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FEATURE/Barbie's Taiwanese legacy: The stories of Mattel's factory workers

01/31/2024 01:01 PM
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The Taishan Doll Museum, established in 2004, features an exhibit dedicated to the period when Taishan, a small town where the majority of residents were engaged in farming, experienced prosperity through the manufacturing of Barbie dolls. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024
The Taishan Doll Museum, established in 2004, features an exhibit dedicated to the period when Taishan, a small town where the majority of residents were engaged in farming, experienced prosperity through the manufacturing of Barbie dolls. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024

By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter

Box office smash Barbie, the summer viral hit about the much-loved Mattel doll that many spent their childhoods playing with, has received eight nominations for this year's Academy Awards (Oscars), set to be held on March 10 (Los Angeles time).

The famous plastic doll, with her slender figure and chic fashion sense, achieved global commercial success following her 1959 debut and remains one of the most popular toys to date.

But the brand's success story cannot fully be told without paying tribute to a group of factory workers in a small northwestern Taiwan town, who, in the 1970s produced 80 percent of the world's Barbie dolls.

Hsu Chu-lien (許菊蓮), a petite and lively woman in her late 60s, was once part of the 8,000-strong workforce at Mattel's manufacturing base -- the Meining (美寧) factory -- established in 1967 in what is now New Taipei's Taishan District.

"There were over 3,000 employees at the factory, but including home-based subcontractors, about 8,000 of us received regular paychecks," Hsu recalled.

Hsu Chu-lien, a former employee at Mattel’s factory in Taiwan, has volunteered at the museum for over a decade, dedicating her time to enrich the visitor experience and provide insights into the world of Barbie doll production in Taiwan nearly 40 years ago. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024
Hsu Chu-lien, a former employee at Mattel’s factory in Taiwan, has volunteered at the museum for over a decade, dedicating her time to enrich the visitor experience and provide insights into the world of Barbie doll production in Taiwan nearly 40 years ago. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024

She joined Mattel's doll manufacturing plant in 1972 at the age of 17, shortly after graduating from junior high school in her rural Miaoli County hometown.

She worked in the sewing department for six years, spending her days piecing together tiny dresses and accessories for the iconic doll and living in the dormitory that the company built close to the factory to house employees.

During its 20 years of operations until its closure in 1987, the Meining factory -- a joint venture between Mattel and a Taiwanese company led by plastics manufacturing magnet Chao Ting-tsung (趙廷箴) -- churned out nearly one billion Barbie dolls.

Mattel chose Taiwan as its location for making the dolls because of government incentives and cheap labor, according to a China Times report published in November 1967, months after the factory began operations.

However, all of the toys produced in the factory's early years were exported and it was not until 1982 that the first Barbie model -- a doll with a pink polka dot top and white chiffon pettiskirt -- was available to buy in Taiwan.

Barbie was popular among the predominantly female factory workforce, and Hsu was no exception.

"Back then, there were not many dolls in the [Taiwanese] market," Hsu said, "Barbie is so beautiful, who wouldn't like her? Every girl liked her."

But it never occurred to her that she would ever be able to one day buy one, Hsu said, noting that a Barbie doll was a luxury that a factory worker with a meager monthly salary of NT$1,000 (US$32) could not afford.

Still, the doll was so coveted that some were willing to risk swiping parts of the doll, a piece at a time, out of the factory despite tight security checks, according to Pai Li-ping (白麗萍), who worked at the Mattel factory for two years.

"Honestly, everyone was trying to sneak out bits of Barbie," Pai said. "She is so beautiful and glamorous."

"I used to put small parts in my lunchbox to avoid being caught by security," Pai recalled, adding that she had kept the dolls she had assembled with the stolen parts until a recent clearout at her home.

Speaking with CNA, Pai had nothing but praise for the Mattel factory she had aspired to work at in her childhood. "From a very young age, I felt this company was different," she said.

Pai Li-ping continues to cherish the memories of her time working at the Meining factory. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024
Pai Li-ping continues to cherish the memories of her time working at the Meining factory. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024

Pai, now in her 50s, continues to cherish the memories of sneaking into the Mattel complex as a child, clutching just a stool, as she tried to catch an outdoor movie screening, one of the many entertainment perks provided to employees and their families.

She joined the factory at the age of 18, working in different departments for the next two years, from hair transplantation to sewing and eventually to molding, where she would meet her future husband.

Many of Pai's colleagues, who joined the company in early adulthood, had similar experiences to her and marked some of the most important moments of their lives -- like getting married or buying a house -- while working at the company, the Taishin District Office said.

The first Barbie model that was released in Taiwan in 1982. CNA Photo Jan. 31, 2024
The first Barbie model that was released in Taiwan in 1982. CNA Photo Jan. 31, 2024

Former employees like Pai and Hsu have no desire to put the years spent working at the factory behind them, despite the toy giant relocating its manufacturing base to China nearly four decades ago.

Pai, who currently works at a beauty salon, remains a member of the Meining Friendship Group (美寧聯誼社), which organizes social gatherings for those who used to work at the plant.

Hsu, who has now retired, has volunteered for 16 years at the Taishan Doll Museum, a small exhibition space in the New Taipei town that displays dozens of the Barbie dolls and toys produced at the factory.

Established in 2004, the museum is dedicated to the time when Taishan, a small town where most people worked in farming, prospered due to manufacturing Mattel dolls.

The museum, run by the district office, has sought to carve out its legacy for years in the town that is now booming with logistics companies, warehouses, and electric machinery industries.

Holding workshops on producing doll clothes is part of that effort, according to the workshop's lecturer Shami Kuo (郭雪美), who is herself an enthusiastic Barbie collector.

Shami Kuo, a renowned fashion designer, runs a workshop on crafting doll clothes at the Taishan Doll Museum in New Taipei, a program that aligns with the museum's mission to preserve the rich history of the community, which served as Mattel's production hub for Barbie from 1967-1987. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024
Shami Kuo, a renowned fashion designer, runs a workshop on crafting doll clothes at the Taishan Doll Museum in New Taipei, a program that aligns with the museum's mission to preserve the rich history of the community, which served as Mattel's production hub for Barbie from 1967-1987. CNA photo Jan. 31, 2024

Students from all backgrounds have enrolled in the annual three-month-long workshop to learn how to produce garments for Barbie, Kuo told CNA.

However, the focus is not on typical Barbie attire, but on exquisite pieces that reflect Taiwanese culture; for example, outfits worn by chiefs of Taiwanese Indigenous tribes, she explained.

The goal is to "celebrate Taiwan's cultural heritage" as well as the beloved doll, Kuo said.

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