Star Wars

Out in Force: meet Hong Kong’s biggest Star Wars fans

Members of fan groups the 501st Legion and Rebel Legion spend thousands of dollars creating Star Wars costumes, and display a level of enthusiasm for the space opera that borders on religious fervour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2015, 10:34am

Kito Leung Kin-sing’s father got him hooked on the original Star Wars trilogy when he was a boy. He continued to watch the movies obsessively at home after his parents divorced and his father left. After watching 2002’s Attack of the Clones and while still in high school, he began creating costumes, working on them late into the night while his family slept. A few months ago, Leung started working on a highly detailed, accurate clone trooper from the Star Wars prequels.

Most of his friends, not being Star Wars fans, don’t understand his fascination with the franchise. “Some friends say I’m strange because I’m the only person [they know] with this kind of interest, and they can’t see the point,” says Leung, who now works part-time while taking tertiary courses.

His family frown at the pursuit too: “My family members don’t really approve of what I do. Maybe they are a bit more conservative; they think that dressing up is something that a clown might do. But this is my interest and it makes me happy. I don’t play much basketball, for example, but my parents really want me to get into it. I’d rather spend time on my costumes than sports.”

Leung joined a group of super fans in Hong Kong called the 501st Legion, part of a global network of enthusiasts who dress up as Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader and other characters from the evil Galactic Empire to promote their love of the franchise and volunteer at charity events (like visiting paediatric wards and appearing at fundraisers).

Other Hong Kong fans have formed a group called the Rebel Legion, which dresses up as Jedi knights, rebel pilots and the forces of good.

The fan community around the world is so committed that some scholars compare their passion to a religion.

A few years ago, Disney (and previously Lucasfilm) began inviting the 501st’s Hong Kong garrison to its promotional events. This week’s release of the latest Star Wars epic, The Force Awakens, has meant a busier time than usual for the members. They appeared in a Star Wars parade in the summer, and more recently at Times Square where the mall has a large Lego model of an X-Wing on display.

Anyone can join 501st Legion if they agree with its charitable mission, accept that not all members of the local garrison (currently 36 people) can appear at each event (Stormtroopers are often in demand, unlike the lesser known Scout Troopers that fly speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi) and maintain a costume that meets official requirements.

That last condition isn’t easy to fulfil: Leung spent a month making sure his costume was up to scratch. Hong Kong garrison founder Man Kam-sang estimates a set of 501st Legion-worthy Stormtrooper armour will cost about HK$20,000.

The 501st Legion website has a detailed visual guide for costume requirements. But garrison members are usually so familiar with the most minute details that they can instantly describe how Stormtrooper gear differs in the first three films released between 1977 and 1983.

For example, the patch of grey armour below the trooper’s eyes can feature anywhere from five to seven black stripes, explains Arthur Wong Chi-yee, a forty-something freelance media professional in the 501st Legion.

Wong spent two months working on his armour, but says some members take up to six months. The hardest part to get right is the area around the ears, he says; it took him a few days to chip away at the plastic moulding to get the correct shape.

Some 501st legionnaires are already working on costumes of the new Stormtroopers that will appear in the latest movie. However, these probably won’t be seen in public until they’ve had time to make sure all the details are right, Wong says.

The 501st and Rebel legions often team up for major events such as the annual Lunar New Year parade.

In the 2012 parade, 22 cosplayers dressed as various Star Wars characters and walked through Tsim Sha Tsui, raising HK$10,000 for the Children’s Cancer Foundation. That was a memorable day, says trader Carmen Chiang Ching-man, a founding member of the Rebel group.

The Rebel Legion holds monthly gatherings at the Central or Kwun Tong waterfront, where they duel with lightsabres fitted with powerful LEDs and audio gear. The weapons are as bright and loud as the ones seen in the films.

In a paper published in the Jo urnal of the American Academy of Religion in 2012, US academic John Lyden compared Star Wars fan activity to religious behaviour. Some fans take pop culture phenomena such as Star Wars or Harry Potter very seriously.

Lyden, the liberal arts core director at Grand View University in Iowa, argues that religious scholars should expand the definition of religion to include mythologies in popular culture that serve to teach moral lessons, even if the fans aren’t clamouring to be recognised that way.

“Like my own religious tradition of Christianity, or other religions I have studied, [Star Wars] also involves faith in things not seen; it also involves trusting in the good in people even when you are not certain it is there; it also involves forgiveness and compassion and not responding with violence to things even when we are angry and fearful,” he says.

Lyden concedes that other religious scholars disagree, saying that the inclusion of pop culture fan activity in their study makes light of the subject of religion.

He points out, however, that many people around the world practise traditions and rituals related to tribal mythologies that weren’t originally considered religions either.

Christians often didn’t want to dignify spiritual traditions they encountered in other parts of the world with the term because that would mean taking them seriously, Lyden says. “So when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World and saw people who believed in spirits and the afterlife and rituals, he said, ‘there’s no religion here’.

“To create a category and put all these things in the same box is a modern idea evolved out of the study of religion itself, so already, it’s an invented category.”

The argument isn’t confined to theory. According to a BBC report, people in Australia, Canada and other countries declared their religion as Jedi following a 2001 campaign. In the 2011 census of England and Wales, more than 170,000 people identified themselves as Jedi Knights, more than the number who called themselves atheist, agnostic or Bahá’í.

Among other things, the New Zealand Jedi Society believes in an afterlife, peace and justice, service to others, using the Force for good, and protecting the helpless. However, officials rejected the group’s application for charitable status this year as it was not “sufficiently structured, cogent, or serious,”.

American media producer Jonathan Bowenalso drew parallels between the plot points of Star Wars and elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity in a chapter he co-wrote in Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise.

And as he sees it,the differing views of Star Wars are the reason why the series has remained popular for decades.

“All these religions, while they certainly have major differences, they boil down to certain similar characteristics. When you look at those core tenets, Star Wars is able to appeal to all people of all religious faiths because they see something in it that’s true from their perspective,” Bowen says. “Everybody sees what they want to see.”

But to Man and other local members of the 501st Legion, they are a subculture with a unified and systematic way of celebrating the films they love.