Arts & Culture

Jian Yang Never Stopped Playing with Barbies, and Now He Collects Them

Going global with his doll collection

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All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so perhaps the best solution is to find a way to marry both together. And that’s exactly what Jian Yang did.

Known as a toy collector and a practised toymaker, he got thrust into the international limelight through his strong following on Instagram. It is no wonder that all eyes are on him globally, for he boasts a 9,000-strong toy collection that includes the beloved icon, Barbie. He took things one step further by crafting haute couture outfits for his dolls with nothing more than tissue paper and showcased them on his travels and social media platforms.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Barbie this year, Jian Yang placed his private doll collection on display at Singapore’s MINT Museum of Toys for the public to get a glimpse into the dolls’ evolution from 1959 to 2019.

Being a collector in this age in Singapore is impressive, given that houses are getting smaller and Marie Kondo is being promoted as the surefire way to wellness and peace of mind.

How do we navigate this realm of less is more with this act of collecting, growing the collection and making space for them in a world that is getting increasingly digitised?

Then again, passion, dedication and love know no bounds.

B-Side has a quick conversation with Jian Yang on his collection.

Share with us how your interest in collecting came about.

In 1984, I was a 5-year-old boy who saw a toy under a Christmas tree. It happened to be a Barbie. At the time, it didn’t occur to me it was a girl’s toy.

I was a child. She was a toy. It made sense.

After that, I started outgrowing Transformers, He-Man and Star Wars. I never really realised this, but I just never stopped playing with Barbie. I’ve never seen myself as a collector either. I just never stopped playing with a toy that I love.

Favourite places to go hunting for collectibles?

Australian flea markets.

What’s the wildest thing you have done to get your hands on a toy for your collection?

I met a stranger from Instagram for the first time, and before we even got to the pleasantries, I got on the back of his motorcycle for a 40-minute ride to a far-flung market in Indonesia to visit a secret toy paradise. We are now great friends, but riding behind a stranger in Indonesia was a first.

Tell us about some highlights of your collection and your favourite memories.

I have many memories since I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. My love life, family life, and even career, have been largely defined by these toys.

Some notables were:

– When I was 10, my grandfather offered to buy me a doll. I declined because somewhere deep inside, I didn’t want him to spend $50 on a doll for a boy.

– It still baffles me why my parents were never vocally against it. I’ve come to realise I have the best parents in the world.

– The collection has brought me global attention, including spreads in Esquire, VOGUE, August Man, Cleo, The Straits Times and every notable publication in the world. It’s crazy that something as insignificant as a doll collection would bring me “fame”. I now get recognised on the street, and I’m still wondering why, what to do or say when it happens.

– Because of this collection, I now have an exhibition to my name. I have my own collectible MRT cards. I’m a published author of #flushablefashion (My own book!). I have my own Google ranking on the internet, and I’m an alleged Instagram celebrity.

It’s weird to think that one awkward little boy could grow into such a personality.

How can one tell what is worth collecting or not?

I’ve now learnt that if you collect for value, you will often be let down, since all value is determined by market demand and supply forces. I now only collect what I like because the only person I have to justify (why I spent $XX) is to myself.

In a world where decluttering and ‘Kondo’ing your home is seen as key to mindfulness and well-being, how does collecting still keep its place?

My architect, Visual Text Architects, is brilliant. The terrace house was gutted when I bought it nine years ago, and the whole thing was designed and built around the collection. That way, the collection finds its way into the interior design, rather than looking like an afterthought.

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