Jay Foreman is an American businessman who lives and works in Boca Raton, Florida. He is president and CEO of Basic Fun!, which began as The Bridge Direct in 2009. Basic Fun! and its related companies, Good Stuff, K’nex, Uncle Milton, and PlayHut, design, develop and market toys for children and adult collectors. The company’s product portfolio includes internally developed brands like Mash’ems and Cutetitos, as well as licensed product lines from major entertainment companies, sports leagues and other toy companies, such as Mattel and Hasbro. In 2020 the company relaunched Tonka and Care Bears, which can now be found at major retailers around the world.
I have to say that I have been lucky to witness a lot of history in the past 34 years of traveling to Asia, from my first experience in Asia just prior to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, and in the subsequent five years to the burgeoning of an economic tiger. When I first visited Korea, brands like LG (Lucky Goldstar), Samsung, and Hyundai were not known for being high-quality but are now ubiquitous worldwide. They are kicking the crap out of Sony and Panasonic and giving Toyota and Nissan a run for their money. Certainly, there was no Gangnam style or K-Pop! Now Korea is a significant player, and it has been amazing to watch that happen.
Of course, the big cat is China. My first trip to China was in August of 1989, just weeks after the events in Tienanmen Square. Certainly a mark in history and a tumultuous time to be in China. At that point, I was working from Shanghai, which was not open to private enterprise like the southern provinces of Shenzen and Guangzhou. Everything was state-owned. You worked with Chinese government factories which handled their business via Chinese government trading companies like Shanghai Arts and Crafts and Shanghai Stationary. Plush was the main business up north. Surprisingly the factories were not as draconian or Dickensian as you would imagine, but they were pretty basic. I have to say, thanks to our industry and retail partners; the conditions are miles ahead of those early days.
Within ten years, all the government factories reverted to private hands, and we started to deal with dynamic local entrepreneurs. Working with a factory owner who owned five or six unrelated businesses was common. We went from the factory manager wearing drab grey and blue shirts and shabby sport coats and sometimes with mismatched sox to designer clothes and fancy watches. At dinners, they went from traditional Chinese to fine French dining and cutting red wine with coke or spirit to ordering vintage Bordeaux and really appreciating it. From driving down bumpy roads in old minivans to the factories to zipping around in sedans and customized Toyota and Mercedes minivans. Amazing changes.
In old Hong Kong, things were also changing in the ’90s, most significantly during the 97’ handover, where, after about 150 years of colonial rule, the territory got its “independence” from the United Kingdom.
Britain and China were moving Hong Kong to a one-country, two-systems concept at the time. It was a crazy time with wild swings in the stock market and real estate markets, as well as a lot of locals not sure where the wind was blowing. Many of them got British Commonwealth passports and blew out of town to places like the UK, Canada, and Australia. Some came back, and some never did.
In the early 00s, Asia suffered from a financial crisis that hit Hong Kong pretty hard, followed by what, compared to Covid, could be called a “mini pandemic” called SARS, not to mention Bird Flu too! These were really tumultuous years for the City, with the markets crashing. Many got hurt badly financially, and some bold investors doubled down on the markets and made fortunes, a few in the toy business many of us know well.
Later in the ’00s, the world suffered a global financial crisis, and things were up in the air again. However, the City recovered quickly and was doing great for about ten years until the pro-democracy movement really shook the City to its bones. I recall, in the early days seeing millions in the streets of Hong Kong. Wandering through peaceful protests with marchers and walking down the main streets of central, it was also curious to see down the side road on Sunday the Filipino domestic helpers picnicking as they always did on their day off. Despite all, many in Hong Kong just carry on.
What started as a peaceful movement to demand continued autonomy turned ugly when a variety of forces began to collide in violent clashes led by an angry student movement, and some say instigated by sinister outside forces. The result was pandemonium not seen since the 1960s.
Many of us that have showrooms on Mody Road, especially those in China Chem Plaza, either experienced or saw pictures and got reports from your staff about the violence right outside our office windows, with the streets torn up and protesters being arrested. The main point of pressure was the HK Polytechnic University, literally two blocks from the end of Mody Road. There was a major crackdown by local authorities as well as elements from across the border, and things eventually settled down. It seemed the protesters holding out ran out of time and energy, as did the local population. The onset of Covid 19, which was emerging in December and January in China, put an end to it all – and so much more.
Those of us that stayed around a bit longer in the City after the buyers left on January 20 started noticing more and more people wearing masks, like during the days of SARS and Bird Flu. That was a tip-off, and we all realized it during and right after Toy Fair 2020. January 15th was my last day in Hong Kong for 34 months until my recent trip. Things are far from normal but slowly coming back online and to life in the territory.
End of epilogue part 1