How Hobbyist ‘Kitbashers’ Create Educational Toys that Recapture Forgotten History and Instill Ethnic Pride


by Romeo Esparrago 


arts_pinoyPEFTOK_1202.jpg (12112 bytes)
“PEFTOK” soldier

AAV discovered Romeo Esparrago’s “Plastic Pinoys” during our annual hunt for multicultural-themed gifts that “are good for our kids” — that are educational, fun, and creative while also instilling in a child a pride of ethnicity, heritage, and self.  That’s a tall order, of course, and as most Villagers know, the range of toys that positively reflect Asian-American kids’ experiences and backgrounds is limited indeed. 

So what do you do when there are no toys to buy for your kids?

Make them yourself, says Esparrago, and AAV invited him to tell us how.  In part 1, he describes his inspiration and process. Part 2 displays examples of his work, each linking to background information and step-by-step instructions on how to do it.  So, be sure to read through the end. — The Editors


I have always been addicted to military history since my childhood, and building military aircraft from the past helped me to personally and physically realize the history I was reading about. As I slowly honed my skills in that hobby, I learned about “kitbashing” and “customizing”.

Kitbashing refers to the method of using various parts from different model kits to help put together a more accurate and/or more unique version of the aircraft. Customizing is the art in which a modeler alters or creates parts of the aircraft using his/her own materials to further heighten the accuracy, uniqueness, and quality of detail to the model. I began using kitbashing skills to customize the usual “out of box” models – for example, I was planning on kitbashing an American-made Stearman military trainer to look like the Philippine Army Air Corps A73L3 biplane “expeditionary fighter”.


What Triggered My Interest in Action Figure Modeling

Then my son, Kendall Tanaka Esparrago, was born March 27, 2001. For my wife Lynn, our pug dog Takuwan, and myself, having Kendall was the greatest event in our lives, and it changed a lot of routines. We could double our efforts, we could multiply our love, but time we had to divide. As a father, I knew I could not sustain my time-consuming hobby of building scale aircraft models, yet I still wanted a hobby of some sort.

Then my friend, Rob Humphrey, a long-time collector of GI Joe action figures and accessories, gave my son a gift of a 442nd Combat Regiment Nisei soldier — an action figure representing the “Go For Broke” Japanese-American U.S. Army soldiers of World War II.  My wife is sansei (third-generation Japanese American). Her uncle, Ko Tanaka, had died while battling the Germans with the 442nd in the forests of France while her parents were interned in the relocation camps.  Seeing Kendall with the Nisei soldier, I realized that action figures were a way to ensure that my son could hold something in his hands that tied him to his roots.

Medal of Honor winnner Sgt. Jose Calugas

I then wanted something that was connected to me, a Filipino American. I searched and searched and found nothing. On the Web, I discovered Loren Javier’s Top Ten Asian Dream Toys, which recommended an action figure representing Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Jose Calugas, a U.S. Army Philippine Scout. In all my past military history reading, I had read about the Bataan Death March and the much higher death toll that Filipino soldiers had suffered beside their American brothers, but had never heard of the Philippine Scouts, or really any Filipino or Filipino-American figures. Javier’s list made a significant impression.

With further online research, I learned that kitbashing and customizing were also prevalent among 1/6th-scale action figure hobbyists. I determined to kitbash Sgt. Calugas, and perhaps other Filipinos and Asian Americans I found in my research, so that Kendall would have toys that reflected his Asian-American heritage — that I hoped he would proudly play with and show off.


Try it Yourself

Two years later, I had researched and created a pantheon of action figurines representing important Asian and Asian-American figures in military history.  Proud of the results and pleased with feedback, I went on to create two Web sites to share my kitbashing results and experiences: “Plastic Pinoys” focuses on Filipino and Filipino-American action figures, while “In the Company of Plastic Heroes” features not only the usual collection of Caucasian action figures, but Asian, African-American, and female historical figures as well.

Through these sites, I hope I can provide an entry point for our youth to gain interest in the history of various Asian Americans in past military conflicts.  I also hope that others can be inspired to do the research, and create  many more Asian American and minority figures themselves, so the sites also discuss my historical research, creative methods, and tips on finding materials and reference information.  Educational and fun, this hobby makes it enjoyable to gain insight into history and stories that would be normally be obscured by more popular subjects.  And it’s especially gratifying that kids like Kendall can have toys that proudly reflect their Asian-American heritages.  So go out, learn, and have fun!   Cheers!


PART TWO: Gallery of Romeo Esparrago’s highly detailed historical figures
With tips for getting started with your own “kitbashing” project, step-by-step instructions, and links to the stories of the real-life military figures is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.