How two Singaporeans built one of the most impressive vintage Star Wars toy collections in the world

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

Despite its association with kids, the joys of toy collecting have brought immense pleasure to adults across the globe — a passion that ensures a tangible attachment to the memories and dreams of their childhood.

The thrill of the chase, the delight of securing an item that had once eluded you, that moment of ecstasy in thinking you've discovered something you don't yet own (only to find you actually do); it's all part and parcel when it comes to the hobby of toy collecting.

"I [just] couldn't resist and started buying a few pieces as a means to connect with my childhood," reminisced 47-year-old Derek Ho. "From then on, it progressively worsened until where I am today."

Derek and fellow collector Mark Yeo, 44, started accumulating Star Wars action figures from a young after their respective parents had brought them to watch the original cinematic trilogy in theatres.

Coincidentally, both men had lost their collection before once in their lives. Derek had made the dreadful mistake of allowing his parents to give them away to his young cousins while Mark thought to get rid of them after finding that it was taking up too much space.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

It was only after Mark sold his initial collection that he located another toy store which had been buying old toys at a higher price. Something struck a chord within him when he found the store was carrying Star Wars toys that were still carded — meaning they were still factory sealed and unopened. He went to request a trade of the Playmobil toys that he had for a Star Wars toy, which the store gladly did. That was where it all started for him.

For Derek, it was only in 1996 that he had started reliving his nostalgic love for vintage Star Wars toys. During his college days, he had discovered shops that had been selling Star Wars toys that he had played with as a kid. Amazingly, they were still packaged and brand new. He was hooked.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

The internet is the de facto storefront these days for many toy collectors like Derek and Mark, both of whom have plunged deep into online forums and perusing eBay for hours to find what they want. However, as collecting habits grew a little more sophisticated, it gradually became trickier in sourcing for all the rarer items.

"Typically on eBay, you just can't find things anymore," exclaimed Derek.

Over the years, Derek and Mark would then rely on the network which they had painstakingly built to hunt for the niche and unique items. They formed connections with the so-called hardcore collectors overseas, who are mostly based in the United States. 

"Some of them know that we are looking for [certain] items. When they see it come up for sale, they will let us know or they will sound off to the seller that there's a guy in Singapore who might be interested in it," explained Derek.

"Over the years, [as we] slowly built up the network, it got bigger and more connected. I think it helps us a lot more."

One-of-a-kind hard copy Luke Skywalker - Hoth figurine PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

During the course of our chat with Mark and Derek at their exhibition at Culture Cartel 2019, it became clear to us that they do face their own set of difficulties as they build up their toy collection — an endeavour that has seen them spend a sum of over six figures. 

"I surround myself with fellow collector friends, so they can't criticise me," said Derek sheepishly.

"My family tolerates me. When I used to have girlfriends, they tolerate me or they don't like the fact that sometimes the hobby encroaches into their life or personal space."

A complete set of 36 R2-D2 toys from Japan. PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

Both Derek and Mark emphasised that when it comes to family and friends, the hobby shouldn't overtake the normal course of lives as a balance must be struck in terms of both time and money.

For Mark, his wife shows no qualms with his hobby, so long as he doesn't go overboard. Mark added that he sets himself a rule where it would restrict him from overdoing it — he would have to spend the same amount of money on his wife as he does with toys.

Unopened packages of Star Wars toy figures that were sold exclusively in Singapore. PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

According to both Derek and Mark, many tend to have a mistaken impression that collecting vintage Star Wars toys is an expensive hobby. It isn't, they insisted.

"The range of things you can collect is so wide that there is a budget to meet anybody's collecting appetite, I would say," advised Derek. "Don't be intimidated by the misunderstanding that Star Wars toys and old toys are expensive."

Derek Ho (left) and Mark Yeo (right) standing with a set of 16 Star Wars toys that took them 10 years to collect. PHOTO: AsiaOne / Mabel Khoo

Derek adds on that it is possible to collect within your budget and still own a very impressive collection. "I have seen people who focus on very niche items but do it in a very organised and passionate way and when they are displayed nicely, it would blow away any expensive collection that is not well-curated."

Mark urges new collectors to do thorough research before committing themselves to the hobby. Since they might not have the same connection as collectors like Mark and Derek do, it would be a shame to waste money unnecessarily.

"For us, we are lucky in the sense that there's a nostalgic element to it. We collect some of these things which we have seen before, played with them before. There is that connection involved with them, it's recognisable to us," Mark says.

mabelkhoo@asiaone.com