About Me

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No Fixed Abode, Home Counties, United Kingdom
I’m a 51-year-old Aspergic CAD-Monkey. Sardonic, cynical and with the political leanings of a social reformer, I’m also a toy and model figure collector, particularly interested in the history of plastics and plastic toys. Other interests are history, current affairs, modern art, and architecture, gardening and natural history. I love plain chocolate, fireworks and trees but I don’t hug them, I do hug kittens. I hate ignorance, when it can be avoided, so I hate the 'educational' establishment and pity the millions they’ve failed with teaching-to-test and rote 'learning' and I hate the short-sighted stupidity of the entire ruling/industrial elite, with their planet destroying fascism and added “buy-one-get-one-free”. I also have no time for fools and little time for the false crap we're all supposed to pretend we haven't noticed, or the games we're supposed to play. I will 'bite the hand that feeds' to remind it why it feeds.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

S is for Salesman's Sample

As I mentioned the other day: by the early 1960's there were over 500 legally registered plastics companies in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The South Eastern Chinese region had been leased to Britain on a 99-year promise to hand back, a deal which was one of the more extraordinary episodes in the rather shameful rush by Europeans (and Americans) to grab anything and everything useful in the world. That also involved continuing the trade of opium and gave rise to the phrase 'Gunboat Diplomacy', engaged-in rather too literally by the British!

With lots of small one-room, un-registered, family-run operations, there would have been many more companies in the nascent plastics trade there. They weren't all dealing in toys though, HK was the global center of the plastic (or artificial-) flower trade, while others would have been engaged in the manufacture of household goods, automotive and aeronautical parts, indeed: anything that could be made from a hot-polymer.

However hundreds of them would have been involved in the manufacture of toys, or the production of parts and sub-assemblies for other (typically larger) toy firms to use in finished product. We are talking cheap, pocket money toys for the most part, a few higher-end toys and playthings were starting to come out of HK by the late 1950's as US importers (jobbers) moved their allegiances from Japan to follow the British and take advantage of the new industry in Hong Kong, but the bulk of HK toy production was decidedly 'low budget'.

I tend to refer to these toys as 'Rack Toys'.

Pretty typical rack toy from 1966;
Lido copies we looked at here and a
wheeled tank that turns-up on various carded sets.
Now I got an eMail from someone in Eastern Europe last week asking me to explain the term 'Rack Toy', and I must apologise as I know I tend to write this blog as if the reader is a vaguely white, vaguely middle-class, vaguely educated, English-speaker . . . i.e., I write this Blog to myself; it's the sub-conscious narcissistic element that drives such behaviour across social media and the blogosphere!

Rack Toys are those cheap toys sold from racks! Well, now I'm being facetious . . . they can be sold in a variety of ways, but for Rack Toy Month I've tried to concentrate on those attached to a card and punched for hanging from hooks in pierced hardboard wall linings. These days the hooks have become more varied in design and the holder is a slotted sheet of particle-board, chipboard or MDF (medium-density fiberboard), the slots being lined with tracks made of aluminium extrusions. There is another type - see dollar tree below.

But for the purpose of explaining to people in other parts of the world who had their own thing, such as the former Soviet Bloc (who's toy industry was almost entirely domestic), rack toys are the equivalent of toys within the reach of pocket-money or 'small-change' and often of subjects lending themselves to easy, low cost manufacture. So while we have looked mostly at figural or animal items this month, they can include novelties, water-guns, cap-guns, jokes, tricks, dolls house furniture and etcetera.

The prevailing signature being cheapness . . . cheap production values (design, prototypical accuracy, mouldings), cheap materials (or minimal materials), cheap artwork, cheap packaging!

Although - as we saw with the Star Wars sets, these days quite expensive toys can be formatted for the racks, as big stores have vast banks of them; the 'cheepies' we are concerned with here will be isolated out and away from the 'higher-end' stuff, usually near the entrance or check-out.

Other terms for them include 'Impulse Toys' (bought on impulse - 'Impulse Purchase'), 'Pester-Power Toys' (designed to produce a whingeing "Can I have one? Pleeeeeeaase?"), 'Till-side' or 'Cashier Desk Display Toys' (bringing impulse and pester together in the queue to pay!).

While other versions of them might be the Iberian 'Kiosko' (or kiosk toys, bought with pocket-money, or by a kindly parent when getting their paper, magazine or cigarettes), 'Lucky Bags' (with an assortment of sweets, confections or a mini-comic &etc.), 'Party Favours' and 'Dollar Tree Toys' (a revolving, PE-coated or chrome-plated wire display-rack); both US terms, the former now used this side of the pond, the later now a branded chain of stores Stateside. 'Bath' and 'Beach Toys' are also rack toys.

Which brings us to currency related terms; 'Pocket-Money Toys (priced for the weekly pocket money which for most kids in the 1950's and '60's was a small or token amount), the aforementioned Dollar Tree chain having as its heritage the 'Dime Store', 'Five & Dime' and 'Drug Store' toys, all from the 'States and their modern UK equivalent the Pound Shops (Poundland, Poundstretcher etc...), and their heritage in 'penny' (pre-WWII) and 'sixpenny' toys.

Other shop terms might be 'corner shop', 'convenience' or 'variety store' or others which we don't use or write any more, but which pertained - in a derogatory fashion - to the ethnicity of the proprietors, finally 'Tobacconists' and 'Newsie' or Newsagent Toys!

The above is not an exhaustive list but should help those who were wondering. In the UK they were also called 'Hong Kong Toys', or Hong Kong Shite! Rhymes with 'bite'.

But what's this? It has its own hanging bauble!
Those toys, manufactured by those hundreds of firms would then find their way to the West by a variety of means almost as numerous as the companies involved. Most companies only engaged in making toys for other people, a few branded some of their production, Lucky and Blue Box used branding a lot (after an anonymous start for the later) those 'other people' might be the larger factory next door, or down the road, or across the bay in the New Territories.

They may be a Western Importer/jobber, a local marketing co-op (what we are looking at in today's pictures), or they might make them 'on spec' (speculation), to 'job' themselves; to local salesmen, the HK offices of the larger Western importers, or at a trade show.

Some of those local 'jobbing' salesmen would then take the products of several small or medium-sized (SME's) HK companies to the Toy Building in New York and 'job' them on to a Western company's offices there; the Western company would then in turn job them on to retailers - large and small - including drug-stores, tobacconists &etc., wholesalers, and toy-shop chains.

Other (larger) HK companies had their own sales offices, either in 'Central', the 'toy district' of downtown Kowloon** or at 200 Fifth Avenue, larger companies like Blue Box, the Gardener's PMC or Early Light had both and direct channels to favored - or indeed - favorite clients!

Travelling salesmen would then go from town to town and store to store, with their sample cases, getting firm orders, 10 of those here for cash, 20 of them there on sale-or-return . . .

Independent Store Owner/Buyer - "Right Jeff - I'll pay you for fifteen of these now, but I don't think those will fly, I'll take ten, but only on s/o/r, plus the repeat (usual order), we had Andy from Mettoy in the other day, he's offering a good deal on tin cars you know, I was tempted"

Salesman/'Rep' - "OK, I can make that work at the office, but do me a favor Bill, try a box of these, they're new, I'm back through next week I'll check-in with you; see how they're doing - I'll throw in a tub of bouncing balls, on the house, and I've got a set of four Tai Nam tinplates you can take, a US taxi, Fire chief, Ambulance and army-jeep, really colourful, they retail at two-shillings and sixpence a set, a bob to you, I'll have them with me next week"

The products themselves were often just knock-offs of existing Western toys (quality varying from quite like the original to atrocious rubbish!), but original designs were also produced and again quality varied from very good to extremely poor. Chinese and Japanese tin-plate was also pirated, sometimes in tin, sometimes in plastic.

If someone tells you "China has two different way to do toys/else." Tell him he's making it up as he goes along, there were as many ways to 'do toys' as there were companies involved. Some produced their own masters and moulds, some used those provided by the client. Whether in-house, client or a partner engineering-firm, those mould tools might be original designs, straight copies or cut-n-shut conversions.

When copying some went for the 'by eye' method of copying a 'new sculpt'. Others used pantographing equipment to produce reasonable copies, by using a pantograph, they could at the same time increase or reduce the size of the finished product as it is/can be used as a scaling tool as well as a straight copying machine.

Some used reverse molding to take a mould of the pirated piece; this usually results in a slightly smaller clone with a loss of detail. Others would take a die-cast toy apart and redesign it for plastic production, Lucky did this a lot with its larger scale vehicles.

The percentage of original [product] designs began to increase with the coming of FoB sales. Unlike jobbing where the financial risk is carried by the manufacturer while he's making it, and the Importer once he's paid for and taken delivery of it, with FoB sales, management 'teams' would organize the procurement, and/or design of the toy, find customers, get a bill of lading (BoL) off them which they could then use to A) secure bank funding and/or B) give the factory the go-ahead, the factory might them use the same paperwork to secure its own funding for materials or tooling, the risk was spread, promissory notes and 'finance' oiling the wheels of sweet deals!

Thus, certain larger Importers in the West and the bigger sales co-op's in HK became more 'professional', the boozy lunches moved from the country-club or the HK races (my mother rode there!) to boardrooms, and people like Larami (in the 'States) started obtaining licenses for things like Planet of the Apes, or, in the UK: Codeg with Trumpton and Rupert the Bear, which their tame manufacturers would translate into new designs rather than the same-old, same-old ex-Britains, Dinky, or Matchbox  copies.

It didn't stop the copying - that continues to this day; but it legitimised the bigger firms like Soma, Jetta, Kader, Forward Winsom, Tai Nam, May Chong or Universal as they could now be sued more easily through those agents and partners, or the stores the toys ended-up in or even their own offices in New York.

The company incorporated a US office in California two years
after jobbing this. Note the factory door cost differential
between FoB and Cash to Freight (or Forward; CTF)

It was the change to FoB practices which lead - along with other factors like the Oil Crisis and falling child populations after the heady-days of the 'baby boom' - to the demise of the West's toy industry, and the rise of ever larger players - feeding on the bargain bones. Luck plays a part too of course, how did Marx fail while Hasbro rose to the top for instance?

Especially as Marx was one of the first US firms to recognise the coming power of HK, setting up both factories and tame OEM's (original equipment manufacturers) in the colony, but maybe that was the problem, Hasbro exploited the inherent flexibility of FoB practices, Marx got bogged-down in traditional in-house manufacture, just with the complication of many plants in many places.

In the last 30 years, other equally great changes in the industry have occurred, the ones pertaining to business & procurement practices, fashion, fads and marketing and other such work-a-day stuff  (the way the industry - with its Toysaurus at the top - operates now) has been well written-up by Peter Evans in Plastic Warrior magazine; issues 144 and 146 (back issues available).

The other aspect is the wider geo-political changes brought about by firstly; the freeing-up of the economy in Mainland China with the thawing of the Cold War and the death of Chairman Mau (he was an unemployed chair salesman!), and secondly the handing back of HK to China (reunification or 'handover') in 1997, the two events leading most of the larger HK producers to move all (or the bulk) of production back in-land, over time, in part due to great start-up/relocation terms being offered by the Chinese government.

The elephant in the room here of course is that the old Chao Chow (Chaozhou, Chiuchow, or Teochew) refugee companies who started the global domination of toy production all those years ago, are now competing with State-owned companies, sometimes in the factory-unit next door!

However, the social aspects of Chinese society are far more nuanced than 'ours', and they all rub-along together (one of the reasons it's so hard to pin down the origins of individual sets), while they're staying busy buying-up what's left in the US, Canada or Europe.

The newest change to the industry is the decision/announcement by China (in 2013) that in future contract manufacture would take a back-seat to the development of both 'own brands' and a domestic market for those brands, part of the 'Chinese Dream' strategic shift. China's economy almost immediately slowed down 9for wider/other resons), so those 'new' brands (mostly old 'generics') have actually started to appear in the West, through the same old channels, and we just have another name on the packaging, this month - for instance - we've seen stuff branded to Dan Hai and Zhenhai, little or nothing about either on-line. LX (Ao Xing Yuan) and Lo Hua Toys are a couple more.

Some companies still retain production facilities in the hills of the New Territories but HK Island and Kowloon have become too expensive - as far as property prices/real-estate are concerned - to waste acreage on toy factories! One or two seem to have upped-sticks and moved-on to Taiwan, presumably those who's ideology (or principles!) won't reconcile them to dealing with the people who made them refugees in the 1940/50's.

**Kowloon - in the South of the territory facing Hong Kong island was the centre of the HK toy trade in the 1950's, '60's and '70's. At it's tip lies  TST East, where most of the bigger firms have now located their head or sales offices, and you will find the likes of Blue Box, H Grossman and Supreme head-quartered there. Blue Box were previously located in 'Central' on the North shore of HK Island. with other Chao Chow refugee toymen (and women!), directly opposite TST East across the bay/straights.

TST can be anglicized in full (on packaging or shipping manifests), like the various spellings of Chow Chow  as Tsim Sha Tsui, Tsimshatsui, Tsim Chat Sui or Tsimchatsui, depending - I assume - on which form of China's many languages the writter uses?

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