Unlike the official minifigs in LEGO’s collection, Sze Sze Ong’s toys accurately portray what regular Asians look like – which is to say, not everyone looks like a ninja or a geisha.
The hobbyist from Singapore creates minifigs that look like the people in her neighborhood, as well as famous Singaporeans. As you can see, her toys look a bit different from the ones LEGO issues.
Each character has a nose and a set of ears, for instance. But more importantly, they all have varying skin tones, instead of the typical yellow. Their clothes are also more realistic, with most wearing simple everyday garments.
It’s a refreshing take on LEGO minifigures, especially considering most of the company’s Asian characters are limited to cultural stereotypes such as kung-fu masters, sumo wrestlers, and samurai.
We recently spoke with Sze Sze about her interest in LEGO, her work with custom minifigs, and Singapore’s art scene.
“My boyfriend is a HUGE LEGO fan and would often bring out different minifigures for outdoor photoshoots. I used to wander around during his shoot until one time I had some ideas for characters which weren’t actually available.
“For practice, I made the first custom minifigure of him as a surprise gift. After that, I got more interested in creating other cartoon and celebrities themed characters.
“I think LEGO purists would dislike the fact that I added ears and nose to the human minifigures. However, I personally found it quite vague and generic to create caricature or representation of people without those facial features.
“As I got more fixated about customising minifigures, I also realised that there were not many Asian themed minifigures (that didn’t look like Western stereotypes of Asian people LOL). Hence, I began customising minifigures based on the people in my neighbourhood. Even my dad and nephew are part of the minifigures troupe.”
“I think that the local creative scene has gained a lot of traction, especially in the last ten years. There’s been a lot of government-funded efforts to showcase and encourage emerging youth and indie brands across different creative disciplines.
“A council was even set up to develop the design/creative industry in Singapore. Outstanding individuals across all creative industries are eligible for the President’s Design award, an honour reserved for the cream of the crop.
“Yet, of course, artist freedom of expression is a slightly touchy matter here especially if it is racially/religiously/politically provocative.
“In the last couple of years, there has been an explosion of art markets, fairs, and festivals that showcase creative talents. It’s definitely an encouraging trend to witness.
“However, this trend also revealed a certain kind of preference certain styles and influences – which might be a creative irony (or perhaps I had attended one too many art markets and festival). On the other hand, this could also set a certain standard for the craft practiced.”
“I have a childhood motto: ‘What I can’t buy I make’. I was not quite satisfied with the existing LEGO minifigure options and decided to customise my own.”