Toy story: Home-made foreign brands a rage

(China Daily/Agencies)
Updated: 2007-12-19 07:10

When freelance writer Wang Jian buys toys for her 5-year-old son, she's happy to pay extra for Lego blocks or Japanese-brand train sets.

The reason, she and other parents say: Foreign brands are better designed and of better quality - even if they are made in China.

"The design is much better, unlike domestic brands that kids get bored with quickly. Plus, they break easily," said Wang, who writes for film magazines.

"I also pay close attention to news about toy and food safety. If I find a problem with a certain brand, I stop using it, for sure," she said.

China may be Santa's workshop, but when it comes to buying playthings for their own children, Chinese families who can afford it opt for foreign-brand toys.

The preference is evident in the gargantuan New World Department Store in Shanghai's commercial heart.

Shelves are crowded with foreign-brand models and remote-control cars, the ubiquitous Legos from Denmark, Mattel's Barbies and Transformers made by Japan's Bandai.

Chinese-brand toys are crammed into a few shelves stacked with dolls and toddler toys made by Star Moon Toys, a manufacturer in the southern city of Dongguan that also makes toys for some of the world's biggest brands.

In a toy wholesale market in Shenzhen, a vendor named Li Lide said he gave up selling traditional Chinese favorites such as Monkey King simply because they did not sell well. "Profits always come first," he said.

China's toy market is still in its infancy despite the huge volume of exports. Official figures show that domestic retail toy sales are around $1.5 billion a year - a fraction of the $22 billion in US toy sales last year, according to the research firm NPD Group.

Figures from the China Toy Association show that the country's toy exports were $17.76 billion last year; and imports, $426 million.

Chinese culture does not have an equivalent of the Christmas holiday toy binge in the US; traditionally, children are gifted clothes and money for the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar. It falls on February 7 next year.

But times and tastes are changing. Toy sales in China are growing about 20 to 30 percent a year as living standards rise with the booming economy. Since most urban Chinese have only one child, families are willing to spend more on their sole offspring, especially for books and educational toys.

However, not every family can afford foreign brands, which are at least 50 percent more expensive than domestic-made ones.

Liu Xiaohui, 6, was happy enough with her new Barbie-lookalike and accessories, bought for about $1.60.

A genuine Barbie costs at least 10 times that - more than her mother, Tang Huiqin, who runs a food stall in Shanghai, can afford.

"We don't often buy toys for her. She shares with her cousins and her father makes her small wooden toys sometimes I don't worry about the quality. It looks OK to me," Tang said.

"I am very happy," Xiaohui said with a smile. "I dreamed of having a doll like this to dress up and take care of. It's as pretty as the ones sold in the big stores, and mom said she would make her more clothes."

Scholars are also concerned that the popularity of foreign-brand toys is challenging China's traditional culture and education.

"Barbies, Transformers and teddy bears are popular with all children," Zhang Yiwu, a professor at the Chinese department of Peking University, said. "But they'll inevitably bring Western thinking and culture."

He said domestic toymakers, faced with such a challenge, should be more innovative to breathe new life into many traditional Chinese toys.


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