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On the Job With: Tim Ho and Ian Choi, miniature artists

By Jen Paolini 12 August 2022

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From paint-toting plumbers to beer brewers, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Tim Ho and Ian Choi—two miniature artists—about how to keep the culture of Hong Kong alive on a small scale.

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“We have known each other for a long time. For 20 years, actually, but it was only about a decade ago that we discovered our common interest in toys. We were both doing similar things and building miniatures at home, and then we came together to collaborate. It’s something we like doing because of our artistic interest in models and toys.”

“Our first proper collaboration was for the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo. At that time, we wanted to build miniatures for different industries. Ian suggested creating a miniature toy shop instead, and I happened to collect a lot of miniature toys. I especially like Hong Kong-related toys. I think that was 12 years ago. It’s quite funny that our first miniature project also had something to do with toys. Since our first collaboration, we’ve continued to work together, so that was the beginning of our journey.”

“I really like Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of people feel nostalgic about those eras, and so our early works are more nostalgic, too. We focused on old Hong Kong. I personally have memories and feelings associated with those times, and the things we used to see before don’t exist anymore. Our miniatures were centred around the disappearance of old Hong Kong—things that have already vanished or are about to vanish.

“I feel that I am very emotionally attached to these vanishing things and places so I wanted to use a different way to record and retain them. After making miniatures, I found out that it can be another way to preserve culture. It resonates a lot with audiences, too.”

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“I grew up in Kwun Tong. When we made the model for Yue Man Square, I infused every corner of the miniature with my own childhood memories. Rental bookshops, local beef noodle stalls, even McDonald’s and Fairwood, and Bonds Theatre—which we used to go to over Chinese New Year—I put all of these elements into the miniature.

“When I passed through Kwun Tong when I was younger, I used to see Tsang Tsou-choi (King of Kowloon) painting in the neighbourhood, so I added a scene of him writing calligraphy on an electrical box in the miniature. I also used to wait for minibuses at the station after getting off school and work, so I have a clear memory of that, too. I would say the Kwun Tong model definitely carries a lot of my own personal recollections.”

“Ian is like the architect. He’s responsible for the layout design and the architectural approach for the model. We’ll discuss and treat the miniature like a building project.

“First, I will design the miniature environment on the computer. And when the big picture is complete, then we will design the details separately, like which items we want to include in the model, and what characters we would like to put where.

“Recently, using 3D scanning technology makes building miniatures easier, but some things cannot be scanned, like the people in the 1950s photographs shot by Fan Ho. Ian’s approach is to use the computer to draw a person from scratch, then print out the character with a 3D printer and colour it. When we started 12 years ago, we couldn’t do this. Back then, you really had to use clay to sculpt the models. It would have been impossible to imagine back then that you could use a computer to do all this work for you now.”

“Designing the characters for our models was a big obstacle in the beginning. Our early miniatures have very few characters—just the building or the setting and the scenery—because adding people to the environment is actually quite difficult. We are self-taught; we never received any special instruction or training to learn how to make miniatures, but we did decide to take a course to learn how to sculpt heads. It’s because we realised that the miniatures looked less lively if they didn’t have any people in them. But adding people and sculpting them was hard, so we did have to take a workshop to learn this particular skill.

“Even after learning how to sculpt heads, it’s still a difficult technique to perfect. When making a sculpture or a portrait of a person, it’s easy to shape it into a person, but it’s much harder to make that person look like a specific someone. My goal is to create a scene that is related to where I live, which is a housing estate, so the miniature needs to have models of me and my family—that’s a huge challenge and I have not dared to try it.”

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“One of the miniatures we created is the Wong Tai Sin Temple. I have a deep affection for it because I used to live in Upper Wong Tai Sin Estate. Pinwheels have always held a special place in my heart so I wanted to show an aspect of my childhood by making a model of the temple, and that particular miniature combines both old and new elements.”

“I did want to be an artist when I was younger, to be honest. But when you get older, you don’t really believe that you can still chase those dreams, so it’s already quite special to me that through our miniatures, I can still connect with the ambitions of my younger self. Plus, our miniatures are exhibited a lot, and we get a lot of opportunities to meet people who want to hear about our experiences. It’s something we could never have imagined.”

“We’re both full-time engineers, so creating miniatures is something we do together on the side. Committing to this full-time would require us to listen to and follow other people’s directions, which probably wouldn’t be as fun. We’re more interested in creating miniatures that have not been done before, not recreating models that others have already made.

“We were asked to work on a miniature of the old tenement buildings in To Kwa Wan, but after we did a site visit, they didn’t seem all that special to us. Every time we work on a new miniature, we put a lot of effort into finding something that feels new and original. We considered doing a model of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, and childhood playground scenes, like kids skipping rope. Not a lot of people create miniatures like that.

“Getting paid to create a miniature may hinder your creative performance. We need to have a fondness for the things we create. When you put your energy and emotions into the work and do what you love, you will keep improving or even go beyond your limits.

“If you want to do something well, you must enjoy it first.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Jen Paolini

Content director

Born in Hong Kong, raised in Germany, and educated in the U.S., Jen is an award-winning creative with a background in illustration, communication design, art direction, and content creation. When she’s not getting lost in a good book, you’ll find her doing crosswords, eating dim sum, covering all sides of a “Hamilton” number, and taking naps.

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