Design Feature #58

Sofubi Enthusiast: Toys can set us free

Hide Toy & Ho-Crazy

Text: TL ling
Translated by: Joel Wong
Image: PMQ

Yeung Tsz Kin and Wong Chun Ho ( Ah Ho), share a common interest in designing and creating soft vinyl toys, popularly known as Sofubi, in their spare time. They have each established their own brand of toys, namely Hide Toy and Ho-Crazy. While Tsz Kin works in the logistics business, he still dedicates his mornings to designing and creating his toys, waking up at 5 a.m. every day. He doesn't necessarily have any deadlines to meet, but he is driven by his passion for creating and designing his toys.

Independent toy creators Yeung Tze Kin (left) and Wong Chun Ho.

Ah Ho is a freelance designer who is passionate about Sofubi. He designs Sofubi toys for fun and not for money. He wants total control over all aspects of the production process, from experimenting with different ways of producing Sofubi to designing the packaging. Making toys is very satisfying for him. Tsz Kin and Ah Ho have incorporated their interests into their designs, such as childhood memories and street culture. Ah Ho believes that through toys, he can share his stories. He thinks turning his stories into physical objects will make them more attractive, even if others may ignore them.

It all began with paper clay

Tsz Kin and Ah Ho both developed a love for toys during their childhood while watching cartoons and reading comics. Tsz Kin, born in the 1970s, was mainly influenced by classic Japanese Robot Anime Voltron and Golden Lightan. "As a child, I instantly fell in love with the toys based on those series," he says. During the 70s and 80s, plastic and metal robot toys and superhero toys like Ultraman and Kamen Rider were popular among boys. Even Ah Ho, born in the 90s, is familiar with these toys. "Because my brother is ten years older than me, I eventually inherited the toys that belonged to him. One of the things I find interesting about toys is that they can be shared and passed down."

In 2022, a group of designer toy enthusiasts in Hong Kong formed a club called Nice Geeks. Two members, Tsz Kin, and Ah Ho, share a common goal of making Sofubi toys more accessible to the public. The club includes Don't Cry In The Morning and over ten other independent brands. Many members have known each other for years and have become close friends through their love of toys. Tsz Kin considers ASA of Don't Cry In The Morning to be his mentor and describes him as a walking encyclopedia of toy production. ASA taught Tsz Kin everything he needed to know when he started, including how to produce toys, what materials to use, and where to buy them.

Tsz Kin's collection: "Book of Great Use" (left), which introduced Japanese toys in the 90s, and the 2004 inaugural issue of Hong Kong's toy magazine "Garden", which featured the "Godfather of Figure", Michael Lau, on the cover.

Tsz Kin is a designer who creates his brand of toys, despite not having a creative background like his peers ASA and Ah Ho. He took over his father's business and ran a small shop selling accessories in Hung Hom. In his free time, he began making monsters using paper clay. ASA, who lived nearby, saw him playing with these toys and approached him.

Over time, Tsz Kin progressed from using paper clay to resin, and eventually vinyl to produce his toys. His designs are influenced by street culture, skateboarding, hip-hop, and cult movies, all his favorite things. Tsz Kin has been a toy fan for many years and enjoys communicating with his friends in the Nice Geeks community. They used to exchange gifts every Christmas and party outside of Tsz Kin's dad's store, but the store ceased business some time ago.

Tsz Kin's early works from more than five years ago, all of which are made of resin except the left one, which is a plastic doll.

The joy of experiments

There is a type of Sofubi known as Evil Sofubi, which often includes elements like corpses, organs, blood, and gore. Tsz Kin acknowledges that his works have a bit of a sinister edge but in a cute way. On the other hand, Ah Ho's style is entirely different; he mainly designs animal characters. Before moving on to creating Sofubi, he made toys out of resin. "While studying at Hong Kong Design Institute, I took clay sculpture classes and found it fascinating to bring my ideas to life. I made five piglet toys out of resin for my graduation project."

In recent years, Tsz Kin's works have maintained a style that is both sinister and cute.

Ah Ho's works are often seen with animal elements, the red piggy in the centre of the picture is inspired by the piggy bank.

Ah Ho had his first experience with handmade toys when he created five piglets. He has always loved toys since he was a child. The idea behind the piglets came from his childhood memories, including a Hong Kong-style Red Piglet Poppy. "Piglet Poppy represents saving money in my childhood, which is necessary to buy toys. However, during the process, one might be tempted by other things that catch their interest. That's why I made the piglets in different shapes," he explained. Ah Ho's first Sofubi design was the Hamburger Frog, which is a combination of animal and childlike characteristics. He achieved this by merging horned frogs with hamburger gummy.

The hamburger candy-inspired frog figurine "Hamburger Frog" was initially made in resin by Ah Ho. (Photo: ho_crazy IG)

The resin version (right) and the vinyl version of "Hamburger Frog."

Tsz Kin suggests that the first step towards creating your brand is to prototype your product and then discuss its production and feasibility in small quantities with the factory. Although Tsz Kin and Ah Ho no longer produce toys with resin, as the self-made molds have a short lifespan, Tsz Kin still fondly remembers his experiences with lo-fi experiments. When making molds with resin and hardeners, bubbles tend to appear.

To counter this, a "defoaming machine" is used for vacuuming. However, Tsz Kin didn't have access to such a machine, so he improvised by buying a dense plastic box and connecting a vacuum cleaner to the hole (like a rice storage box) to achieve the desired defoaming effect!

Ah Ho addressed the issue by purchasing an automatic vacuum rice vat from the market. However, he was disappointed to find that the results were not satisfactory. He felt that using a vacuum cleaner would have been more effective. Nevertheless, he found designing toys enjoyable and worthwhile, allowing him to constantly improve his techniques and exchange ideas with other designers.

In Nice Geeks we trust

How do Sofubi designers get the chance to showcase their products to the public? Tsz Kin and Ah Ho have participated in various exhibitions and activities, such as the Singularity Plan Festival in mainland China, which promotes independent design. Tsz Kin recalls his first experience showcasing his creations at the festival in Guangzhou in 2017. He found it an eye-opening experience because not only toy makers were participating, but also people from different fields, such as illustrators and tattoo artists. Some were in their twenties and already highly skilled in designing Sofubi toys. It was a fruitful trip for him.

Tsz Kin's Sofubi figures based on the Japanese manga character "Astro Boy" are among his most popular creations.

Designing Sofubi toys is an excellent way to showcase creativity and design skills. However, in Hong Kong, people often underestimate the value of hand-made toys compared to illustrations or other creative means. Many believe that toys are only for children and not for adults. Despite this, Tsz Kin doesn't let such comments get him down. He has high self-esteem and believes that if someone likes or purchases his toys, it's already a bonus. On the other hand, Ah Ho thinks that people in Hong Kong only buy trendy toys or those that they can invest in and resell quickly to make a profit.

A group of Sofubi enthusiasts including Tsz Kin and Ah Ho formed a club called Nice Geeks. They actively participate in various activities to promote designer toys. One of the club members named Chan Ka Tat, also known as Ah Tat, has been working in collaboration with his wife for more than 20 years under the name Graphic Airlines. They have been exploring the world of Sofubi for 6 years now. According to Ah Tat, the main objective of establishing the Nice Geeks is to gather all the enthusiasts and utilize their networks to explore the possibilities of designer toys. Through their works, they aim to introduce more people to this field.

Don't miss PMQ's Play Stuff Fest at the end of March! Hong Kong and Taiwanese toy designers will showcase their new creations at the toy market. The gang of Nice Geeks will also be there to share their experience collecting Sofubi. Come and meet other enthusiasts, share your Sofubi stories, and make new friends. Don't miss out!

Nice Geeks brings together more than 10 independent toy brands from Hong Kong, including (from left) Graphic Airlines by Tat, Ho-Crazy by Ah Ho, Hide Toy by Tze Kin and Enjoy The Little Thingssss by Vasco.

PMQ “Play Stuff Fest”

29 March 2024–1 April 2024(12:00 - 19:00)

Courtyard & Marketplace, G/F(Selected programmes will be held in the designated venue)


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