Models, Shows, East & West
A view from Singapore!
On a recent trip to Singapore I recorded a chat I had with Bernard Cher about model making.
Bernard is the quiet spoken proprietor of the MWORKSHOP in Singapore’s Bencoolen Street. As you speak with him, his infectious enthusiasm for model making soon comes to the fore.
His store, the MWORKSHOP is an Aladdin’s cave but also in the quintessential model shop. People come in to browse, meet and chat with fellow modellers and gaze at the built examples in their glass cases, imbibing inspiration while being surrounded by the opportunities waiting in boxes all around them.
It must be said that for some, the eStore is the only way they have to get their kits and tools. Forums are as near as they can get to other model makers, so I’m in no way decrying their existence and their obvious usefulness.
That said, while convenience and lower prices are at hand via the web, perhaps that electronic shop has in some way helped to take away the magic of the weekly or monthly trip to our local model shop, gazing in wonder at those boxes, listing to other modellers, seeing the finished models on their shelves and slowly sifting our way towards the kit we want.
It seems rather like the local pub being bulldozed out of existence – the place where one would go for a good pint, a good chat, and to relax amongst friends – a six pack and a boxed-set being the only remaining option for a relaxing evening.
So, how long has the shop being here?
“The shop has been here for 14 years and I started this [work] 16 years ago. I started as a full time instructor in one of the big hobby shops in Singapore…yeah, so I started my career teaching”.
Instructing and classes in model making seems to be common here or at least it seems to be normal, and yet it’s not really known, certainly in Ireland. People tend to keep things to themselves. Why do people teach here?
“Actually, I’m one of the pioneers of teaching, I mean there are earlier years when people were teaching, but I see, um, for myself that I love this hobby so much that I want to share this love with other people”.
“I started modelling and for the first seven years, I could not find any help through the shops. Every time it was the same thing. The shop could not answer my questions…there was little help looking for information, and no one wanted to teach”.
“And then, um, after seven years I almost gave up…I had no talent: lots of passion, but no talent”.
“So, every time I go to a competition, I can’t even go near a consolation [prize], and I bring friends to modelling who are talented and they start winning awards”.
And after seven years I start asking myself if it’s time for me to quit?
“I was actually attending the award ceremony for a hobby show, so I was not placed and I was there to collect back my model”.
“I was looking at my good friend going up to the stage and collecting his medal, his prizes you know, and I tell myself ‘okay, that’s it!’ I have given enough time for this hobby it’s time for me to go.”
“But before this I have been noticing a very beautiful model in a show case in a model shop. I kept asking the shop owner, ‘who is this guy’ but nobody wanted to tell me so that day I told myself that before I quit this hobby, I want to go back to this shop and say good bye to that model, you know, bid farewell, you know?”
“So, um, that day was very magical……
It was so magical, it was then, okay, that someone opened the show case!”
“The person took out the model and I ask him are you the one who painted this and he said yes!”
“I begged him, I said please, please, can you teach me?”
“It was Calvin Tan!”
“Yes, Calvin Tan. You know Calvin Tan is actually just a few months younger than me, but I don’t care you see, and I know he’s an artist. So, his way to model is not the typical way”.
“So we had this very simple relationship. At that time we didn’t have a mobile phone, only have a pager”.
“So he would give me an instruction, he would say, ‘get a model you want. Paint it black!’”
“You see I don’t even question him, why black, you know.
I said okay. I will show him I will am going to do this model. So the whole thing black. BLACK!”
“Two weeks later we meet again.”
“I just follow his instruction because, I say, he’s the master, if I want him to be my master I shouldn’t question him, I just follow him!”
“Throughout this one year of bi-weekly meetings – you know we actually meet up in a food place you know, in Singapore you have the market so we meet at ten o’clock at night, we can chat until mid-night and then have to walk back home you know – and through that I learned a lot”.
“After one year of teaching and more coaching and I took part in a competition again. I won gold and silver, and subsequently for the next three years, whenever I take part, I win something!”
“Until someone tell me Bernard can you stop?!” – He says laughing. “Can you stop winning? Can you let people have a chance?”
“I say yes, can”.
“I will have to do something. I have to teach someone as good as me so they can continue this whole thing”.
“I believe….You see, actually, you’re wrong! “The Asian, the Asian are the one who don’t like to teach. The Asian are the one that are very selfish.”
“I learned this thing from the West. I feel that the West are always sharing. That’s why you see the West is always, going this way and the East are going this way.”
Yes people share, but it’s usually in modelling websites, in forums and things like that. So people ask for help, and people are willing to give help. It’s very difficult to go somewhere and sit with a master and be trained by that master.
“Put it this way, maybe, I think, I am crazy”. I am a degree holder, I have a civil engineering degree”.
“You know when I graduate that when I started my career. When I hold my degree, ask myself, what’s the degree for?”
“It’s for my parents, it’s for the society but nothing for myself. If I could, I would tear it up. But it’s still hard to get a degree I fold it back in the container chuck it in my drawer and start my dream”.
“I was partly looked down by many people. My parents see me every day, ‘when are you going to give up this dream’. You know. ‘Can you be practical you are a degree holder’ ‘You should be an engineer’”.
“Neighbours, relatives keep asking my parents what’s your son doing, you know”.
“You know he just graduated from university and it seems like he’s not doing anything of importance.”
“Um…friends, I think, around me were waiting for me to fail”.
“I don’t need much, maybe an engineering can get two or three thousand K per month, but when I started my career I was only less than 1000 Singapore dollars [per month] and I was happy”.
“I was very determined. And I was very crazy!” he laughs again
“I just want to do what I believe. So that’s why my friend who owns a hobby shop – big hobby shop – knows I have been craving to teach. Craving to impart the skill. So he give me the invitation when I graduate from my university. He say ‘Bernard, you want to join me. You know I can’t pay you but you can have the space’. So he actually gave me a space…um…enough to put a table for two students and that’s how I started”.
“He didn’t even give me the table! This”
He puts his hand on the small white café sized table at which we’re sitting
“This table, the one you are looking at, is how I started my career”. [He laughs]
“I wanted to throw this away, but …… “
You can’t that! This is history …..
“It is history … yes. So I started teaching this way. After two years, you know, our vision in business was different so I say I have to get out and that’s when I have the chance to start my own, ‘M’ Workshop”.
The students that you teach, are all ages?
“And when I started teaching…because I started my career at 25 years old, imagine! Most of my students were actually older than me, but they trusted me a lot, not because they are more senior to me but they know I can show them the way”.
“So for 5 to 10 years I had very good students, very mature students that were willing to take hard comments, hard training. I grew a lot of international award winning artists. We went to the UK, Spain, and we won awards”.
“Somebody asked ‘Where’s Singapore’ you know, ‘where you come from’ and ‘why are you coming here to win our awards’”.
“We’re proud but we’re very serious and passionate about our hobby”.
“Eventually it just went downhill. The group of students gave up for career and family. Singapore’s cost of living has been going up very fast, too fast so people are getting very fearful”.
“Yes they have a good income but they have no time to come to the hobby shop and buy and no time to make models any more”.
“The young ones buy those Gundam and robotic [kits] but it’s not the same type of model any more. You know, they come in snap form and some don’t even paint it, you know”.
So the style of modelling is also changing as well…
“Changed, it change a lot…”
And that’s the influence of TV and things like that, I guess…
“I mean you see the whole world change very fast, because of technology, there’s so much distraction now days….,the phone itself is the biggest distraction, it’s like the biggest devil of a vice, a life style…”
I have noticed that on the MRT [Metro], every body’s on their phone….
“Yes, yes, so things are too easy, too accessible and people start to take things for granted, um…”
“I’m actually very proud to be a modeller, because if you know yourself, as a modeller, there is no short cut and you have to learn to be a craftsman and, if you want a good historical model, you have to be a historian”
As well as an anatomist and an engineer because you have to figure out how to do it, especially if you’re scratch building.
“If you want to make your model beautiful, you have to be an artist, you have to respect art, you have to learn colours…and then when you go in to the stage of the diorama making, you must be a story teller. You must be like a director that directs the story, you know”.
“It’s an all-round hobby and there is not a single bit of short cut but people see things ….’oh, I want to do this, can you give me the fast forward way, give me the formula, can you give me the quick fix method?’”.
“So sometimes I’m very angry, I tell them I can’t help you. If you need help go to the temple, the Chinese temple there and pray to the God” He laughs.
“May be the God can help you, just sarcastically, because I just feel…..every day I get asked the question ‘how do I do this’? ‘How do I do that?’ but ‘I’ve no time’. I told them that whoever displays in my show case, easily had to go through five and half year [training] with me….”
“Five and half year, average, you know you have to keep practicing, keep redoing…I believe in this is the whole way of mentorship”.
“I love the Japanese Samurai spirit, everything you do is perfection. You know when you go to learn from a Japanese master, wrong is wrong, redo means redo!”
“You know, you don’t ask for any compliment for the work, no ‘butterfly’ language, no beautiful language, no sugar coating…redo, redo… during my time, my senior students, they take it, okay, they go back redo, came back, not good enough, go back, go back. You want to be world class. There’s no short cut to be world class. It’s very harsh training but…..”
It’s more like a sportsman, you have to suffer pain.
“Exactly…and, the young ones, after one comment, you don’t see them anymore”
“They fold. So definitely if you ask me, 16 years in this career, I’ve been through a lot I’m not a business man but I’m doing a business that is required to feed my daily requirement, my family, but why is my shop always so small?”
“Because I’m a very stubborn artist! I don’t compromise a lot to the commercial world of how things are being handled. I want to be like an old Kung fu school, where you take it or, leave it. You know. I still sell things, you know I can sell what you really want but there is no compromising, no commercialising, no, hard core commercialising”.
“I want people to come back to me because I’m the old serious shop, it’s like the old music shop, that really loves music, and the people that come to you, love music. I don’t mind that I’m not a big business. See a big business ……”
Sometimes big business has lost its spirit.
“Yes, and a lot of big company are closing …. Everybody had a choice to do what they want but I started this dream of my craziness and my passion, I’m going to stick to it”.
The competitions that you have here and across South East Asia they seem to be well attended and they seem to be very powerful in the quality of the models that are on display.
“I still think the world best model do come from the west. It’s like soccer, the best soccer is still from Europe. I will say the East is improving very fast, now the Koreans are coming up to become the best in the world, the Chinese young modellers are fricking scary now!”
“I see things are changing and I think we are living a golden era of modelling. I have to say that. We have the best model kits around, we have the all the best tools around. The ones still doing the models beautifully are the older generation, the golden modellers but I’m fearful for what’s next. I don’t know if there will be a continuity….”
Well I think that as history moves on, I see that the military history etc certainly from WWII is going to retreat in to the back ground, and we are going to see more, maybe the gulf war will be the new WWII and then we’re going to move forward: hopefully no more wars but the point is that because of that we’ll see more influence from Sci-Fi
“Yes, Sci-Fi is the big thing now, even when you go to the big shows in France, Italy, UK or Germany. It’s all about fantasy now. The key category all goes to fantasy category, and then you have the classical category, armour aircraft”.
“Generally I see that most shows are still doing very healthy, it’s just that there could be sudden stop because the young ones is not interested”.
Well they lost the big show in the UK…
Yup…though for various reasons I’m sure.
“I think that what I heard from many modellers, is that shows are getting too commercialised, and too expensive. People who don’t even know modelling they just see ‘oh this is a good show, we can make money’ so when this thing happens, the masters back off and when the masters don’t go no body want to go!”
“But we have the World Expo, it’s like the world cup, run every three years started by Shepard Paine, to me the godfather of modelling and every three years they will ballot to see who will get the rights to organise the show”.
“I went to one of the best in 2008 … in Spain, beautiful show and after that, the Boston show, Chicago, Switzerland, Italy. Next one, if you can go, it’s in Netherland, next year 2020”.
“SMC [Skill Model Challenge] run by the Dutch, is the best show in the world and because of that they will have the World Expo and every master has booked – I believe so – every master has booked a slot there so it will be the world biggest event in the name of scale modelling”.
I’ll be there. But what about Singapore
“I don’t think Singapore is possible, partly we don’t have such a culture! I will have to tell you the high chance it that will happen might be either China or Japan. Maybe another six or ten years’, time”.
“Japan is one of the pioneer of scale modelling – Tamiya, Hasegawa – but because Japan culture is a very closed off culture, so they have been closing the door as long as they started modelling, but three years ago they woke up! They start to open their door: Shizuoka hobby show! That show is big”.
“I have attended a few good shows in Europe, but when come to a simple modelling environment, Shizuoka is the best show. There’s a lot of excitement, new products, colours, um…no limits of subjects and there’s no competition!”
It’s a club show so there’s trade and there’s club. So they actually open up for America, there’s a club stand for America, Europe, for Asia….and they’re starting to open the door slowly, and once this door is fully open, I believe there’s a chance”.
“But the next thing, I say China! I was shocked now the Chinese young modellers are winning in Europe now, they’re appearing in European magazines, they’re appearing in the European contests and I’m happy because I think they have taken a long time to come through, so now when they attend these shows, the hunger is there”.
What are thoughts on the future of model making, specifically in Singapore but also in the region generally? Is it going to grow as fast as it has done or is it going to slow down?
“Put it this way, modelling has not reduced, its growing but growing differently. Put it this way 20 or 30 years ago modelling growth was military modelling. Small boys, like me, see a tank or see an aircraft: you get crazy over this! Now the young ones get crazy over the robots. Um … I’m just fearful that the standard of modelling might fall.
So long as there’re masters around….isn’t it rather like martial arts? There are a lot of martial arts schools around and lots of people who can do martial arts, but there are very few masters around. People can go to these schools, and they think ‘maybe I want to do some competition’, they go to competition and get flattened. ‘What’s wrong with my technique?’ Well, you didn’t go to a master! So if they’re serious they will speak to a master with an open mind. Perhaps people will hanker for the masters.
“I hope so, I do hope so. I do still see the possibility in this hobby that the East is going towards the Gundam, the West is going towards the War Hammer”.
“War Hammer has been doing a good job. A big brand giving scale modelling a lot of help. But their culture is different to Gundam. Gundam is a very commercialised company. All they want is people buying a lot. They started cheap and they teach you that you do not need to paint your Gundam. You can just mark the panel line and flat coat … bingo, it’s done and now you can buy more! That thing kills the whole [hobby] … um”.
“It’s like you go to a Kungfu school. They tell you ‘no need to train a six pack, no core training, no running, no stamina, just practice the strokes, just have fun’ and then when they go and fight they die!”….
“The games workshop is a different ball game. They have this mentality that if you want to play my game you paint your figure … if you don’t paint your figure then you’re not invited for the game, it’s like a pride thing … okay some people will pay people to paint but they will be people who love to paint there will be a core of people who love painting but they don’t have the game”.
“So there will be a painting side and a gaming side but the standard of creativity between the games workshop and the fantasy world is already….let me put it this way, they are already taking over the military modelling, a lot, because there is no limit to creative painting – the level of colours, the level of finesse, ideas”
What I have noticed in military modelling is that recently people have perhaps gone overboard, there is only so much that you can do to a figure – I mean, a uniform is a uniform, so you’re constrained, so they are taking it out on the vehicles, and you see vehicle which are beautifully presented but so much rust on them that you’re thinking no army on G-d’s green planet would say that’s going to war – clean you tank! So it almost as if they are showing the extreme of artist’s or hobbyist’s capabilities.
“I think that is another subject to discuss. It is the reason that it is artistic, and that’s an ongoing argument….no one will ever win. I think let’s not go there”! [He says, laughing]
“But to me, when I do a model, it is an expression, everybody has their way of expressing …some people who love engineering focus on engineering, some people are focussed on colour and they can paint whatever they want to paint…..”
“My grand master, Calvin Tan’s mentor, Paul Quek, who past way last year, I respect him a lot. He was like the Shepard Paine of Singapore. He once told me, ‘Bernard if someone wants to paint his panther pink, let him be. It’s his model. Why stop him? If he likes a pink panther, let it be a pink panther’!”
This in coming from a grand master. Let’s be fare, everybody starts this hobby with different angles, some people enter competition but never win anything, if they’re happy then let them be. So put it this way, I have come to now know that it is still a hobby and a hobby is something that makes you happy, so there shouldn’t be very harsh rules, unless you want to win a competition. It’s like running, you can run everywhere. You don’t have to run hard, you can run slow, but one day if you are going to go for a marathon, and you say I want to go for a podium – sorry, suck it up go for proper training. So it’s still running but for what reason?”
“I think it’s the same thing for model making, I have customers who come in, they buy a lot of models and they finish very fast, and they’re very happy people. They don’t worry about how they build it or paint it, ‘I finished my model, and must buy another model’. I feel so happy for them, it’s such a beautiful hobby”
“Then there are those who say this is wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong and I never see his models before. They go around condemning everybody’s work, but when you ask them; where’s your work?, they say ‘it’s not ready yet, I’m still trying to make it better!’ but still they are also in the hobby so….so long as the hobby keeps going, it’s okay”.
How important is competition to you personally?
“I have quit competition, MWORKSHOP runs three major competitions in Singapore. Big enough to call them big because for a small country like ours we have 250 to 300 models per show, but I feel sad because after every competition there will be people who are not happy with the result, you know ‘I’m better, you’re better’ … until I visit Japan, you know, the Shizuoka show, I was like Wow! The model standard there is very high but there is no winner! Every year people are so eager to show something, not because they are going to win, they want to share, they’ve made something and they feel so happy about that…“
So the competition for them is just being there?
“Yes, and that’s what I have been doing for the past two years. I have been organising an event for Minicon – (www.facebook.com/MWORKSHOPminicon). No competition, just display. I will prepare a gift for everybody to say good job for finishing, the young ones come to learn and the good modellers come to share, the selfish modellers will never attend. They’ll say ‘there’s nothing to learn, I’m not going to share anything, bye! This is a bad show I’m not going to come’!”
“I’m going to do a charity event in September with a government minister – he’s a modeller, but when he was appointed, he sees that he has no more time for modelling and he has a big collection so what he did, he donated most of the collection to sell it off and the money goes to charity”.
“This year is the fourth year. Modellers with big collections will donate and other modellers will buy what they like and the money goes to charity. So this year I have proposed to them that I will join them but I will do a mega show together with the charity so to help encourage people to finish a model and to do charity at the same time”.
Taking of charities, there are many veterans who have suffered post-traumatic stress in the States and in the UK: two charities started, one in the US called Models For Troops, and one in the UK called Models for Heroes, where a master volunteers to come in and assist veterans. There are no expectations, all that happens is that they give kits to the veterans, and they sit and they model. All the master does is be on hand to answer questions if somebody says ‘how do I do this?’ It seems a very gentle experience.
“It’s beautiful. That’s what I’m trying to go towards. MWORKSHOP started as an elite workshop because, at that time I only wanted to train the best”.
“Why I want to train the best? Not because I wanted to be the best but because I wanted the respect. You see before I started the MWORKSHOP, non-modellers always say ‘these are toys’, you know, ‘waste of time’, you know ‘childish!’ I’m very angry”.
“So I say, I need to shut them down. How can I shut them down? So I told myself that I want to train good modellers. Go out, win international awards come back and they’d see”.
“And true enough, my friends around me, stop calling me childish and toy making. They say ‘wow, you’re doing art now sorry, we understand what you’re doing now’.
But the sad thing is when I was training elites only 20% want to be elites and the balance only want to build for fun!”
“A lot of people say, oh Bernard is very fierce, he always wants to train the best, so some left”.
“Then 8 years ago I started going to a new therapy myself, I started running, so I started running half marathon and eventually full marathon and I love running, but I suck in my running! I don’t run fast enough. I just want to run. I just want to finish any race. I just want win myself!”
“I suddenly understand that yeah, a lot of people when they do models, it’s the same in modelling they just want to enjoy the modelling.
“So that’s where Minicon comes in and that’s why I cut away the competition. No more competition. That’s why I used my marathon running experience I decided to take care of the 80% who enjoy modelling”.
“They love it, they say ‘wow I finished something’ you know, the encouragement [they get] is beautiful because I think I don’t need to take care of the 20%, you know, the elite, the world will take care of them, I want to take care of people and eventually I see this also as art therapy”
“Eventually the population might get older, people will retire, you know, in Singapore because we are such a stressful country, I hear a lot of men retire with depression. The moment they stop working they enter depression. They say ‘my life is gone I’m so empty’ … so I think that if they pick up this hobby, it will be a new life: a new hope like what they do for the veterans.
Bernard, it’s been a great pleasure chatting about model making and listening to your insights.