With over 12,000 toys in his collection, Jian Yang is one of Singapore’s largest toy collectors. The 39-year-old PR consultant had painstakingly built his collection since 1984, and now has the largest Barbie collection in Asia and an international following of over 20,000 and growing!
We recently visited Jian’s toy haven – his home – to talk about his journey as a toy collector. He shared with us on both the unique experiences he never would have had otherwise, as well as the dissent faced by the community, who even falsely label him as a gay, rich doll collector. Jian also talked about his latest milestone as a toy collector – the release of his book, Flushable Fashion, which features Barbie dolls donned in apparel made out of toilet paper.
What is the appeal of toy collecting to you?
Jian: I want to say nostalgia – but it probably isn’t. It’s actually more about relevance. I’ve been collecting toys since I was born. I am a 1979-er, so I’ve been doing it for a while. And when I was a kid, I used to buy Transformers, I used to buy M.A.S.K, He-Man, Star Wars and all that kind of stuff. And there was always sort of this retro-ness about them. But Barbie somehow has stayed relevant. So in the ‘80s, she was very “big-gowns and dynasty”, and then in the ‘90s it was like LA gear and weird headbands and sun visors, and then the 2000s, 2010s – you know – it all became relevant. So I like this perpetual relevance of this particular toy.
What goes into your decision-making when it comes to purchasing toys? How do you keep up with each new line of dolls that are released?
Jian: The Internet has actually helped a lot with decision-making, as in I (still) go out and find stuff, but also (listen to) what people say on socials. So the Star Wars Barbie thing just launched. When I saw them I was like, “Ehh…it’s kinda ok lah…” I mean like, Darth Vader is a man, (so) this doll shouldn’t be female…and she shouldn’t be wearing a black gown and then (get called) Darth Vader right? But suddenly, the internet is talking about how the value (of the doll) will go up and this could be very limited and all that, and suddenly you’re like “Ahh, maybe I’ll just buy it lah!”
What goes into upkeeping the toys?
Jian: I do a lot of restorations. I went to university in Australia and being from a very average Singaporean family, I didn’t get big allowances or anything. So I actually used to go to the flea markets and/or Barbie collector meetings, and I would restore dolls professionally for them. So here and there, I make about AU$30 to AU$40 – I felt like a bloody rich uni kid. So I did that in uni, and I learnt the craft along the way. Back then, we were all reading magazines, so it wasn’t about going through the internet and figuring out how to do all these restorations. It was literally going through Barbie bazaar magazines and trying out different restoration methods.
Some people think that the older a doll is kept in mint condition, the higher the value goes. Is that true?
Jian: I actually hate the concept of value or collecting for value because, as we all know, value is always about demand and supply – in any category. So, toy collecting isn’t very different from that. Because, if you say there are only 10 of these dolls in the world but nobody actually wants to buy this doll, then there’s no value.
(When they say things) like “The African girl’s value will go down and the blonde girl’s value will go up,” (I’m) just kinda like, “I’m very happy with my low-value doll because I bought it because I like it.”
Mine is a bit different because everything that I collect, in case you’ve realized, I don’t actually have full sets. Because to me, I buy the ones that I like. Honestly, there are certain characters that I like – I really like the (ones with) dark skin tones. So, a lot of people will be like “Don’t buy the African girl, buy the blonde girl (because) the blonde girl (is) pretty.” Then (I’m) like “Actually, not really leh.” And (when they say things) like “The African girl’s value will go down and the blonde girl’s value will go up,” (I’m) just kinda like, “I’m very happy with my low-value doll because I bought it because I like it.”
What is the most memorable moment you’ve had in your toy collecting experience?
Jian: The one thing that I’m very grateful about this so-called “Internet fame” for, is that I got a lot of memorable moments. So I don’t want to say there was only one. One of the (moments) was that one day, Make-A-Wish Brazil reached out to me, and I’m like “Why is Make-A-Wish Brazil reaching out to me?” Turns out, there’s a terminally-ill girl with cancer, Bruna, whose wish was to get Barbie dolls from around the world because she loved Barbie…So I sent like thirteen dolls to her, she friended me on Facebook, her parents friended me on Facebook, we exchanged a few Google Translate emails and that was sort of it – but it was nice. She has unfortunately passed away, but it was nice to be able to be part of that wish-granting process.
(Also) in Singapore, there’s a girl called Vivian. She’s got muscular dystrophy, so she can only move two fingers and her eyeballs. But she loves dolls, so occasionally I go over and I help to dress her dolls – that’s it. Literally, you sit there and play with dolls with someone, or even on behalf of someone, which is really interesting to me because you never thought that so-called “doll therapy” – or I call it “happiness therapy” – can make a difference in someone’s life. That said, all of these are little, memorable moments, but I don’t think there was one very significant, memorable moment that this has brought.
Have you faced any criticism or dissent towards your hobby?
Jian: The funny thing about the internet, again, is there’s actually a whole article of it online about my so-called clap-backs… Americans are really interesting because they’re all like “I wanna be his friend”, “I would like to visit his house”, and the Singaporeans are the ones that (say things) like “confirm gay”, “confirm rich” confirm-whatever right? And I literally responded to every single one of them. Even the media picked it up because it was so funny – you’ve got to read it.
I’m not hungry for internet fame – it just sort of happened. This collection has always been private until the internet sort of outed me.
How was your hobby outed by the internet?
Jian: I’m a big theatre fan, so I go to the theatre a lot. And I’ve made friends with the people from Base Entertainment who bring in shows in Marina Bay Sands. The PR girl from 2013 called me one day and she said they’re bringing in Barbie Live, which is a musical about the Barbie doll. The world premiere was in Singapore and at that time, it just happens that some of my friends in the theatre know that I collect dolls. So, they told her, and she asked me “can you do an interview for The New Paper?” I’m like “Yeah, sure, ok, whatever.” So The New Paper published it and then Reuters Global Newswire called and asked if I would speak to them. I asked the PR girl if I can do this and she’s like “Yeah, do it, but just don’t mention Barbie Live”. So I spoke to Reuters and suddenly this thing goes global. The next day, my Facebook was full (of people tagging me on Facebook) and they were all the same pictures. I was like “Oh shit…Newswire,” and that was it.
It’s kind of a boring story (in reality) – it’s basically as easy as saying “rich guy buys back his childhood.”
Everybody has been calling you the “Barbie doll collector”. But upon looking at your home, your collection is much more than just Barbie dolls. What led to you being falsely labelled that way?
Jian: Professionally speaking, I actually have been working in the toy industry for six years and I’ve been doing campaigns for Transformers, My Little Pony, Playdough, Monopoly – a whole bunch of toys, basically. As such, I became a collector of those toys as well. I love my Transformers – I still do. I’m a boy that’s going to be watching The Avengers, Transformers, Star Wars and all that stuff. It’s just that when it comes to news, we like to tell stories that are unexpected. So when you see a guy like me, that happens to have quite a few dolls, suddenly it’s a lot easier to tell an interesting story – that “This guy is collecting dolls,” instead of “This guy is a toy collector.” It’s kind of a boring story (in reality) – it’s basically as easy as saying “rich guy buys back his childhood.”
In Singapore, a lot of people say, “confirm landed property.” Yeah sure, landed property – but I’m still paying for the damn thing.
Jian: So, debunking myths: First of all, not rich; poor like hell, (I’m wearing) Uniqlo. Going back to Internet fame, people are going to assume a lot of things. In Singapore, a lot of people say, “confirm landed property.” Yeah sure, landed property – but I’m still paying for the damn thing. I don’t like it because when this was a private collection, you only justify yourself to your friends, and your friends will not judge you anyway – because otherwise, they won’t be your friends. But when the Internet puts a new layer of what I can see visibly as people judging or criticising, it actually affects you as a human being.
Tell us more about your upcoming book, Flushable Fashion.
Jian: We start at the very beginning. This toilet paper thing, this is new news, I guess. Two years ago, I got posted to Sri Lanka for rather extended stays, so I used to be in Sri Lanka for about two weeks at a time. After our meetings in the daytime, I go back to the hotel (at 7pm) and that’s kind of it – you run out of things to do. So from 7pm to midnight when you sleep, you’re in this huge colonial room and you’re like, “now what do I do?”
I happened to have my nose-hair scissors and a roll of tape in my toiletries case, so I started sticking pieces of toilet paper to my doll. I Instagrammed it, and there was like 290 likes. And then suddenly I was like, “I’m gonna do this for the rest of this trip. So I spent two weeks at a time doing like 14 dresses out of toilet paper, Instagramming them and then just throwing them away. So the hashtag #havetissuewilltravel was something I just developed on the fly. I don’t know how this happened, but people got wind of it I guess, and they started publishing it. So magazines started writing about this fashion I made from toilet paper. And because of that, even Vogue Italy published about me!
Anyway, this has all happened and every time I travel, I just do it. Now, a local publisher, Marshall Cavendish, has asked me to do a book. So I’m like “That is so cool”. I’m gonna turn 40 in November and I’m like “Milestone! I would like a book”. I didn’t put any money into it, I don’t know how much money is coming back – honestly, (I) don’t really care.
The bad news is that while #havetissuewilltravel is the hashtag on Instagram, I think that didn’t translate into a book name because you wouldnt understand it. So right now, the book is called Flushable Fashion, which makes sense – it’s toilet paper, and it flushes.
Tell us how you got reached out to be featured at the MINT Museum of Toys?
Jian: This exhibition was my friend’s idea actually. My friend’s the curator of this place, MINT Museum of Toys. He said that he had this space that was free, and I was like, “Yeah okay, let’s do this”. So honestly, this whole collection has never been out in public before. We kind of had a really hard time trying to curate this because there is a very traditional Barbie timeline, if that makes sense. And honestly, this kind of story has been told again and again. So it’s quite interesting because what we sort of settled on was that we should talk about me as a person instead of the dolls. So if you look around, the exhibition is more about the collector as opposed to the collectible. I like it – it’s kind of nice.
How did you go about selecting the dolls for the exhibit?
Jian: There are basically a few parts of this exhibition. the first part of it is my personal story. So my personal story didn’t start in 1959 the same way Barbie herself did. I was born in 1979 but I sort of started under the Christmas tree in 1984. That’s really where the story begins – most of the ‘80s dolls are there. That’s really the formative years of my passion. then it moved into a few other things. For example, I moved to Australia, so there is a whole section of dolls that I bought in Australia.
Some of us may have Barbie memories, some of us may not, but I think fashion is kind of universal. Even if you’re not into fashion, you would definitely recognise a Calvin Klein or a Burberry.
Jian: There is a section which is the traditional timeline of the Barbie doll – so 1959, 2019 and all the milestones in between. And then there are the fashion ones. Some of us may have Barbie memories, some of us may not, but I think fashion is kind of universal. Even if you’re not into fashion, you would definitely recognise a Calvin Klein or a Burberry. And if you’re really, really into fashion, then you’ll understand the weirder ones like Oscar De La Renta or some of the Singaporean exclusives.
In celebration of 60 years of Barbie, UNBOX – a limited-time exhibition at the MINT Museum of Toys – presents a display of over 300 picks from Jian’s private doll collection. Titled “Journey of a Toy Collector”, the exhibition is held till 15 September 2019 and offers a glimpse into the life of toy collectors much like Jian.
UNBOX presents: Journey of a Toy Collector
Date: 15 July (Monday) to 15 September 2019 (Sunday)
Time: 9:30am – 6:30pm
Venue: MINT Museum of Toys, 26 Seah St, Singapore 188382
Tickets are priced at S$20 each. For more information, visit https://emint.com/product/journey-toy-collector/.
Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team.