Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 17 News List

Barbie's back in town

The citizens of Taishan, Taipei County, have opened a doll museum that brings back the township's days as a manufacturing center for dolls

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

From sewing the hair lines to accessories and buttons, making a perfect Barbie was a painstaking process. The dolls collected at the Taishan Doll Museum wear clothes designed by local citizens.


I'm a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world. Life is plastic. It's fantastic!"

Twenty years ago, Lin Ah-ching (林阿錦) did't know about the pop song Barbie Girl, but it encapsulates her life as a Barbie doll maker, in Taishan, Taipei County, the former home of the Mattel factory.

From 1967 to 1987, Taishan was home to the flagship factory of Mattel Ltd, producing Barbie dolls for the world. Each day the factory produced 50,000 to 60,000 doll heads. Lin was one of the 8,000 workers who worked in this small semi-industrial township.

Following the opening of Taiwan's first Doll Museum last month, the little-known past of Taishan has come into the spotlight again.

"Look, this part of her body is made by the revolving machine. And for the hair, we had to sew the hair circles then use ovens to make [the hair] curl," Lin said, pointing to a doll in the museum and recounting her 20 years of making Barbies.

Lin said she originally worked in a clothing factory in Taoyuan and in 1967, Mattel set up and she moved to Taishan to become one of the earliest employees in the factory.

The business soon took off and peaked in the 1980s. The factory was divided into many departments that included body-shaping, spray-painting, hair-implants and sewing.

"For example,

Barbie's eyes, eyebrows, cheeks and lips, and also Ken's hair, are all made by spray paint," Lin said.

Teng Cheng-ming (鄧正明), is another former Mattel employee. For 18 years at Mattel, he mostly worked in the body-shaping department and in the revolving department. Teng remembers that the orders were so many that the body-shaping mold was operating 365 days a year non-stop. "A machine produces 250 legs an hour," he said.

How to make a perfect Barbie

The body: Made using a polyvinyl-chloride mold and shaped in a revolving machine. The joints of the doll must be able to bend in five ways.

The face: Spray paint is used for the eyes, lips and cheeks. Spraying the white-colored eyeballs first and then using needles to hand-draw the blue-colored pupils. If the pupils are blurred or just one eyelash is lopsided, the doll will be returned.

The hair: Mostly blond. Use sewing machine to stitch the hair. One stitch needs to have hundreds of hairs.

Dressing up: All the little pockets, buttons and laces need to be prepared. Some dolls need handbags, earrings and shoes.

The final check-up: The hair needs to be pulled. The body will be bent and the tickness will be tested.

Mattel in Taiwan was a joint venture between Mattel and Hua-hsia Plastic (華夏塑膠). In 1967, the earliest productions were puffed dolls. In 1968, production began to use plastic for the doll's head and hands. Then the whole body of the doll became made of polyvinyl chloride and mass production began.

"In the beginning, it was very primitive. There was no machine for us to curl the hair. We had to use chopsticks and wire to roll up the hair and use rice cookers to steam it. But you could not steam too much or it would damage and blur the paint for the doll's eyes," Lin said.

The factory became so busy, the work needed to be contracted out to workers outside of the factory. Thousands of housewives took up the piece-work jobs, doing knots, sewing buttons and laces, or putting on little shoes and earrings for the dolls.

Ku Tsuei-eh (古翠娥) was one of those housewives in the 1980s. "It was really good money. So good that you wanted to work all day and didn't feel like sleeping," she said.

Ku said she if worked hard, she earned NT$360 a day. At that time, Lin Ah-ching's salary was NT$700 a month. A Barbie doll, however, cost NT$1,200. In today's NT dollars, that works out to more than the price of a Louis Vuitton bag.

Factory community

It was, therefore, common for the employees to take home a Barbie doll. "People would think you were weird if you didn't take one home," Lin said.

Some would hide the doll in their bell-bottomed pants. Others took hands and legs in their underwear to assemble at home.

This made the company hire security. "Whenever security showed up, workers would give signals to each other and some had to throw away the dolls out into the rice fields. Sometimes they threw them into people's houses," Ku said.

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