When Song Ping is home after a day’s work at his clinic, he finds time to touch up the polish and weathering on his battle-hardened armour plates.
The dentist isn’t a part-time mercenary. Rather, as a member of a Star Wars cosplay outfit 501st Legion, he dresses up as a genetically modified human soldier Captain Rex from The Clone Wars cartoon series for Star Wars related events, as well as to perform charity work in hospitals.
Ever since picking up his first toy lightsabre at the age of eight, Song Ping has yearned to be part of the massive intergalactic battle that has spanned generations and enthralled millions. Now at the age of 29, he is finally living his childhood dream, albeit with plastic mock-ups of his hero’s weapons.
When we meet on the weekend before the highly anticipated release of the eighth Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Song Ping has dragged with him a huge black suitcase that contains his hand-made costume worth more than $2,000, and which took him about six months to put together.
Yet, he reveals that his painstakingly created costume still prevents him from sitting down, and thus he has to stand for hours in the cumbersome outfit at events. “Army fatigues are still more comfortable,” he jokes.
Benjamin: Has anyone said that you are too old to play dress-up?
Song Ping: It’s funny that you say that because I’m probably on the lower end of the age spectrum in the community. There is an 18-year-old age requirement to join the Legion, and while there are a handful who joined right after finishing school with their parents’ money, you find that a lot of them are in their 30s and 40s, some 50s even.
Our community is 15 years old this year, and there are a couple of Stormtroopers who have been around longer before that.
Age is not really a factor, and so far everyone’s been really supportive. Don’t let age deter you, you can have fun no matter what age you are as long as you have the confidence to rock it, go for it.
B: What sets the 501st’s Star Wars costumes apart from the regular cosplay?
SP: I think we pride ourselves a lot on the accuracy of our costumes. You want to look like you jumped straight off the movie screen and into real life, when fans take photos with us it’s a very happy memory, it looks as though we stepped off a theme park or movie set.
Therefore the costume has to look believable, as opposed to one that may be made from foam or cardboard which may not look as realistic. Using cheaper materials is cool too and I salute the effort and craftsmanship, but we in the Legion take it to the next level.
There is a strict set of guidelines to adhere to when making the costumes, and we have a panel of judges who will assess each new aspiring member’s creation to ensure that they meet a certain standard to be shown off at events.
All cosplayers claim they put in a lot of effort in making their costumes, of course to various degrees. But if you do it well and do it right your dress-up will look exceptionally good.
B: Do you consider yourself a geek?
SP: Yes, and I’m proud to wear it.
Being an adult geek means embracing what you like and who you are without fear, because life is too short for stereotypes and trying to conform to be like everyone else. You are no longer a schoolkid, and you no longer have to listen to what anyone tells you to do.
Geekiness is something that we can embrace as a whole bunch of people who share the same kind of hobby so we don’t feel ostracised.
I’ve told people that the place I feel most at home is Comic-Con because I feel at ease there. No one is judging me, and I can just let loose. It almost seems like that’s what life should feel like, while the real world is not actually quite like it. There’s no greater feeling than just being who you are.
B: What do your parents think about your dress-up hobby?
SP: There’s a charity component to it, so they don’t mind me investing in it. In fact, they’re quite supportive. They drive me to events and sometimes join in at some of the events in our neighbourhood. Most importantly, they know how much it means to me.
My mum actually tagged along during my trip to the London Star Wars Celebration last year, even though I told her that the event was basically my thing. She didn’t mind walking about the convention by herself and I think she enjoyed the experience. She’s not a huge fan, but now she’s got a bit of street cred because she can say she’s met characters from the movie in person.
SP: It’s a curious question because I don’t think there is a real fixed answer to that.
I think a lot of what makes the movie franchise special is the familial bonds it fosters. In 1977, you had young kids and adults watching the first film, and then as they grew up with the series, they ride the tide and pass on the love for the films to their kids. Each new Star Wars production appeals to the next generation.
When I first watched the original trilogy on VHS, I thought it was so cool, especially fighting with glowing swords. I may not have understood the bigger picture or the political undertones of the movie at that point in time, but the appeal of that sticks with you for a long time. And then it becomes something to talk about with other fans.
Star Wars is such a huge part of my life, it will be pretty impossible to not have any family involvement at all. Even if I had a family, I foresee myself still ducking out at times to attend costume events, and it would still be a mainstay entertainment at home.
B: Why are you proud to serve the 501st?
SP: Seeing happy faces on children when you go to events and charity visits, that is the biggest gratification that you can get. When sick children see you, they forget everything. There are few feelings better than that, and it makes your effort worthwhile. I also probably look less frightening as Captain Rex than as a dentist.
SP: The clone trooper! We are the better class of soldiers, not like those cheap knock-offs. Stormtroopers didn’t have the regimental training that we used to have. We were bred from a young age to be soldiers, while Stormtroopers are conscripted people from all over the galaxy, and armies are churned out in such large numbers that you can’t upkeep standards.
We as clone troopers are definitely elitist. We’ve seen way more action than Stormtroopers, we’ve got better armour, better vision, and we’re all alike, because we’re clones, so we know the strengths of each other.
B: Who makes the best boss in the Empire?
SP: Darth Vader. He motivates you to do your best and pushes you to be the best that you can be, or else you risk a permanent retirement. Having served alongside him before, he’s a good boss.
SP: The First Order is basically about obeying orders from the old guy in charge (Supreme Commander Snoke). They’ve got all the firepower but they lack imagination. And because they are so strong, they don’t need to be creative – they simply rely on their brute force. That’s probably why they’ve been defeated over and over again. Come on, their base got destroyed by a mere few bombs (in the previous movie).
On the other hand, the Resistance is constantly tied down by their political motivations. They are a mishmash of different political agendas, and that has always been their biggest issue. They are always trying to scramble this small herd of people to fight the enemy.
But because they are undermined by a small fighting fleet, they have to be creative with their attacks. Lack of resource is their greatest weakness, and their greatest strength is their ability to adapt and play around that.
SP: Our system is a mishmash of political ideologies. You need to draw the line at some point where people have to follow the law. You remember your hao gong ming (civic mindedness) textbooks? Lessons like “don’t litter or you will be sent to Corrective Work Order” made us who we are as a society.
We may be brought up in a system that is strict, but I find that works. The liberals may see this as taking away our freedom and our rights, and that’s their right to feel that way.
They may say we are a nanny state, but we are a far cry from that. We are perhaps watched a little bit more closely than other societies, but it’s no bad thing to feel safe.
It’s important not to get too carried away thinking about what others think and then try to change your ways. Yes, we must move with the times, we can’t stay closed off, but how far along the spectrum are you willing to go to be comfortable?
Singapore is pretty unique, and we should find our own footing. We don’t have to be like either Star Wars faction. If you’re like the Resistance, you will be besieged by political infighting, people trying to outdo one another, and then you end up having a militia staging coups. Then you have the First Order which is just a complete dictatorship and uses brute force.
So somewhere in between is probably the sweet spot.