Scale model building is not particularly popular in China, but there are groups engaged in this hobby in the backrooms on the fringes of this society.
“Why do you like models?” I asked.
“Because I’m not good at sports,” he replied simply.
I was sitting in the backroom of a small outdoor gear shop on a residential street in Taizhou. The guy working there invited me to hang out for a while, and I took him up on the offer. I suppose I was expecting to see rain coats, boots, and hiking poles in this little room, but what was there instead came as a surprise:
Models. These weren’t the grotesque variety of model which struts down runways getting their pictures taken; no, these were the geek kind that sits on shelves in little plexiglas boxes. Assembling and displaying these little plastic scaled replicas of tanks, fighter planes, and battleships is a hobby that is done all over the world, but it’s something that’s rarely in the public light. It’s a backroom sort of occupation, sort of like the one I was sitting in.
“I saw my first model when I was six,” the model builder, who goes my Didi, began. “My dad came back from Beijing and he had a Kawasaki motorcycle.”
He then told me how his bubble of anticipation was promptly burst when his dad told him that he couldn’t have anything to do with the the new model.
“I was always asking my father to bring me home models, and sometimes he would. But he wouldn’t let me touch them. He said that I would break them. I would always ask if we could put a model together. Sometimes I would ask three or four times a day.”
“Finally, my dad and I made one. And then he put it way up high in a case, and he would never let me touch it. I asked him why, and he told me that I would break it if I played with it.”
He then pause for a moment and agreed that he probably would have.
Didi was in his late twenties, he was a university graduate and had a day job working for some mobile communications company or something like that. But each day after work he would come over to the outdoor shop, go into the backroom, and continue working on assembling models.
“I don’t like KTV or pubs, so I spend all of my free time here,” he said.
He wasn’t married either, he just hung out in a little, messy, dimly lit, windowless model assembly room. There were a couple of other guys who worked there as well. They would chat together, look at model building websites, and glue little plastic pieces together.
The workshop was in comfortable disarray. Two old love seats were placed on two sides of a coffee table which sat in the middle of the room. Random boxes full of outdoor gear and other merchandise covered the floor. There was just a little walking path from the door to the couches. Shelves that were packed full of stuff lined the walls. Various stacks of boxes containing yet to be assembled models rose up from the floor. There were three mostly completed plastic tanks on the coffee table along with a few military magazines, messed up assembly diagrams, all kinds of paints, and around a half dozen tubes of modeling cement. Two air pumps connected to air brushes were next to the table. The couches were piled high with junk. There was just enough room for a single butt on each of them. This was a man cave.
“The people who get these models know all about them and their history,” Didi explained. He then told me that the most popular models are from the German and Japanese military.
I questioned him about the desire for Japanese models, as the actions of this military throughout the first half of the 21st century has left scares upon Chinese society that are still readily visible today. But Didi just sort of shrugged, as though it was no big deal.
But they were not just putting these models together for fun. It was a business. The three guys who work here assemble models for other people. Once completed, these models would sell for 500 to 600 RMB each (around $80 – $90). They sold four to six completed pieces per month.
I asked Didi how long they take to put together.
“That one there,” he said while pointing to a box for a model airplane. “It had 900 parts and it took me an entire month to build. But some, like that one,” he pointed to one of the tanks on the coffee table, “I can do in one evening.” He added that they take a couple of evenings to do the paint job.
This was a pro operation. They would do historically accurate, custom paint jobs in accordance with specific wars and battles. Their clients would actually send them photos and request paint jobs to match. They even made fake dirt with a mixture of oil, paint, and flour, and would stick it to the tracks and bodies of the tanks.
“Why do people hire you to build their models? Why don’t they just do it themselves?” I asked, thinking that the actual fun of this hobby was putting the pieces together.
“Because they are rich and can’t be bothered,” Didi responded simply.
“Do they tell other people that they bought them from you?” I asked.
“No, they feel shame!” he said with a laugh.
He then asked me if I like models, and I didn’t really know what to say. I hadn’t even thought about this hobby since I was a kid. I used to put these models together when I was around ten years old. My ex-military uncle introduced me to the hobby, and he would tell me in extensive detail all about the planes that I would very sloppily affix together with modeling glue. My mother did not really approve of this form of recreation, and I can remember that she would always yell warning at me out of fear that I would glue my fingers together. For some reason she thought that I would need surgery to separate them again. So every time I did manage to stick one finger to another I had to walk around with my hand in my pocket until they peeled loose so she wouldn’t make me give up the hobby.
But I cannot say that I ever really got into model building the right way. I was just in it for making toys. I couldn’t care less if I was making an F-16 or an AV-8B Night Attack Harrier II. In fact, I would assemble the models and then glue on cooler parts, like bigger missiles and shit like that. Definitely not good form.
The model builder in Taizhou then showed me photos of his completed pieces on the computer that sat half buried in the corner of the room. There are websites and forums where the Chinese scale model building community posts photos of their projects and discuss the art and the history behind their creations.
“Is this popular in China?” I asked, thinking that I may have missed something during the years that I have spent here.
Didi laughed as if to say no way. “Most people don’t understand why we do this. They say that it is only plastic, the parts don’t move, and they are too expensive.”
This was clearly a fringe hobby, something hanging off the edge of mainstream Chinese society.
“When I was young I could only speak Mandarin,” Didi explained, “I couldn’t speak the local language. So when I first came to Taizhou I couldn’t understand what the other kids were saying and sometimes they couldn’t understand me. So every time I would leave my house they would beat me up. Sometimes it was seven or eight of them and just me. So I didn’t leave my house very much. One day my mom told my dad to buy me a model so I would have something to do.”
When you travel it is easy to meet the bar flies, the karaoke singers, the club goers, the cool dudes, the waitresses, the athletes, the musically inclined, the socialites — the people who stand as the face of their country. It is much more difficult to meet those who are hiding out in backrooms, who are obsessed with niche hobbies or unpopular intrigues, who are building up a body of knowledge and expertise that their societies generally have no use for. Rather than pumping time into being sociable and climbing the rungs of success, they more often than not abscond into their arts and passions. Some are disenfranchised, others just rather do other things. Some are outsiders, cast aways, cast asides who have chosen a path less traveled that runs off to the side of their culture’s mainstream. It is this later, difficult to meet, almost impossible to identify, group that I look for when moving through this world. These are often people who have something to talk about.
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