China seems to be part of many conversations in our industry, but did you ever wonder how that came to be? Well, wonder no more. Toy Town: How a Hong Kong Industry Played a Global Game by Sarah Monks, a new book commissioned by the Toy Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong tells the inside story of how tiny Hong Kong became the world's number one toy exporter then went on to establish southern China as the global toy industry's production base.
Angela Gardner, one of the many contributors to the book, learned the toy industry from her father, Frank, head of Plastic Manufacturing Corp (PMC). She was the first woman to sell on an international level and went on to found her own company, Castlespring Enterprises in Hong Kong.
I imagined Ms. Gardner had more than a few good stories and I asked her to share a few with our readers.
Ms. Gardner: "When I came back to Hong Kong after getting my degree in economics in 1965, I reported to work at my father’s factory and asked where I would sit. “Sit?” my father asked. He sent me off to the mould-making department, the injection department then the assembly line. I thought he was crazy. But looking back it was very wise. I had to earn the workers’ respect.
My father and I made a great team – he was a self-taught product developer and engineer, but I loved the sales and marketing side of the business. Back then, it was extremely rare for a young woman to be selling toys. There were a few women with their husbands in my father’s generation, like Ruth Handler of Mattel. But in my generation I was the first woman to sell toys in the world internationally. I’d leave home with one suitcase of clothes and another suitcase of samples and return with a stack of orders for PMC.
One of our biggest successes was a toy garage made for Matchbox-sized cars. My father combined a collapsible garage he had seen at a toy fair in France with a multi-storey version he had seen in Japan. I took it to Sears. They placed an exclusive order worth HK$2.8 million and promoted the garage on national TV. At the time, it was the largest single order placed in the history of the toy industry in Hong Kong.”
Other stories include:
“Lee Kwan-wah “K.W” chairman of Kam Toys & Novelty Manufacturing, had been brought in by Xavier Roberts, a US doll inventor and asked to mass produce a waif-like doll with a puckered face and a cloth body but to ensure that each doll was different as it rolled off the assembly line – a tall order as this had never been done before. Children who purchased this new “adopted” doll – the Cabbage Patch Kid would compare dolls to see what made “my baby” different. “Make more styles” was the answer from Coleco who had signed a long-term licensing agreement allowing them to mass-produce Robert’s dolls. Roberts and Lee worked together to come up with multiple variations in different combinations. A dimple here, a crinkle there, different eye shapes, skin color. In the first round there were some 12,000 different styles and some calculated that the statistical chances of finding an identical Cabbage Patch Kid were 1 in 250,000.
The doll soon became so popular that Lee was castigated by two young children when he boarded a flight to the US carrying the latest Cabbage Patch Kid sample, which he stowed in an overhead locker. “How can you put your baby in the bin?” they protested. Lee retrieved the doll and cradled it for the next few hours. “They were watching me.” he said.“
These stories and the many others including the foreword by Alan Hassenfeld is a fascinating and fun read for anyone involved in the toy industry.
Toy Town was a two year project by Monks, the TMHK and the Hong Kong Toy Town Committee members: Jetta’s Wong Tit-Shing; Manley Toys’ Samsom Chan Ming-yiu; Tai Nam’s David Chu Ki-kwan; Blue Box’s Yeung Chi-kong “C.K” and Castlespring Enterprises’ Angela Gardner.
Pictures: Ms. Gardner shows off PMC's Automatic Garage, which hoisted matchbox-sized cars into parking bays. Sept 2008 leading members of the HK toy industry resolved to commission this book about their industry's long and colorful history. New Bright's Magic Mike from 1984 smoked, had bump-"n"-go action, flashing eyes and gripping hands. Operators of early injection-molding machines, dating back to the late 40's are still remembered by their nicknames "jumping jacks". They used their body weight - often jumping off stools – to generate enough pressure to fill the moulds.
All proceeds from the sale of Toy Town will benefit End Child Sexual Abuse, a Hong Kong charity. Toy Town the book will have a table at Toy Fair with books available for sale just outside room 1C02 and is available at www.toytownthebook.com