Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Government Records Service
What do the watermelon ball, the Barbie doll, and a tinplate robot have in common? All of these beloved childhood objects were once produced in droves around factories all over Hong Kong! Once the largest exporter of toys in the world, it is hard to imagine children’s entertainment today without taking a nostalgic look back at Hong Kong’s toy-making legacy. Read on for a history of toys that were “made in Hong Kong,” how the industry got its start, and what the future holds.
Before a PS5 was even imaginable, there were tinplate toys. During the first quarter of the twentieth century—an era before widespread mass consumption—toys really only consisted of knick-knacks that were often crafted by the children themselves! Drawing from their surroundings, folk items like slingshots and spinning tops were conjured up from readily available supplies of wood for little to no cost. Kids would deftly scale up the guava trees that grew in abundance around the neighbourhood, snapping off sticks and branches along the way. Raw materials transformed out of scraps and do-it-yourself know-how were the main sources of inspiration at that time.
Simultaneously, the initial sparks of manufacturing and production were being set aflame around the region, marking a transition in Hong Kong as it moved away from being just an entrepôt between East and West. An influx of diasporic Chinese immigrants returning from Southeast Asia, as well as seasoned factory managers from Guangzhou and Shanghai, were the ones to put these cogs into motion, establishing industrial plants in every corner of the city.
A notable trailblazer was the China Can Company (康元製罐廠), originally founded by K.Y. Shang (項康原) in Shanghai, with its Hong Kong branch set up by merchant John Yuen (阮維揚). Known mainly for the production of canned food packaging and tin parts, the establishment was one of the first to introduce tinplate toys to the local public.
Malleable, durable, and cost-effective to produce, tin toys of the 1930s showcased the ingenuity that came with making the most out of what people had on hand, as well as adapting successful product innovations from overseas. Although it was still considered an investment, it was finally possible for families to indulge their children with well-deserved toys.
First appearing in Germany in the 1850s, these shiny metallic alternatives marked a step forward from wooden toys and rickety, makeshift articles, with wind-up clockwork mechanisms being integrated into the design for movement and interaction. Products modelled after little critters were wildly popular, like the red-crowned rooster that picked at the ground, or the leapfrog that bounced around convincingly after a few turns of the dial. A wind-up taxi toy commissioned by the American Ford Hire Service was another model that won the hearts of many.
If the decades prior were best described as a foundational stage in Hong Kong’s industrial scene, the years following the Second World War was one that saw its development take flight at breakneck speed. Mass migration of war-torn refugees from mainland China meant extra hands for fewer bucks, whilst development in plastic manufacturing technology translated to greater output using less effort. Foreign investors from the West relied on Hong Kong as a cheaper production base, catapulting the tiny island onto the map of international trade.
Despite the bustling potential of the city, there remained prominent fissures in wealth amongst the population, rendering many types of locally made toys a luxury for the majority of the population. Items that were the cream of the crop were reserved for the rich or for global export. However, this did not stop manufacturers from finding new ways of production to create more affordable versions—as every child deserves the right to play, after all.
Although the output replicated existing varieties, the quality of the cheaper toys left something to be desired, earning these copies the nickname of “rural” toys (山寨; saan1 jaai6). While the moniker associated the toys with a crude quality of backwardness, this did not hamper their popularity with local Hongkongers at all.
Perhaps “re-imagining” would be better suited to describe several of these affordable alternatives, as the widely adored paper dress-up dolls will attest. A common sight amongst less well-to-do families, these were sheets of cut-outs that featured illustrated anthropomorphic models accompanied by an array of cute outfits and props, serving as a two-dimensional replacement to fill the void of yearning for Barbie dolls.
As the average family unit was between four to five people, local demand had a tendency to favour products that were easy to share between groups. Games like pick-up sticks, marbles, and cat’s cradle were all the rage, and with the wave of a hand, anyone could easily call to their classmates or other children around the neighbourhood to join in. The interweaving of communal play with the spirit of sharing may be a few more reasons as to why toys unique to Hong Kong have such a strong a foothold in the city’s collective nostalgia.
By 1972, Hong Kong was the largest toy exporter in the world. Much of it was due to the successes of the flourishing plastic trade, and manufacturers quickly learnt to incorporate novel innovations into their assembly lines. Drawing upon techniques from other industries spurred the development of distinctive product concepts, such as the legendary watermelon ball conceived by engineer and industrialist Chiang Chen (蔣震).
First designed in 1959, the widespread appearance of the watermelon ball in every Hong Kong household around the 1970s came hand-in-hand with the emergence of a uniquely local aesthetic. Hong Kong-made items were finally embraced for their inherent qualities, rather than as a copy of something else.
Aside from improved capital and technological expertise, Hong Kong also enjoyed an unofficial special trade status in the global network of the time. As a colony of the British empire, marking an item as “Hong Kong-made” would allow it to skirt the trade restrictions placed by the United States on imports coming out of China. In short, the city’s iconic “Made in Hong Kong” label became globally renowned as a guarantee of premium quality for affordable prices.
By the 1980s, Hong Kong had gained a strong presence as a rising economic star in the Asia-Pacific region. Quality of life grew and consumption sky-rocketed, yet the future of the manufacturing industry seemed to be facing a stutter.
In 1978, China had opened its doors to foreign investment, allowing for special economic zones with favourable conditions. Lower production and labour costs across the border placed mainland China in a more attractive position for manufacturers, causing a wave of departures into the Shanghai and Guangzhou area.
Drawing upon the local can-do spirit, Hong Kong adapted. Local toy companies in Hong Kong simply turned a new leaf by entering into the upper rungs of the industry, shifting their concentration towards toy design, production planning, quality control, management, and marketing instead. Although we now see considerably fewer Hong Kong-made toys in the twenty-first century—what with most children being transfixed by their smartphones, anyway—the industry is still going strong, peaking at fourth on the list of the biggest toy exporters in the world in 2019.