A Pop Mart employee's cubicle decorated with designer toys in Beijing on December 25, 2020 (WEI YAO)
Thirty-nine-year-old Bao Yongliang is the head of the Department of Digital Animation at the Jilin University of Arts in northeast China. However, the birth of his daughter in 2013 not only fulfilled Bao's dream of becoming a father, but also inspired a creative passion that has seen him launch his own art toy company.
Through his company, MODOLI, Bao has created a range of children's toys based on a story he created of an eponymous family who moved to Earth to escape the destruction of their home planet. The name MODOLI comes from the sound of his daughters babbling and, on the MODOLI website, Bao expresses his intention to start the company: "to make my daughter happy." Bao told Beijing Review he hopes the characters he has created can keep his daughter company as she grows up.
Bao has given each member of the MODOLI family a unique character and a backstory. One of his popular toys, Xizao Dashu (Bubble Man), is a curly-haired, bespectacled character who is in constant search of the world's best bath balls. Abu, a round-faced girl with headphones, holding a flower in her hands, lost her lips after being disappointed in love, and is now unable to kiss.
"Art toys are created through a process of conceptual artistic thinking, channeling hopes and dreams through toy design," Bao said, adding that this is one reason why increasing numbers of young people are interested in these kinds of toys.
Today, people mostly aging 18-35 become the art toy market's major consumers, bringing big fortunes to this industry.
A young man selects blind boxes at a toy store in Beijing on December 25, 2020 (WEI YAO)
A big growing market
Bao's artistic designs have attracted the attention of fashion brands, as well as Pop Mart, a trendy toymaker.
Liu Yichuan, Pop Mart's Director of Public Relations told Beijing Review that each year, the company searches the world for outstanding designers and artists like Bao. After signing contracts with designers, the company develops products such as mystery boxes that contain trendy, pop culture-related content.
Under this framework, Pop Mart works with over 500 brands and designers, and operates 85 intellectual property products such as Hello Kitty and Harry Potter figures. Mystery toy boxes can trace their heritage back to Japan's capsule toys and lucky bags, but have been taken to new heights by Pop Mart.
Pop Mart's members now exceed 7 million, the size of a medium-sized Chinese city. "It is impossible to identify the spiritual needs of such a large group of people. But curiosity is part of human nature, and the surprising nature of what we offer is what excites them," Liu said, adding that white-collar workers and college students are the primary consumers of mystery boxes, and that women account for nearly 70 percent of customers.
Last year, during China's annual Singles' Day shopping festival on November 11, Pop Mart ranked first among flagship stores of toy brands on Alibaba's online marketplace, Tmall, in terms of retail value. During the festival, Pop Mart's Tmall store received revenue of 142 million yuan ($21.99 million), up from 82.12 million yuan ($12.71 million) in the previous year. In December 2020, Pop Mart saw its share price rise by 100 percent during its debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Other toy brands are also accumulating big fortunes from this industry.
On December 18, Top Toy opened the doors to its first-ever flagship store in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in south China. The 400-square-meter retailer gathers a total of 52 fashion brands, generating a whopping turnover of over 1 million yuan ($154,000) in just three days after its grand opening. Seeing the profits and potential of the Guangzhou market, many retail companies now display some great gusto for the area, including MINISO, Top Toy's holding company.
According to a report published by MobTech, a data intelligence technology platform, the toy market in China is expected to exceed 30 billion yuan ($4.59 billion) by 2024.
Priced between 49 and 100 yuan ($7.6-15.5), the randomly packed toy boxes are an embodiment of the saying "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get," coined in the film Forrest Gump. For this reason, in Pop Mart's offline stores it is common to see enthusiastic consumers shaking mystery boxes, also known as blind boxes, to infer their content from the shape, weight and sound of what's inside.
One of Pop Mart's most popular products, a character called Molly, is a small girl with button-shaped eyes, created by a Hong Kong designer. Wang Lu, a 29-year-old living in Shanghai, has collected Molly toys for two years, and she told Beijing Review that opening blind boxes without knowing the contents adds to the challenge and enjoyment of her hobby.
In Wang's bedroom, there is a plastic cabinet displaying all of her collections. "I have a sense of fulfillment when seeing them perfectly arranged," she said. She usually carries some of them during her business trips as good companions.
Although Molly, whom Wang loves, has a pouting, expressionless face, Wang feels this little creature can share her feelings. "It looks as though she's smiling when I'm happy and she is sad when I am upset," she said.
Wang also said that besides having a nice dinner, buying a blind box is the easiest way for her to feel relaxed and happy after work.
These types of designer toys in a sense complement young people born in the 1980s and 1990s and help them find a channel to have a deeper conversation with their true selves and grasp a better understanding of their inner worlds, Bao said.
"Good toys are not meant to belong to a certain age group," Bao said. "In fact, many people act in a mature way while deep down they remain childlike at heart. Everybody loves toys. It is part of our nature and it reveals our lust for life."
According to Bao, when and where connections are created, consumers can develop an affinity with them. And precisely therein lies the charm of designer toys.
"Without delay or deferment, consumers can get instant gratification by buying a mystery box. The 'hidden surprise' in the boxes induces a sense of fulfillment," Wei Wenqi, an associate professor of psychology at South China Normal University, told China Daily.
In the information age, as people become more distant from one another, toys like mystery boxes help them make friends with people who share similar interests and find a sense of belonging, Wei said.
Sun Yuanwen, CEO of Top Toy, told Ecns.cn that the company will zoom in on products focusing on traditional culture to attract more young people with its so-called China-Chic elements. We want to create products that in turn create a stir with China's younger generations, Sun said.
(Print Edition Title: Toys Turn Into Treasures)
Copyedited by Garth Wilson
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