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September 8, 2011

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Toying with memories

ONCE upon a time, children played simple games with simple toys, like the iron chicken that laid eggs, and an exhibition of vintage toys brings back sweet memories. Hu Min reports.

Today's children's toys are smart phones, computers and Transformers, but the generation that grew up in the 1980s, the so-called post-80s generation, had simpler pleasures. They shot marbles, played jump rope and played with building blocks, toy fire engines and wind-up frogs that jumped.

All those toys - from kaleidoscopes to colorful Three Kingdoms trading cards - strike a chord of nostalgia with the post-80s generation, many of them now harried professionals in a high-pressure society where they worry about money, jobs, advancement, buying a house, paying for a good school for their own children. Their own children get smart phones.

After the privations of the 1960s and 70s, China's post-80s generation was the first to grow up with relative material comfort. Today they are in their 20s and some have reached 30, with fond memories of the past.

Many merchandisers are cashing in on nostalgia for those simpler, seemingly carefree times and are selling all kinds of clothing with 80s themes, and also memorabilia and items that were part of daily life.

One man, 32-year-old librarian Zhu Yuxiang, simply collects toys from the period because he loves them.

Around 200 of his toys, a fraction of his collection of 1,000 items, are on exhibit at the Shanghai Public Art Center on Guyi Road through September 20. Admission is free.

Zhu, who started collecting in 2003, wants to share memories of water fights with squirt guns and toy guns, games with toy tanks, cars, dolls, funny modeling clay creatures in electric colors, toy stethoscopes and many other things.

Children played cards, assembled jig-saw puzzles, did tricks with yo-yos, played drop-the-handkerchief, and rubber-band skipping. Collecting small toys in snack packages was a fad. So was collecting complete sets of cards (one in a snack package) that bore pictures of figures from Chinese classics, such as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Water Margin." Trading cards was popular and some images were rare and sought-after. Some children spent all their pocket-money to buy snacks, just to get the cards.

The wind-up iron chicken that laid eggs was a big hit, as were all kinds of toy vehicles. They were simple and colorful, not as intricate as today's playthings, but charming, durable and lots of fun.

They were made between 1960 and the late 1980s, most in the 80s. Zhu now specializes in Chinese-designed and Chinese-made toys between 1980 and 1985.

"See, this is the same doll I once played with," a young mother happily tells her toddler daughter, who probably caught her mother's excitement.

"Everybody has a childhood and I hope to evoke people's childhood memories," says collector Zhu, a quiet man who has a 5-month-old baby.

"My childhood memories flash through my mind when I see these exhibits and I'm excited to see the toys I once played with," says English teacher Shen Jin, who was born in 1983. Most of her toys were thrown away.

Zhu Qiang, who was born in 1981, says he still remembers that his father once rewarded him with a toy gun because he got a high examination score. He looks at a spacecraft toy and jokes, "I dreamed of getting one, but I guess only kids who scored 90-plus marks in a row could get one."

Zhu Yuxiang gave a talk about his collection when the exhibition opened and around 140 people were in the audience, despite the pouring rain that day. He was touched by the turnout.

His home in Jing'an District is piled high with toys, packed in cardboard boxes. He has around 1,000 items, including tiny ones, such as pencil sharpeners, erasers and small toys in snack packages.

He even kept the plastic scoopers for plum powder, a common popular snack in those days.

A package of sweet and sour plum powder cost only five cents at the time, and came with the scoops. It's hard to find plum powder today.

Among his collection, only a pencil box and toy gun were his own, he bought the rest. The pencil box features a woman wearing a swimsuit. "I was very shy when I first used the pencil box because of the picture," Zhu chuckles.

When he started collecting toys in 2003, most of items were imported, like Doraemon, a Japanese cat robot, and Transformers. One day by chance he saw a toy set of kitchenware, including a pan, gas cooker and water kettle and they tugged at his memory.

"My mother was a kindergarten principal, who used to buy a batch of toys during summer vacation and I remember playing with them," Zhu says.

He bought the kitchen set toys and decided to focus on Chinese toys remembered by the post-80s generation.

Chinese factories struggled for a spot in the market and many of them were forced to close because of the influx of overseas animation and products, he says.

Now, most factories have been swept away and Zhu hopes more people will pay attention to the playthings.

Zhu has collected toys from around China and once spent almost two years searching for a plush dog. He spent two months' salary to purchase a "Star Wars" set.

"I had no savings for a period because I used all my money to buy toys," he says. Many of his friends have given him toys as gifts.

Date: through September 20, 9am-5pm

Address: 125 Guyi Rd

Admission: Free

How to get there: Metro Lines 3, 4 and 9 Yishan Road Station


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