Passion for paper planes

Mr John Chua has more than 2,000 paper planes in his five-room HDB flat. They cannot glide through the air when thrown, but they have aircraft parts.

During the interview with Life!, he picks up one of his bigger planes, which took him an hour to make, and says: "This is a thruster, which propels the plane forward. And on top of it is a cruiser, which allows it to cruise."

For reference, the 61-year-old systems engineer surfs the Internet regularly to look at plane models such as the F-16 Falcon Fighter Jet from the United States.

It is little wonder that he has so many of them - some are displayed on tables while others are kept in plastic boxes and bags as well as cardboard boxes.

He says he can spend up to eight hours a day on his hobby when he is free.

In fact, it can seem like he is folding the planes all the time.

When his friends visited his home during Chinese New Year, his hands were deftly folding planes even while he was chatting with the guests.

So devoted he has been to his craft, the younger of his two daughters introduced her father as a "plane-maker" when she was in kindergarten.

But he says with a laugh: "My wife and children aren't that supportive of my plane-folding as they feel it's a waste of time and I'm not making a living when I'm folding them.

"However, my wife admits that some of my planes look like the real McCoy, like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, a fighter aircraft developed for the US Air Force."

His younger daughter Serene, 19, is waiting to enter university, while his older daughter Sheryl, 21, is a first-year student at the Singapore Institute of Management.

His wife, Madam Wong May Yoke, 58, works as a clerical officer at the Singapore Department of Statistics.

Mr Chua had taught himself to fold paper planes and fish when he was six to entertain himself as he had no toys back then.

He started folding planes seriously only in 1997.

"Back then, I was not working and was speculating in shares full-time. Watching the shares move up and down made me uptight, so plane-folding became a good way to destress," he says.

In 2007, he recorded video tutorials on plane-folding with his neighbour, a secondary school teacher.

They tried to sell seven videos in a CD for US$25 (S$34) on the Internet. But after making only a few hundred dollars a month, they ended the venture, with only about 200 sets sold.

While many people he met admired his creations, he says they were uninterested in making them, the general perception being that only people who were "too free" would do so.

Rather than referring to origami books, Mr Chua prefers to create his own variations of planes by modifying each one.

Paper of all sizes and varieties are used - from flyers and chocolate wrappers to mahjong paper and the leaves from traditional wall Chinese calendars.

Each of his planes, which range from 3cm to 30cm long, takes him 20 minutes to fold.

He says he will not throw away his planes as each represents a time in his life.

His most prized plane, which he keeps in a triangular plastic case, is what he calls a "global galactica explorer", made from sturdy red and yellow paper.

It includes a flap at the cockpit, which he says can be lifted up when passengers arrive at places of interest like the moon.

"It's precious to me as I did not make any cuts while folding it. It took me half an hour and I made it a year ago."

Yet, interestingly, he does not subscribe to the traditional view that origami should have no cuts in the paper.

He explains: "If you don't cut the paper, you end up with boring plane models. Making slits, albeit sparingly and where necessary, helps me in folding features such as weapons and allows the plane to stand on its own."

When asked for tips on folding a good paper plane, he has three key pointers: First, make clean folds and flatten them afterwards.

Secondly, have a reference point for each fold made, such as having it parallel to a line.

Finally, ensure that both sides of the paper plane are symmetrical.

To commemorate Singapore's 50th birthday this year, he has created a plane in the likeness of a star, inspired by the five stars on Singapore's flag.

"Perhaps people can write their wishes for Singapore on paper, roll it up, attach it to the plane and hang it on trees."

Asked about the appeal of his creations for him, he says: "Just as a writer pens a colourful story from a piece of paper, I can construct potential future planes from paper.

"My dream is that future models of actual planes will bear resemblance to those I've folded or, that one day, there'll be origami kits with instructions on how to fold my planes."


This article was first published on March 28, 2015.
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