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
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
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.