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Kindling love of matchbox cars
By Wang Jie

In an age of electronic gadgets, when children are hooked on smartphones, computer games and tablets, it’s easy to forget that simple, mechanical toys once delighted youngsters who used to know how to entertain themselves.

Tiny matchbox cars, mechanical, wind-up hens that laid eggs, and battery-powered plastic bears that “took” pictures with a flash camera were once extremely popular and the sight of them today brings back fond childhood memories.

Today, many of them are collector’s items and there are fan clubs for matchbox cars and other old time toys.

Wang Fan, a 30-year-old IT professional, collects all kinds of matchbox cars and vehicles — so named because they fit into a matchbox. Since starting to collect in 2002, he now has around 700 matchbox cars at home.

As a small boy in Shanghai, Wang was fascinated by Matchbox brand cars but lost interest after leaving primary school. In 2002, his interest in matchbox cars was rekindled when he wandered into a toy shop on Beijing Road W. in 2002.

“By chance, I walked into the shop and found so many matchbox cars,” Wang recalls. “At the time, it was like a ray of light shining onto my old times, as if a long lost friend had greeted me.”

Wang then began to frequent the shop. The shop gave him a window on foreign makes of vehicles in different periods, and a glimpse of lifestyle.

An exhibition of 2,000 matchbox toys is underway at the Shanghai Mass Art Center through mid-August. Wang and fellow collector Zhu Yuxiang — both donated to the exhibit — will give free guided tours on July 27 and August 3.

A few years after he had discovered the shop on Beijing Road W., it had to close and Wang and some friends began purchasing matchbox cars on the Internet.

Today they have a fan club of around 100 enthusiasts who share their knowledge and collections.

Wang now has so many cars that he keeps them stored in cardboard boxes and says he may taper off in his purchases.

“I now realize that it’s impossible to collect all the types and brands of matchbox cars,” he says. “For me, it’s a hobby to refresh my memories of happy childhood days.

“We are a lucky generation that played with the same toys our parents played with, and we also owned the toys that the next generation never played with.”

Unlike matchbox specialist Wang, Zhu Yuxiang, a 35-year-old worker at a local community culture center, collects a range of second-hand toys. “To me, old second-hand toys are better in quality and design,” he says. “They are not easily broken, so many of my toys still function.”

He takes out some of his old toys, such as a wind-up police car, and he and his two-year-old son play with them together.

“Don’t you think today’s toys have lost their charm? Toys should be special way to bring children together,” Zhu says. “But today, every child is holding a cold tablet and these electronic gadgets increase the psychological ldistance between people. These are not the real world and the real things we can touch, they bring illusions. However, the old toys are more concrete and real.”

Zhu started collecting in 2004 and now he has almostly 1,000 second-hand toys.

He remembers that a friend opened a toy shop selling Transformers toys and there he found some old toys. “There’s a hen that lays eggs that nearly everyone in our generation played with when we were little kids,” he says.

Now he checks shops selling vintage items and antiques.

“Having these toys is one way to make me happy in this fast-paced, materialistic city,” he says. 

“When I touch them on a quiet evening at home, I find that my spirit calms. It’s as if childhood innocence returns.”

His own son is fascinated by the old mechanical and simple battery-powered toys and they are much more attractive to him than electronic gadgets, Ba says.

“I am happy these toys will become part of his childhood memories. High technology is not the only way to make a child happy. When he and his friends play with these old toys, I am glad to see the smiles on their faces.”

Matchbox cars exhibition
Date: Through August 15, 9am-5pm
Venue: Shanghai Mass Art Center, 125 Guyi Rd
Admission: Free
Tel: 5424-4152

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