(Written by William)
You might remember from previous articles (see links at the end of this post) that the #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race set (along with two other Chinese New Year sets) was meant to be released only in Asia. However, due to the high demand for the sets from other parts of the world, LEGO changed their minds and were able to release at least one of the sets for a wider audience. I, like most LEGO fans around the world, was overjoyed to hear this news. The #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race is a unique set in many ways. It has a fresh design, represents an interesting cultural event, has an unusually large number of minifigures, and the price is great.
While building the set, the thought came to mind that there are actually plenty of official LEGO sets I’ve built through the years that represent different cultures. So then why would I think that the #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race is unique in showcasing another culture? To answer that, we need to talk about how to effectively represent different cultures in what we build. Or, more accurately, how culture comes across in our LEGO models.
Before I get to breaking down this topic, I want to briefly touch upon cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. Examples of cultural appropriation include using other cultures’ cultural and religious traditions, food, fashion, symbols, language, music, etc. People sharing and trading cultural elements was always part of human history, and ideally, it’s about the celebration of differences and admiration of unique traditions and practices. However, cultural appropriation can also be controversial, especially when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. (You can read more about the different aspects of cultural appropriation at Wikipedia.) The LEGO company as well as most LEGO fans attempts to represent the intellectual property of other cultures with care and respect. What we are going to discuss today is what techniques can be used to achieve this.
REPRESENTING CULTURE WITH LEGO – CHARACTERS
Culture is made up of people. So, it’s no surprise that characters in a scene play a significant role. By focusing on the details of how these characters look and behave, your LEGO creation can immediately be put in context.
Designing your own characters gets a bit away from what we are talking about here, as that’s more of a customizing activity rather than a building technique. However, posing your minifigs in the actions they are performing is something we can consider a building technique.
The first step to achieve this is to create roles for your minifigs. In the #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race there are distinct places for the rowers as well as the drummer who keeps the rowers in sync. There is also an official overseeing the race and a food vendor making zongzi (Chinese rice dumplings) in the little food stand. Even the spectators help us know that this is a special event.
Crowding a scene may seem interesting at first, but, without a good reason for it, you may just end up with something that looks cluttered. LEGO, by its very nature, is representative of concepts. So, it really says something that they thought there needed to be fifteen minifigures in this set.
REPRESENTING CULTURE WITH LEGO – ARCHITECTURE
This was the feature that made me to think that there are cultural representations in lots of LEGO sets. The way things are built defines where the scene is at, and it can even tell us when it takes place. This is important to remember when representing different cultures, as they are often located or come from a specific region. So, if you want to have a certain culture represented, you can go a long way in setting the stage by adding the right type of structures in your model.
The #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race does a great job with this, especially by how the docks are constructed. They clearly represent a particular region with their architecture. In order to use this technique, I recommend looking at photos from the region you wish to recreate, or even visit the place. Your recreation doesn’t need to be perfect or very detailed, but just enough to make a clear representation.
REPRESENTING CULTURE WITH LEGO – TRADITIONS
Here’s what fooled me in thinking this set had more cultural elements than others; it featured a traditional celebration. By the very nature of any traditional celebration, you get all the main symbols of a culture. A traditional celebration highlights the most obvious aspects of a culture and turns them up on full blast.
This lack of subtlety speaks to our conscious mind. We can’t ignore the overdone elements and decorations. Therefore, our brain tells us, “There’s a lot of cultural stuff going on here”. That’s why, if you want to build a model that represent a specific culture, I would recommend that you pick a known tradition, like a celebration, and build around it.
REPRESENTING CULTURE WITH LEGO – COLORS
This is a feature you can really play with, but you also need to be careful. In nearly every culture, colors are assigned certain meanings and status. By using the wrong color, your creation can be viewed as insensitive or disrespectful even without you realizing it. For example, if you use a color that means happiness in a culture in what’s meant to be a somber setting, you could be unintentionally offensive. For this reason, it’s good to do some research on the culture you wish to base your model on. Striving for authenticity is never a bad idea, whereas claiming authenticity is a big no-no.
APPLYING WHAT YOU LEARN
The #80103 LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race does not include very many novel or complex building techniques. Although, I will admit, the dragon heads on the boat take advantage of the shape of parts in very clever ways. Rather, this set gives us a textbook example of how to build a cultural model. We just covered the most obvious aspects of how to approach this type of project. But if you need any more advice, I recommend research. Learning about other cultures will prepare you like nothing else will. And when added to your own LEGO world, your unique knowledge about a culture can add an interesting level of diversity. In the video I share some additional thoughts about the set.
What do you think? How do you like the LEGO Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Race set? Do you have it already? Have you noticed any other interesting building techniques in the set besides the ones we mentioned here? Have you seen any other good examples of representing different cultures in LEGO models? Feel free to share and discuss in the comment section below!
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