MORE THAN JUST A TOY RO­BOT

A look at China’s Trans­form­ers fans and the deep-seated con­nec­tions they have with the iconic car­toon and toy se­ries

China Daily (USA) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

De­spite the heat wave en­gulf­ing Shang­hai, more than 20,000 peo­ple turned up for the July 29 to 31 Cy­bertron Con at the Shang­haimart Expo, mak­ing the event the largest gathering of Trans­form­ers fans in the world.

Or­ga­nized by Has­bro, the com­pany that makes Trans­form­ers toys, Cy­bertron Con gen­er­ated­about3mil­lionyuan($450,000) worth of sales dur­ing the three-day event which be­sides toys also sold comic books and fran­chised prod­ucts by a score of ex­hibitors.

“What’s great about this event is the bond­ing be­tween the fans. There is bond­ing of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cities, be­tween fans and writ­ers, and across gen­er­a­tions. And they are all speak­ing the lan­guage of Cy­bertron,” said Ben Mon­tano, Has­bro’s di­rec­tor of global fran­chise mar­ket­ing for Trans­form­ers.

First cre­ated by Ja­panese com­pany TakaraTomy,theTrans­form­er­sli­ne­oftoys was later ac­quired by Has­bro and in­tro­duced to the United States in 1984. That same year, an an­i­mated se­ries fea­tur­ing two groups of Trans­form­ers ro­bots por­tray­ing the fight be­tween jus­tice and evil on a planet called Cy­bertron was re­leased. The an­i­mated se­ries was later in­tro­duced to China in 1987.

“For kids to­day, Trans­form­ers is just one toy or car­toon among hun­dreds of other choices that they briefly like and quickly over­look. But for us, those who grew up in 1980s China, this toy is our first love and the only thing we have as­pired to own through­out our child­hood,” said Song Yang, a 35-year-old na­tive of Tian­jin.

Song, who is an of­fi­cial with the gov­ern­ment of the Hong Kong Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tion Re­gion, had flown into Shang­hai just to at­tend the con­ven­tion. He said that the cost of his flight and ac­com­mo­da­tion is noth­ing com­pared to the amount of money he has spent on his Trans­form­ers collection in the past decade.

Song cur­rently owns 1,800 Trans­form­ers toys and his most ex­pen­sive pur­chase had cost over 20,000 yuan.

“I don’t dare to cal­cu­late how much I’ve ac­tu­ally spent on the toys,” said Song, with a laugh.

He re­mem­bered that back in the 1980s, the only Trans­form­ers mer­chan­dize his gen­er­a­tion could af­ford to buy were not the toys but the stick­ers. An arm-sized toy of the char­ac­ter Bum­ble­bee used to cost 95 yuan, 35 yuan higher than his fa­ther’s monthly salary.

“Now that I can aff or d them, I am mak­ing up for what I have missed dur­ing my child­hood, though I don’t re­ally have time or want to play with them any­more,” said Song.

“It’s kind of like shopping in re­venge,” he joked.

Back at his home in Tian­jin, Song has ded­i­cated an en­tire garage to his toy collection which is still ex­pand­ing. He es­ti­mated that there are be­tween 70 to 80 en­thu­si­ast­s­like­him­inTian­jin,while­such fans num­ber in the thou­sands in big­ger cities like Shang­hai and Bei­jing.

He calls him­self a ra­tio­nal and mod­er­ate “Trans-fan” or gangsi, as they are called in Man­darin. He said that he knows of “crazy” fans who would re­li­giously turn up at ev­ery Trans­form­ers fan gathering around the world, spend 50,000 yuan to fly a life-size Trans­form­ers statue from the US back to China, and would rather break up with their girl­friends than with their toys.

Has­bro es­ti­mated that around 10 per­cent of the vis­i­tors at the Shang­hai event were “hard­core” toy col­lec­tors, de­fined as those who pur­chase an av­er­age of 15 to 20 toys ev­ery year.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Trans­form­ers in China was also ev­i­dent from the toy col­lec­tions on dis­play at Cy­bertron Con. A sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the thou­sands of fig­ures on dis­play were con­trib­uted by Chi­nese fans and they in­cluded palm­sized minia­tures of the Au­to­bots fac­tion, a set of ro­bots that have been re­designed to look like Chi­nese terra cotta war­riors and a 5-me­ter-high statue of the char­ac­ter Op­ti­mus Prime.

Other high­lights at the event in­cluded con­fer­ences for new prod­uct re­leases, the ap­pear­ance and au­to­graph ses­sion of Pe­ter Cullen, the voice ac­tor for Op­ti­mus Prime, as well as meet-and-greet events for well-known Trans­form­ers writ­ers and graphic de­sign­ers.

“You can see here at Cy­bertron Con just how deep the fan­dom goes and what truly ap­peals to them,” said Mon­tano, about the dif­fer­ences he saw be­tween Chi­nese fans and those in other coun­tries.

“Here in China, there is a dis­tinc­tive pref­er­ence for G1, the orig­i­nal an­i­mated se­ries that has a his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion in China as it was the first West­ern an­i­ma­tion avail­able in the coun­try. This unique story of per­son­i­fied ro­bots chang­ing into cars, trucks and planes has clearly con­nected with a gen­er­a­tion and that con­nec­tion still ex­ists very strongly in China,” added Mon­tano.

To bet­ter cater to the nos­tal­gia, which is on the rise glob­ally among grown-up fans, Has­bro is team­ing up with on­line video com­pany Ma­chin­ima to make a Trans­form­ers car­toon that “for the first time ever, is specif­i­cally de­signed for teenage and adult fans”. The new an­i­mated se­ries will fea­ture a deeper and much more so­phis­ti­cated sto­ry­line.

An ex­clu­sive global pre­view of the car­toon was screened on the last day of Cy­bertron Con and Chi­nese fans were able to catch the show two days later, at al­most the same time as their global coun­ter­parts, via Chi­nese video por­tal Sohu.com.

“We are also thrilled to see that older fans are in­tro­duc­ing their kids to Trans­form­ers. So the fan­dom is kind of handed down, and this hand-down ex­pe­ri­ence could be most pow­er­ful form of fam­ily bond­ing,” he added.

Yang Guangqi, a 34-year-old Shang­hai na­tive who at­tended the event with his 8-year-old son, said that while the heavy bur­dens of fam­ily and work com­mit­ments do not al­low him to in­vest much time or ef­fort into his child­hood hobby like some of his peers, he does try to “sub­tly ex­ert an in­flu­ence” when it comes to shopping for toys or picking a car­toon show for his son.

“Trans­form­ers pro­motes moral in­tegrity and this is some­thing that is al­ways good to pass down the gen­er­a­tions,” said Yang.

For kids to­day, Trans­form­ers is just one toy or car­toon among hun­dreds of other choices that they briefly like and quickly over­look. But for us, those who grew up in 1980s China, this toy is our first love and the only thing we have as­pired to own through­out our child­hood.” Song Yang, 35, a Trans­form­ers fan

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

A girl takes a selfie dur­ing the Cy­bertron Con event in Shang­hai. The con­ven­tion marks the first gathering of Trans­form­ers fans in China in six years.

Pe­ter Cullen (left), the voice ac­tor for Op­ti­mus Prime, and Yuki Hisashi, de­signer of Trans­form­ers at Takara Tomy com­pany, pose for pho­tos with fans in Shang­hai.

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