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Another Brick in Macao

Mon, 25th Jan 2016
Exhibition shows local landmarks made from miniature blocks. (January 2016)

At first glance, Senado Square looks lively and crowded. Local people and tourists tread the wavy black-and-white cobblestone patterns and explore the historic site. But this idyllic image of Macao’s central square is not what it seems.

Upon closer inspection, one realises that this is neither reality nor a photograph, but a replica made from hundreds of thousands of the most famous building pieces in the world – LEGO® bricks.

The “Macau X LEGO® Exhibition” was on display until 28th December 2015 at the Ritz Building and the Macao Science Center. It included miniature replicas of iconic landmarks like Rua da Felicidade, the Ruins of St. Paul and even the colourful benches facing the broad Avenida da Amizade that simulate the Macau Grand Prix route.

This grand endeavor, using over 120,000 LEGO pieces, was the concept and creation of Hong Kong artist Andy Hung; his enchantment with the colourful blocks has endured since his childhood.

From amateur to professional

Hung’s story began like that of any other child: a five-year-old boy receives his first LEGO set and falls completely in love. But unlike other children, this boy does not stop building. One day, he realised that he needed to move on. It was time to stop receiving such toys as presents, leave the playing behind, devote himself to his studies and enter the job market.

But Hung could not resist the allure of LEGO. "In 2003, I was in a shopping centre and saw a set that looked very interesting. I bought and built it, and from that day on there has been no turning back."

As Internet use became more widespread and specialty forum communities emerged, Hung realised that there were people who shared his passion for LEGO construction. 

The Internet has brought other advantages – procuring missing pieces at competitive prices. Collectors and aficionados can now buy a pass that provides access to more pieces, making it possible to buy missing pieces at cheaper prices. This pass also means that one is not limited to only what is available in each box set.

Mixing pieces from different sets was vital to Hung’s project. For example, the replica of the Ruins of St. Paul, built in collaboration with his friend and colleague Alex, was constructed entirely from LEGO pieces in shades of grey – from the tiny plastic screwdrivers to the hundreds of small cube bricks. "This is contrary to what our mothers told us about not mixing up the pieces from one set with another," said Hung, laughing.

So how does a 30-year-old adult start a successful career as a LEGO artist?

Hung and fellow enthusiasts from LEGO fan clubs presented their structures to the head of LEGO marketing in Hong Kong. Impressed with their work, he invited them to participate in the LEGO display at Ani-Com & Games Hong Kong.

This marked the beginning of a steady stream of invitations and commissions, ranging from displays in shopping centres for replicas of world cities to requests from government institutions for heritage building miniatures.

Hung’s work proved popular, drawing large crowds of visitors. People often queued for hours to get a glimpse of his creations.

Having honed his assembly skills, Hung was ready to pit his artistry in competition. He entered a certified LEGO competition with a Japanese master presiding.

"It was the piece that changed my life."

The piece, inspired by the cartoon Totoro, earned him both the highest score awarded by the public as well as the highest score ever bestowed by the jury. His score, to date, has yet to be beaten. "It's hard to get a good score from the public and, at the same time, a good evaluation by the jury because the criteria are very different. Both have different angles, but this piece led LEGO to invite me to work with them," says Hung.

In 2013, LEGO nominated Hung for the honour of LEGO Certified Professional (LCP) in the South China region. This distinction normally requires two years of training. But, in early 2015, LEGO evaluated Hung’s performance and fast-tracked his LCP title before he had completed the two-year programme.

No time to play

An LCP, according to Hung, requires both construction technique and talent. "It’s not enough to build well; you also need to have some communication talent. Your marketing plan and standards need to be high."

Hung’s profession, contrary to popular belief, is more than just fun and games. In addition to being a creator of LEGO art, he is also a promoter of the brand, which entails great responsibility. "Some people promote a brand without having to build so much. When I build, I have many rules, first because they are often commissioned works, and also because I cannot use parts other than LEGO. All parts have to be official and cannot be modified, stuck or glued. We can mix parts from different sets, but they must always be LEGO and can never be customised unless there is a very strong reason," he explained.

Established in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a master carpenter and joiner, the family-owned business started out making useful household items as well as wooden toys. By 1934, the company adopted the name LEGO, from the Danish words "LEg GOdt" ("play well") and meaning serendipitously, "I put together" in Latin. Since then, the toy company has created more than 35,000 different LEGO elements in more than 60 different colours.

LEGO is currently the world's leading toymaker, having surpassed the former leader Mattel, which makes toys like Hot Wheels cars and Barbie dolls. For a company that predominantly produces only one toy, this is quite a feat.

It was not always so. By 2004, with sales in steady decline since 1999, the LEGO Group felt the need to adapt to new market realities. Today, the brand creates designer pieces, furniture, a clothing line, publications and complex toys; it has produced programmes for film and television. The business remains family-owned and has even made education programmes.

A piece of Macao

Part of the company's marketing strategy is to install exhibitions in international cities, including Macao. In 2013, the Macao Government Tourist Office (MGTO) ran a promotion in Hong Kong. LEGO’s beloved building blocks were featured in large-scale roadshows showcasing famous Macao landmarks. It was so well received that it inspired further collaboration. “After seeing [a replica of Leal Senado], we thought this would be a good opportunity to bring the artists to Macao to showcase their work for tourists and residents,” said Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, Director of the Macao Government Tourist Office. Thousands of people went to the exhibition.

MGTO organised an interactive and educational element: a workshop series hosted by Hung in which children learned to build their own miniature monuments, such as the A-Ma Temple.

The workshops were extremely popular, filling the tables of the Macao Science Center with young creators. Hung did not find this surprising. Through the activity he has seen growing in fan clubs and forums, he realised that there is a lot of talent and love of LEGO in Macao, amongst both children and adults.

The Macao LEGO Fans community page on Facebook has almost 3,000 likes; there is a store exclusively dedicated to LEGO in the Red Market area.

A child's dream, a mother's nightmare

One mother, Mrs Lai, was at the exhibition with her eight-year-old son Jason; he was enchanted by the pieces.

She said that the family made the trip to Macao solely to visit the miniatures. "LEGO is a dream for the kids but a nightmare for mothers, because the house becomes a field of LEGO," she said. “From time to time, the vacuum cleaner swallows one or two missing pieces under the sofa, but this makes the challenge of building greater."

Creating LEGO art is a sentimental endeavour, no matter one’s age. When a large tower of coloured pieces topples, it is highly frustrating for a child. Hung said that disassembling a creation was also painful. "I never want to destroy any of the creations. Transportation is undoubtedly a problem because the pieces end up falling, but, unless I think I can build an improved version of the same building, I see no reason to dismantle what's been made."

The pieces that graced Macao travelled to his studio in Hong Kong. Hung promised that more creations were destined for Macao’s future.

Lego in Numbers:

- World’s No.1 toymaker

- To date, LEGO has produced enough elements to average 86 pieces per person on the planet. That’s roughly 634 billion pieces in total worldwide

- LEGO’s replica of the Star Wars™ X-Wing starfighter is the largest ever made. The life-size model weighs 23 tons and measures 3.35 meters tall, 13.1 meters long, with a wingspan of 13.44 meters

- LEGO produces 117,000 LEGO pieces per minute

- In 2014, LEGO launched its first animated movie and was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe

- Currently there are 30 million videos with LEGO animation posted on the Internet and via social networks

Text Catarina Mesquita

Photos Eric Tam and GCS

Illustrations Fernando Chan

(Issue N.32, January 2016)