 for a set, which includes a building.

The father of three is paid for his labour and costs while the profits go to the schools. He declines to say how much he makes from his hobby, but says it is not enough for him to give up his full-time job as a maths and science tutor.

"It started out because I wanted to do something for Talia, then it became a sideline. I have no idea where this is headed but you don't say no to business," he says.

Sales were made online through Mr Tan's Facebook page, My Little World (www.facebook.com/mylittleworldsingapore), as well as at events such as MGS' Founder's Day celebrations in July and the SCGS Peranakan Night earlier this month.

Ms Juleen Goh, 51, a member of the SCGS alumni management committee, says of the $300 set Mr Tan created: "He designed a charming Peranakan setting complete with traditional swing doors so familiar to those of us who were students at the Emerald Hill site. Within 24 hours, all 170 sets were snapped up. We decided to take orders online until Sept 28."

Madam Karen Tan, 42, a bank executive who graduated from MGS in 1986, is also happy with a $300 miniature of MGS students standing on a staircase reminiscent of the one leading to the former school building in Mount Sophia.

She says: "It was a bit pricey but I decided to buy it for memory's sake. Those 100 steps were historic."

To cope with the orders, Mr Tan, who also has a two-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter, usually works on them at night, after his children have gone to bed.

His wife, Mrs Liesbet Tan, 32, who works part-time in a statutory board, is supportive of his hobby.

"It is great that he enjoys this work... and has people who affirm him and appreciate his creations."

Her husband takes two hours to a few months to come up with the designs by using an online software and also through trial and error. The Lego enthusiast orders his bricks and parts in bulk from places such as the United States and Europe.

The most frustrating part of the process, he says, is when he realises he has forgotten to order a certain Lego part and has to wait several weeks for it to arrive before he can continue building.

Mr Tan estimates that he has invested a low five-figure sum in his hobby since February.

To meet demand, he builds about 10 sets at a time, transforming his dining room table into a one-man assembly line production.

"My dad built my first Lego set with me when I was about six. It was a house with a couple in it," he recalls. "I have liked creating and customising things since I was young so it wasn't long before I destroyed it to build something else."

His most recent creation, made last month, is a miniature of the iconic dragon playground in Toa Payoh Lorong 6. It is priced at $200, or $260 if you want a protective casing.

He is not the only one here who accepts commissioned work made of Lego products.

Six years ago, Mr Nicholas Foo, 36, gave up a job as the creative director of a production company to do this full-time.

He is part of the Lego Certified Professional programme, which means he is recognised by the Denmark-based Lego Group for his works. He is one of 13 people worldwide to be part of the programme and the only one in South-east Asia

He works closely with the head office in Denmark and also gets referrals for projects from other Lego Group offices around the world.

Mr Foo says: "When I started out in 2007, Lego fans who built stuff for people did not exist. Now the trend seems to have caught on. Lego is a really popular medium right now."

He accepts private and corporate commissioned work. One of his bigger projects last year was a life-sized Christmas tree for the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands. He declines to reveal his rates.

Another hobbyist who has jumped on the bandwagon is Mr Eugene Tan.

In September last year, the 37-year-old architect started a company called Brick By Brick (SG), which does commissioned work and also runs workshops that teach people how to come up with Lego creations.

The full-time architect had been taking on commissioned work on an ad-hoc basis for the last four to five years.

He now runs the company as a sideline with two other partners, a 41-year-old organisational psychologist and a 39-year-old business developer.

Their fees range from more than $1,000 for a 60cm by 60cm two-dimensional portrait to tens of thousands for a life-sized three-dimensional sculpture made up of thousands of Lego pieces and reinforced with steel supports.

Mr Eugene Tan, who is married with three children aged between two and seven, has been building with Lego since he was four.

He says: "This is still more of a hobby for me. The hardest part is letting go of pieces that I have been working on for months."

cherylw@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 15, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/