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Toys are not only meant for children 

By Jennifer Lam

The walls are lined with glass cabinets packed with popular Japanese cartoon characters from the 1970s. Figures of the Transformer Mazinger, the lovable robot Robocon and the pigtailed candy mascot Peko Chan sit neatly on display in this local toy shop tucked away in a corner of a shopping centre in Wan Chai.

Ben Cheng Chun-nam is one of the employees at Waikukok which specialises in vintage toys imported from Japan. Cheng, who is 40, started collecting toys when he was in primary school and developed a passion for making models early on. He says building toy models brings the unique satisfaction of making things from scratch. He recalls that when he was in primary six he would walk to school in order to save money to buy toy models.

He once spent three whole days on building a Gundam model from the popular Japanese animation series featuring giant robots. Cheng says what he enjoys is the all-encompassing process of building toys. “You stay up all night to build the toy model and won’t even think of anything else,” he says with a satisfied smile.

Before working in Waikukok, Cheng used to run a restaurant. At that time he was a regular customer at the shop and would often work there for free in his spare time. Two years ago, he decided to quit the restaurant and work full time in Waikukok. “I love working in this particular industry; I love toys,” says Cheng.

Ironically, now that he has given his working life over to toys, he can no longer collect them. Cheng says there is a hidden rule in the toy retailing industry that retailers are not allowed to collect vintage toys, so there will be enough toys for customers to buy. “If we all keep collecting toys then there would be nothing for sale!” Cheng laughs. Nevertheless, he says he does not mind sharing the toys with customers because it is good for the trade overall.

Cheng admits collecting vintage toys can be an expensive hobby. He says he used to spend over HK$10,000 every month on buying toys and some customers of Waikukok spend as much as HK$80,000 to HK$100,000 a month on collecting toys. Cheng says vintage toys like robot models are not just pieces of plastic, but are channels through which people can relive their childhood memories, and that is simply priceless.

While Waikukok mainly sells vintage toys imported from Japan, some local toy collectors are enthusiastic about collecting old toys that were made or designed in Hong Kong.

Vincent Au Yeung Wai-hong, who is in his forties, has been collecting products which were made in Hong Kong between the 1950s and 1980s for over 20 years. He says he collects toys from the perspective of design. Au Yueng appreciates the creativity of old toys. He makes a detailed profile for each item he has collected so that both the current and future generations can know about these toys and products.

Au Yeung says when he was a child, not many families in Hong Kong could afford to buy toys, so children would use any item they could get hold of and use them as toys. Au Yeung remembers he used to have a money-box that was shaped like a house. As a child, he would spend the whole afternoon playing with it for hours alongside other actual toys.

“I cried out when I found the same money-box in a store!” Au Yeung said with laughter. He feels particularly excited when he discovers the toys he used to play with, and this also motivates him to find the story behind every toy, because to Au Yeung, every toy represents a childhood memory. “I have special feelings towards toys and I want to share them with others,” he says.

Au Yeung is not the only toy collector who is devoted to collecting Hong Kong toys. Joel Chung Yin-chai is 46 and the founder of a local cultural study organisation, Hong Kong Creates. He is also a dedicated toy collector who has collected tens of thousands of toys over the past 26 years. In fact, his collection is so large, he rents a 2,000 square feet warehouse to store it in.

Chung used to collect watches and his passion for collecting toys came to him unexpectedly when he made an unplanned visit to a toy museum in Japan. It was in 1985 when Chung was still studying advertising in Japan when he stumbled into a toy museum in Urahara. Chung says he will never forget the experience. “I felt like time had stopped from the moment I stepped inside, it was like The Matrix, you could hear no sound,” says Chung.

Chung says that when he started to realise there were also other visitors in the museum, he saw the way children and their families looked at the toys with joy in their eyes. “Toys bring people fantasy,” says Chung. He believes that through playing with toys, people live out their fantasies – they can be soldiers, astronauts or whatever they want, and this is why people find toys so fascinating.

Amazed by how much happiness toys could bring to people, Chung decided to start collecting toys. After he came back to Hong Kong in 1986, he sold off most of his watch collection for around HK$7,000 and began to collect toys instead.

Chung says he has no specific requirements when it comes to his toy collection, but he especially appreciates old toys. He says most toys were hand-made in the past but are mainly produced by machines nowadays. “Old toys are crude but they have their own aesthetic value, new toys are exquisite but they feel cold to me.”

When Chung is looking for toys he says he just follows his gut feeling. He recalls the first toy he bought was a broken space buggy he found for a dollar at a temporary stall in Sham Shui Po. Chung says that buggy was just “outstanding among the other rubbish”. He also relates an incident when he was riding on a minibus with a friend and suddenly told the driver to stop, got off and started randomly looking for toys in the street, “I just felt like they are yelling for help!” Chung laughs when he finishes telling the story.

Chung says many toys retailers were forced to close when Sheung Wan was redeveloped in 1991. So he went to different warehouses, wholesalers and even factories and talked to the owners one by one. He bought hundreds of toys at very low prices.

Throughout the long years of toy collecting, his real scoop was to find the only toy he ever owned during his childhood. Chung says his family was too poor to buy him any toys, so he could only play with other people’s when he visited relatives during Chinese New Year.

His one toy was a five cents plastic car that his mother bought him at a temporary stall in Diamond Hill. “That is the only toy I had ever got from my mum, when I found it all the memories of my childhood just vividly popped out,” says Chung. He adds that among all the toys he owns now, that plastic car is the only thing that can link him back to his childhood memories.

Most toys in Chung’s collection were manufactured in Hong Kong or mainland China. As a main contributor and also the curator of the exhibition Toys Paradise-Creativity and Toy Culture of Hong Kong Toys in March 2012, Chung says he wants to remind Hong Kong people of the value of local toys. “It’s weird that Hong Kong people never play with Hong Kong toys,” he says. He also reveals the little-known fact that over 70 per cent of the toys sold globally are made by Hong Kong-run companies. “It’s really something that we should be proud of; it’s a shame that no one even knows,” says Chung.

When asked about the value of toys nowadays, Chung does not skip a beat when he says toys still have their value. He says people today live in the virtual world and more and more children only play electronic games instead of playing with actual toys.

But he believes that playing with toys involves real interactions, and that these help parents to have a better understanding of their children through playing with them.

Chung believes that through playing with toys, people can learn not to take things for granted. “If you want something, you have to do something about it; if you throw the ball you have to pick it back up from the ground. It’s as simple as that.”

Some may think that collecting toys is a waste of time and money. But Chung never thinks about it this way. “As long as I have the ability [to buy toys] I will,” he says. “I’d rather skip a meal; it’s all about give and take, and that would be my choice.”