Frustrated by the lack of quality lightsabers in toy shops, Tsai Makoto (蔡榮洲) did what any self-respecting hardcore Star Wars fan would do — he studied engineering at college and then spent years perfecting a replica.
The 36-year-old is part of a small group of artisans around the world who have forged successful careers hand-crafting remarkably realistic models of the movie saga’s famous energy swords.
As fans gather globally on May 4 for what has become the unofficial Star Wars Day — this year mourning the death of towering Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew — many are likely to be clutching one of Tsai’s lightsabers, made in his workshop near Taipei.
Over the past decade, he has shipped about 1,000 blades to about 40 countries, ranging from the US, France and Cuba to Peru, Iceland and Tunisia. Prices start at US$255 and about 80 percent of his orders come from abroad.
Locals are offered a half-price discount, providing that they pass a written test “to prove they have enough passion for Star Wars.”
“I hand-make every piece of work, so it is very intimate to me. I only want those who really like it to own it,” said Tsai at his memorabilia-filled workshop.
Star Wars might have become a multibillion-dollar Hollywood franchise, but fans have long complained that the official lightsabers on the market are flimsy and disappointing versions of the whizzing, crackling, swords seen in the films.
As a result, a whole cottage industry has sprung up of replica manufacturers filling a gap that more-established companies have uncharacteristically failed to fill.
Advances in battery, LED and computing technology have helped these artisans create increasingly sophisticated replicas, many of them choosing to avoid overt branding from the films to reduce their exposure on copyright issues.
Bright tubes of light and motion-linked audio cards that make a noise similar to the film’s sound effects are now standard.
Among fans of the custom saber scene, California-based Michael Murphy is known as “Yoda.”
His online shop and forum FXSabers.com is the go-to place for those trading tips on where to buy and how to build the best lightsabers.
“As far as people doing installations like myself and Makoto, I’d say it’s grown from the original group of 25 back in the early years to well over 100 people out there, in forums and on Facebook, offering services for sabers in one way or another,” he said.
The original lightsaber wielded by Luke Skywalker in the first 1977 installment — a remarkably budget production compared with its lavish follow-ups — was little more than the handle of an old Graflex camera flash.
Those retro flashes have now become notoriously hard to source thanks to Star Wars fans. The most expensive fan-built lightsaber replicas, which feature original Graflex handles, have sold for as much as US$15,000 on eBay.
Tsai first fell for Star Wars as a teenager and his quest for a realistic lightsaber prompted him to study electro-optical engineering and then work in that industry until he became a full-time lightsaber maker more than a decade ago.
Tsai said he constantly researches to make his lightsabers “brighter, more durable and easier to maneuver” so that they can be used in fencing, which he has been promoting in Taiwan with regular duels.
The business also supports fan and charity gatherings he organists free of charge.
“I spend two-thirds of my time organizing events. My mission is to promote Star Wars in Taiwan as hard as I can to draw out more fans,” he added.
One of his proudest moments was an outing to the Presidential Office Building on last year’s Star Wars Day.
Darth Vader, Chewbacca and a motley crew of intergalactic characters chanted: “May the force be with you” alongside Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), while toy-gun-toting stormtroopers joined military police to stand guard outside the landmark in downtown Taipei.
This year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) made a surprise appearance at the event in Taipei’s Xinyi District (信義) celebrating international Star Wars Day.
Holding a lightsaber, the main weapon in the Star Wars universe consisting of a metal hilt and a plasma blade, the president and 100-plus fans, dressed up as popular characters from the movies, such as Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, yesterday shouted the most famous slogan from the franchise: “May the force be with you.”
She stayed at the gathering for about five minutes before wrapping up her surprise appearance.
Tsai Makoto said he hopes that the president’s seal of approval for this year’s event will encourage more Star Wars and other sci-fi franchise lovers to attend similar events, without feeling that dressing up like sci-fi movie characters is immature or childish.
With plenty more Star Wars films planned by the Disney-owned franchise in the years ahead, Tsai Makoto said that he is confident he will have new generations of fans flocking to buy his lightsabres.
“I am very optimistic that there will be more and more die-hard fans and we can definitely keep the momentum for at least another decade,” he said.
Additional reporting by CNA
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