Bright Lights on the Dark Side

22 December 2015

What’s a day in the life of a 501st Legion Member like? Find out as we follow the Malaysia Outpost on a “trooping” event.

Most of us have grown up knowing the ominous refrain of John Williams’ Imperial March from the Star Wars films. The iconic sight of Darth Vader marching down ranks of Stormtroopers has enthralled an entire generation of moviegoers, forever engraving the sight in our collective minds. Collectibles, costumes and fan conventions have sprung up around the entire villainous genre of Star Wars’ baddies.

Two men, however, decided to take the costuming crusade a step further. In 1997, Albin Johnson set up a website called Detention Block 2551 to post photos of himself and friend Tom Crews in their homemade Stormtrooper costumes. Within weeks of the website’s inception, Johnson was fielding requests from people across the world looking to be featured on his website in their respective homemade Stormtrooper costumes. What began as an innocuous pastime soon developed into a worldwide phenomenon – this impromptu fan club was soon dubbed the 501st Legion (a name inspired from the Return of The Jedi), also known as Vader’s Fist. While the Legion was originally based on the iconic white-armoured Stormtroopers, as the group expanded, it grew to encompass the costumes of every conceivable villain within the Star Wars universe – from bounty hunters to Sith Lords.

Today, the Legion has “garrisons” (25 members and more) and “outposts” (less than 25 members) all around the world. One such outpost operates in Malaysia; a total of 24 Legion members call our beloved country home. In operation since 2006, the Malaysia Outpost dedicates itself to making appearances at events and raising funds for charitable causes, just like the rest of the 501st Legion.

The Malaysia Outpost

Who better to talk about the Legion in Malaysia than Kirby Samydurai, Commanding Officer for the Malaysia Outpost?

At first glance, one would not assume him to be the representative for Malaysia in the 501st Legion. A soft-spoken, unassuming man with a quiet air of confidence of authority, his knowledge of the Star Wars genre is astounding, and so too is his passion for “trooping” – the act of dressing as a Star Wars villain and attending events. He was the perfect person to give insight to the inner workings of the 501st Legion, whose motto just happens to be: “Bad guys doing good”.

One does not enter the 501st Legion lightly. The entry process is involved, arduous, and stringent. The command team includes a membership liaison officer (currently held by Heikal M. Kamel) who ensures the integrity and accuracy of the costumes of any potential members. It can take up to 6 rounds of approval before one is officially admitted into the 501st Legion. The costumes themselves are required to adhere to a very strict set of guidelines to be “screen-accurate”.

The average Stormtrooper costume can range from RM5,000 to RM6,000, whilst a full-fledged Darth Vader outfit can reach up to RM20,000. Some members go to the length of installing mics within their helmets to accurately replicate the voice of the Stormtrooper, or Darth Vader from the movies. Probably the most expensive costume, Kirby tells us, is the Boba Fett outfit. He owns one such costume, along with 3 others.

Bad Guys Doing Good

In terms of charitable works, the 501st Legion makes an annual visit to the children’s ward of Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun in Ipoh, Perak where they bring along toys donated by Hasbro Malaysia (which manufactures Star Wars figurines) for the kids. With a laugh, Kirby recalls an incident where one of the patients in the ward begged for the resident paediatrician to allow her to stay an additional day just so she would not miss out on the 501st Legion’s visit. The 501st Legion’s core purpose, after all, is to give back to the community – they do not charge for appearances, but people are encouraged to make donations to a charity that the Command Team has pre-selected, or to the designated charity of choice for an event that the 501st Legion attends.

We followed the Legion on one of their “trooping” events – a visit to Ronald McDonald House at the UKM Medical Centre – to see first-hand the work that they do. Each member arrived with luggage bags in tow, containing their costumes and accoutrements. Trooping, as we discovered, is not an easy task. The average Stormtrooper outfit can take up to 20 minutes to suit up, depending on how the costume is built. Boba Fett takes even longer, sometimes up to 40 minutes. The easiest costumes by far to wear are that of the Grand Admiral and Imperial Officer. Like all enthusiasts, however, members of the 501st legion favour the more complex (and iconic) costumes such as that of the Stormtrooper or the Sith Lords.

A total of 7 members of the 501st Legion turned up to troop, along with another half dozen “minders” – fellow Legion members who are tasked with assisting those who are trooping. Minders are the unsung heroes of the 501st Legion; they help their fellow members into their costumes as well as guide them whilst they are in full costume. The helmet of a Stormtrooper, or an Imperial Royal Guard, is designed such that it provides limited vision for the wearer, hence the need for a minder.

The atmosphere was convivial; the members laughed and joked with each other as they prepared to make their grand appearance in full outfit. One of the members, Kamel, brought his outfit of Kylo Ren – the main villain of the upcoming Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. There was also a member of the Royal Guard, 2 Stormtroopers, an Imperial Gunner, and 2 Imperial Officers.

Upon readiness, the 7 costumed members of the Legion marched out of the changing room and downstairs to the courtyard, where they were greeted with much anticipation and fanfare by the children and not to mention, the adults, who had all grown up watching the Star Wars trilogies. With the all-familiar Imperial March playing in the background, the Legion members patiently posed for photographs with their enthusiastic fans. One has to admire their passion for charity and costuming; the costumes themselves are unbearably stuffy, and every single one of them has an undershirt, sometimes two, to prevent damage to the costume from sweat.

Bonded By The Force

Members of the 501st Legion come from varied backgrounds; they are lawyers, accountants, investment bankers … all brought together by a love of Star Wars and the passion to give back to the community. Given its background, some may think that the majority of the Legion comprises of male members. This isn’t true - this particular trooping was led by Aishah “Patches” Mokhtar, who despite being very pregnant, commanded the rest of the Legion with a firm hand. Between herself and her husband, who was present as the Imperial Gunner, they own 5 costumes.

It is evident that the 501st Legion considers each other akin to family – a multitude of personalities and backgrounds, but with a single overriding bond: the combination of a universe dreamt into being by George Lucas and the desire to give back to the community and enrich the lives of others, whether by fiction or charity.

By Eugene Lim

Photos by Wong Yok Teng

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