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August 12, 2011

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Bots rule

Chinese Transformer geeks are as obsessed as everyone else and the latest film, "Dark of the Moon," has brought out the die-hard "bone-ash" acolytes. Yao Minji looks into the rise of the machines.

Stepping into Gu Lei's small apartment, one immediately stares at a man-sized glass cabinet exhibiting three rare Transformers sculptures, Optimus Prime, Megatron and Starscream, each around 50 centimeters high.

Each is rendered in meticulous detail and illuminated by spotlights. Near the case is a huge Transformers logo, the face of the machine, crafted in purple carpeting and standing as high as an armchair.

In the living room are two of the newest Optimus Prime and Megatron toys that came out this summer with the third Transformers film, "Dark of the Moon."

Gu's 10-square-meter study is the treasure trove.

Half of the space is occupied by another display case around three square meters, which displays a few hundred autobots of all sizes and types, the largest around 60cm high, the smallest that sits on two fingers.

Every conceivable space is filled with thousands more toys - brand new, transformed, covered with dust or still unwrapped. They are stacked against the walls, under the bed and cover every surface.

"It's very difficult to decide what to put in the display case, since I have so many of them, some costly special editions, some very ordinary," says Gu. "Each has a place in my heart," he tells Shanghai Daily as he transforms a Soundwave to its original shape before replacing it in the case, otherwise it won't fit.

By day, 33-year-old Gu is an accountant, but by night and in his "real" life in the Transformer fan circle, he is known as the high priest, a "bone-ash" level fan. The term is used by Chinese gamers and animation fans of all kind to describe someone who is a fan for so long that he (they are usually young men) turns to ash. Hard core.

Gu started collecting autobots around 2001, when he first started working, inspired by the animation that began back in 1986.

Since then there were various animations, comic books and feature films starting in 2007.

He spent virtually all his spare money on collecting bots. In late 2008 he counted and categorized his collection - he had more than 3,000 items worth more than 300,000 yuan (US$46,890) today - but that's the total he paid over the years. Today the value is much higher and he has lost track of his collection.

"Most fans in Shanghai and the Chinese mainland can be divided into two groups," Gu says. "The majority are between ages 25 and 30, like me, who first got interested through the early animations."

The second group of younger fans, born after 1990, are drawn to the feature films that first came out in 2007, he says.

The animation, launched by the toy maker to promote the line of toys, was screened on Chinese TV in the mid 1980s. For Gu and his peers, they were among the very few cartoons on TV at the time and they treasure their memories.

The G1 series of Transformers, the first generation of the toy line, was also one of the few authorized toys available in Chinese department stores at the time. Cheap pirated toys were sold by street vendors.

"I still remember how my dad bought me my first autobot, the G1 Hot Spot, which I still have at home today," says Wang Qiong, a 31-year-old freelance designer. At that time, his father's monthly salary was around 40 yuan and a G1 toy was priced at 99 yuan in the department store. "But I didn't know it was so expensive," he says.

As a boy, Wang was addicted to the animations, so his father took him to a street famous for toy vendors to buy him an Optimus Prime, the major good-guy character. It was sold out. Wang found Hot Spot, a transformed truck that resembles Optimus Prime, and the vendor asked for 50 yuan.

"My father only brought along a little more than 40 yuan, because neither of us expected it to be so expensive, even more than my dad's monthly salary," Wang recalls.

The vendor refused to take 40 and Wang's father ended up exchanging everything he had with him - rice coupons, oil coupons, movie tickets - with passersby to make up the 50 yuan to buy the toy.

"So I always have a special spot in my heart for Hot Spot and Hot Spots take up a big part of my collection," says Wang.

Like Wang, many Transformer fans still have a few old autobots from their childhood. But it was not until 1999 that organized collection and a network of collectors started, due to the popularity of the Internet.

Feng Ming, whose screen name was Starscream, founded TFclub, the largest and most professional Chinese transformers site. Feng was forced to stay home when he was 17 years old because he had cancer and so he devoted himself to maintaining and promoting the site until he died in 2007. But he is still honored as chief operator of the site online and revered by most fans.

"I joined TFclub in 2002 and there were only around 10 participants at the annual meeting in 2003," says Chen Zhiliang, current chief operator of the site based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Today there are more than 10,000 registered members and more than 50,000 regular visitors. Exhibitions every a few months attract thousands of fans.

The situation in Shanghai is about the same. Gu says that when they first formed the fans network around 2002, they had fewer than 10 people.

Today their annual exhibition attracts more than 100 members and thousands of visitors. The group organizes various competitions for fans such as toy-based novels, paintings, flash animations, Photoshop posters, DIY toys and other activities. Wang says he plans to shoot an original Chinese transformers story, with DIY Chinese autobots.

History transformed

Transformers dates back to a 1981 Japanese toy called New Microman, robots that could be transformed into tape recorders and other things. The company also launched Diaclones, 3cm-high figures convertible to car and truck robots, jet robots and others. In 1983 the company collaborated with a US firm to promote the toys in the US with comic books.

The comics were so successful that the toys were revised and new characters were added in 1984, plus the first generation of Transformers, Optimus Prime, Starscream, Megatron and Soundwave.

Generation 1 figures (1984-1990) are most sought-after. They sold in Chinese department stores for 100 yuan, about two months' salary then. A well-preserved G1 can sell for a few hundred or a thousand yuan. Some fans make clear plastic boxes for unwrapped G1 toys and send to US for certification.

Generation 2 (1992-1995) figures had new functions and sounds.

Then new series came out every two or three years, with new plots. Beast Wars 1996-1999, Beast Machines 2000-2001, Robots in Disguise 2001-2002, Armada 2002-2003, Universe since 2002, Energon 2003-2005, Cybertron 2005-2007, Kiss Players 2006, Classics 2006.

The first of three Transformers films premiered in July 2007.


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