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Models of industry and artistry
By Hu Min

Once upon a time, many boys were crazy about making models of military vessels, aircraft, tanks and other war machines. They immersed themselves in military history and battlefield legends. Working with basic kits of plastic, metal and wooden parts, they meticulously assembled scale models and painted them.

Today homework comes first so there's far less time for hobbies. But there are still dedicated amateur model-makers and professionals who turn out remote-controlled models for a living.

Models are exact, down to the last movable screw, piston, gas tank cap and antenna. They can be fueled and launched. The paint matches that on the real vessels. Some vintage works are painted to look naturally rusted, and a reconstructed battle scene even contains specks of dust and rubble. Replicated vegetation is authentic.

The kits for models are far more sophisticated nowadays; some have thousands of parts and require more than 100 tools to assemble. There's a vast online market selling kits for ancient, vintage and modern vessels, aircraft and battlefield equipment. But Shanghai today has fewer than 10 bricks-and-mortar stores that model-makers can browse.

An exhibition underway at the Shanghai Public Art Center on Guyi Road features 12 elaborate, award-winning works by professionals on the first floor and more than 100 works by dedicated amateurs on the second.

The first-floor exhibition runs through tomorrow, while the second floor is open through January 25.


Shi Wei, a 26-year-old amateur, and Sun Hefeng, a 27-year-old professional, became obsessed with making models, mostly military vessels, when they were in primary school. Today they are every bit as enthusiastic and they are still glued to their replicas.

Six years ago they set up Model Z club in Shanghai for model zealots like themselves. Today it has around 200 members. Anyone, at any level of craftsmanship, can join; membership is free.

"Models are like artworks for us," says Shi, who sells air-conditioners and makes extremely sophisticated models in his spare time. He makes time by giving up some dinners with friends and KTV.

Sun is a member of the city's marine model team that takes part in national and international competitions in which works are judged by authenticity, craftsmanship, speed and mobility. "Making models is like creating pieces of art," he says.

There are competitions for marine models, involving both speed and appearance in the world, and the Chinese Marine Model Association in China recruits and trains "sports" persons to take part in global competitions, notably by the Vienna-based Naviga organization.

On the first floor of the Shangai Public Art Center, visitors can see Sun's award-winning model of the Nagato, commissioned in 1920, the major battleship of the imperial Japanese navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf (in the Philippines) in October 1944. The scale is 1:350 and the model is around 70 centimeters in length.

It contains 20,000 parts, the smallest around "one-fifth of the length of an ant," Sun says. He worked full time every day for four months on the model.

Seven years ago, Shi and Sun launched the annual Shanghai New Year Model Contest, open to everyone. The 2012 event drew 127 submissions; the youngest model-maker is only seven years old, the oldest is 73. It includes military and civilian models, as well as figures from science fiction, comics and animation.

Winners are displayed at the ongoing exhibition, including the Japanese Gundam Series and Saint Seiya animation.

The most popular marine models are World War II military vessels from around the world and the most popular aircraft are modern, such as the MiG and F series of fighters.

Long-time model-makers prefer military models because the earliest kits and blueprints were of military vessels, aircraft and tanks, says Zhu Xiaozhen, a judge of the contest, himself famous for award-winning models.

Emphasis is placed on realism, historical accuracy and scale congruity of the miniatures. In many cases, blueprints do not depict inner structures and machinery, so dedicated model makers need to do research so the entire model is authentic.

"The process of making things clear and exploration is the real fun of making models," Shi says.

Real addicts equip themselves with extensive historical knowledge before starting on a military model. Kits - say for a US Navy Fletcher-class World War II destroyer - must be adapted to depict particular vessels engaged in particular conflicts.

A tank on display has been meticulously painted with rust colors to give it a vintage feel. A model soldier, with authentic uniform type and color, artillery, camouflage and other details are added for authenticity.

"Color gives a model life and soul," Zhu says. Even the most seemingly trivial detail can ruin a work in the eyes of real professionals.

Detail matters

In this year's contest, an otherwise outstanding World War II tank model in a battlefield was criticized by judges because the model-maker used the same green color as that used in German military vehicles.

"It's a fatal mistake, but it cannot be easily discerned," says Shi.

Aficionados pay special attention to the style, color, even the buttons of soldiers' uniforms and the color of the soil and species of vegetation growing in historic battle areas. These items are not included in kits.

In another work, a German tank (Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B Tiger B, King Tiger) known by the British as the Royal Tiger is depicted amid the rubble in Berlin in 1944. It looks like a scene from photos, down to the dust and broken stones.

"Brick is gray, but there are different grays, and it is detail that decides the success of a work," Shi says. "There is no specific measure, but use your eyes and you can feel the quality of a work."

Hu Wei, 58, started making military models when he was a boy. At that time models were made of wood and simple carving techniques were required.

Works from model-makers in their 60s are displayed. One man bought blueprints from a shipping factory and did meticulous carpentry to complete the work.

Nowadays, plastics, metals and resins are commonly used and kits are quite comprehensive.

Young people tend to like science fiction and animation models, which are simpler to make than military vessels and aircraft.

Many people like the idea of making models but lack the patience, dexterity and technical knowledge of particular models to create good work.

A motorcycle model on display came from a kit that did not include the motorcycle chain and the maker had to assemble his own from tiny pieces of metal that cost several hundred yuan. It took six hours to assemble the chain alone.

However, many people give up.

Only around 100 people in the city can be considered professionals who invest considerable time and money in model-making. It's still a small-group pursuit.

Models on display can sell for as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,612), depending on materials and craftsmanship. Some models built by Sun sell for around 10,000 yuan, while his actual cost is around 1,000 yuan. Of course, some sell for far more.

"For people who have not achieved a certain level of craftsmanship, the price of a finished model depends on the cost of materials, while experienced craftsmen can charge more," Shi says.

Models are also traded online. There is no real market.

Interest in model-making has recently expanded thanks to the Internet. As in other fields, stand-alone stores selling model kits have closed in favor of Internet shops.

But real addicts prefer real stores.

"We want to actually touch and examine model kits and talk with real people," Shi says.

Models exhibition

Dates: Through January 15 for first-floor professional models; Through January 25 for second-floor nonprofessional, 9:30am-4:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Mass Art Center, 125 Guyi Rd, Xuhui District

Admission: Free

Tel: 5424-4152

How to get there: Metro Lines 3, 4 and 9 at Yishan Road Station

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164