Star Wars fans get a grip on lightsabres

Star Wars fans with model lightsabres during an event to promote the upcoming unofficial Star Wars Day in Taipei.
Star Wars fans with model lightsabres during an event to promote the upcoming unofficial Star Wars Day in Taipei.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TAIPEI • Frustrated by the lack of quality lightsabres in toy shops, Mr Makoto Tsai did what any self-respecting hardcore Star Wars fan would do - he studied engineering at college and then spent years perfecting a replica.

The 36-year-old is part of a small group of artisans around the world who have forged successful careers hand-crafting remarkably realistic models of the movie saga's famous energy swords.

As fans gathered globally last Saturday for what has become the unofficial Star Wars Day - this year mourning the death of towering Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew - many were likely to be clutching one of Mr Tsai's lightsabres, made in his workshop near Taipei.

In the past decade, he has shipped about 1,000 blades to about 40 countries as diverse as the United States, France and Cuba to Peru, Iceland and Tunisia. Prices start at US$255 (S$347) and about 80 per cent of his orders come from abroad.

Local and ethnic Chinese fans are offered a half-price discount, provided that they pass a written test "to prove they have enough passion for Star Wars".

"I hand-make every piece of work so it's very intimate to me. I only want those who really like it to own it," he said.

Star Wars may be a multibillion-dollar Hollywood franchise, but fans have long complained that the official lightsabres on the market are flimsy and disappointing versions of the whizzing, crackling, swords seen in the films.

As a result, a whole cottage industry has sprung up of replica manufacturers filling a gap that more established companies have uncharacteristically failed to fill.

Advances in battery, LED and computing technology have helped these artisans create increasingly sophisticated replicas, many of them choosing to avoid overt branding from the films to reduce their exposure on copyright issues.

Bright tubes of light and motion-linked audio cards similar to the film's sound effects are now standard.

Among fans of the custom sabre scene, California-based Michael Murphy is known as "Yoda".

His online shop and forum is the go to place for those trading tips on where to buy and how to build the best lightsabres.

"As far as people doing installations like myself and Makoto, I'd say it's grown from the original group of 25 back in the early years to well over 100 people out there in forums and on Facebook offering services for sabres in one way or another," he said.

The original lightsabre wielded by Luke Skywalker in the first 1977 instalment - a remarkably budget production compared with its lavish follow-ups - was little more than the handle of an old Graflex camera flash.

Those retro flashes have now become notoriously hard to source thanks to Star Wars fans. The most expensive fan-built lightsabre replicas which feature original Graflex handles have been sold for as much as US$15,000 on eBay.

Mr Tsai first fell for Star Wars as a teenager and his quest for a realistic lightsabre prompted him to study electro-optical engineering and then work in that industry until he became a full-time lightsabre maker over a decade ago.

Mr Tsai said he constantly researches to make his lightsabres "brighter, more durable and easier to manoeuvre" so they can be used in fencing, which he has been promoting in Taiwan with regular duels.

The business also supports fan and charity gatherings he organises free of charge.

"I spend two-thirds of my time organising events. My mission is to promote Star Wars in Taiwan as hard as I can to draw out more fans," he added.

One of his proudest moments was an outing to Taiwan's presidential office on last year's Star Wars Day.

Darth Vader, Chewbacca and a motley crew of intergalactic characters chanted "May the force be with you" alongside Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, while toy gun-toting stormtroopers joined military police to stand guard outside the landmark in downtown Taipei.

This year, more than 100 fans gathered near the renowned Taipei 101 skyscraper to mark the day last Saturday, with President Tsai Ing-wen making a surprise appearance.

With plenty more Star Wars films planned by the Disney-owned franchise in the years ahead, Mr Makoto Tsai is confident he will have new generations of fans flocking to buy his sabres.

"I am very optimistic that there will be more and more die-hard fans and we can definitely keep the momentum for at least another decade," he said.

College student Kuo Shun-hao, 20, became a fan two years ago after watching the seventh instalment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - the JJ Abrams reboot that brought fresh critical acclaim to the franchise and a new windfall for Disney.

Mr Kuo now regularly fences with his lightsabres.

"I like sparring and talking about Star War movies with other fans," he said, adding: "I am making new friends as there are often new people coming to our fencing gatherings."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2019, with the headline 'Star Wars fans get a grip on lightsabres'. Print Edition | Subscribe