I stop in my tracks when I hear the tune. It’s a lazy, pleasant song that transports me back to a cozy bed where two little girls, my sister and I, are sprawled watching television. Disney’s animated movie, Robin Hood, is playing and the girls are singing along to the tune, Love Goes On, watching Robin and Maid Marion smile coyly at each other. It is such a vivid memory that it takes me a few seconds to notice the source of the music. I am standing on a quiet street in Singapore, outside the entrance to a building from which the music is playing. There are vintage enamel Cadbury signs nailed to one of the walls, while the glass façade has images of Batman, Popeye and other cartoon figures and comic strips.
I am intrigued and walk in, finding myself in the narrow lobby of the MINT Museum of Toys. A collection of over 50,000 vintage toys is spread out across four floors and with no persuasion I buy a ticket, Love Goes On gently accompanying me as I ascend to the top floor. Over the next couple of hours I wind my way down through the galleries, a nostalgic journey through action figures and dolls, wooden puppets and tin toys, cartoon characters and movie memorabilia. Every now and then I stop at an object, which has triggered childhood, and sometimes more recent, memories.
It is impressive that the entire collection is privately owned by a Singaporean collector and CEO of the museum, Chang Yang Fa. An avid toy collector, his journey began when he was six years old and continues decades later, growing his toy cupboard to a nostalgic sprawl of over 50,000 toys from across the world. I ascend first into Outer Space, the collection a testament to our long fascination with galaxies far far away. There are tin robots, neon plastic spaceships, action hero comic books, Star Wars action figures, plastic laser guns and board games.
Though the lighting is a bit dim and the shelves crammed with toys of all shapes and sizes, the higgledy-piggledy excess is charming. I enjoy the feeling of absolute wonder and excitement when taking in the sheer number and variety of toys and memorabilia on display. There is a colourful showcase of Flash Gordon comics and clunky laser guns, one being held by a villainous looking chap that Flash is biffing in the face on the cover of the comic book, Flash Gordon: First of the Thrilling Adventures Into The Future. My reflection in the glass blurs into an image of warm summer afternoons under the shade of mango trees. My sister, holding me firmly by the hand, is running through the yard with me flying behind. We are playing Flash Gordon and Dale, fleeing that dastardly Ming the Merciless!
There is a Buck Rogers display and a flurry of Japanese made robot and astronaut toys, many of them expensive collector items; and a life-sized menacing Darth Maul. I strike a pose next to a robot made from recycled scraps, the motley collection of bottles, caps, springs and two soap dispenser pumps sticking out of the head, making it look like a lopsided and happy drunk!
The descent from outer space takes me straight into a gallery of iconic characters and superheroes—from Batman and Popeye, to Tintin and Yogi Bear. A life-sized Captain Haddock had us shout out “Blistering Barnacles” in delight and take several photos in a stare-down with him. Some Popeye trivia on a wall highlights the popularity of the squinty spinach eating sailor man, the character reportedly reproduced in more toys than any other cartoon character, with the exception of Mickey Mouse. There is a mind-boggling jumble of toys and memorabilia around the sailor man on display including colouring books, bobble head dolls, jack-in-the-box spinach cans with Popeye jumping out and a vintage wooden figure riding on a rocket, made in France in the 1930s, and still in perfect working condition.
The stairways connecting each floor are also peppered with posters and displays, including a cuddly showcase of teddy bears with some real treasures like a large blue bear from 1911, a Steiff teddy from 1903 and several others made by various British teddy bear companies. Some of the stories around the origin of teddy bears are featured on a sign on the wall, my personal favourite being the one about Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt not shooting a defenceless bear. This inspired a local sweet shop to put a plush toy bear in their window display and name it after him.
The teddy showcase leads to a gallery of childhood favourites. I let out an excited shriek when I spot a sea of tiny blue figures—Smurfs, a raspy shrill voice in my head mouthing the word “GARGAMEL”, their wizard nemesis, and sparking memories of well-worn video tapes with recordings of these cartoons. There are nostalgic delights everywhere I turn. Hand puppets and Tom and Jerry and marionettes, oh my!
But it is a temporary exhibition on one of the floors, that surprisingly has me hooked for the longest. I only had one Barbie doll while growing up. They were quite expensive and there was something about her perfection that made the doll feel more like a showpiece and less like a toy to be worn down with endless play. Called Unbox, these shifting exhibitions unveil unique private toy collections.
The Barbie exhibit is a lifelong collection of Singaporean doll collector, Jian Yang, who got his first Barbie when he was four. On display is his most expensive doll—a Swarovski studded Silkstone Barbie designed by Singaporean artist Dan Goh that Yang got at a silent auction by Mattel. There are Barbies inspired by the musicals Wicked and Frozen; dolls dressed by all the leading fashion designers of the world from Valentino to Christian Dior; and even a collection by Yang with beautiful dresses made of toilet paper.
There is a showcase of Barbie’s evolution through history, becoming more inclusive and representative in her design and different avatars. I marvel at the ebony skinned Barbies; CEO Barbie off to smash the glass ceiling; the blue and white Presidential Barbie which Mattel has designed in every election year since 1992; social influencer Barbie; and the differently shaped dolls in curvy, petite and tall that landed Barbie on the cover of Time Magazine.
I walk by some beautiful sketches of Beatrix Potter’s mischievous Peter Rabbit; a collection of Archie comics, Beatles memorabilia and a vintage set of rocking horses hitched to a wagon. A poster of that honey-loving wise bear, Winnie the Pooh, draws my attention with a quote, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” And that is where the appeal of the museum and its nostalgic collection lies. A reminder of easy and delightful conversations with our toys. The museum brings back memories of toys and books and music we loved, of TV shows watched, of thrilling games played, and a reminder of magic in our lives.
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based independent journalist