The Uncomfortable Truth about Toys in Singapore

Around this time of year I start spending a lot of time at toy stores; Rhi’s second birthday is in October, Ellie turns five in November, and both girls get Christmas gifts.  Before I actually went shopping, I began to make a list of desirable items in my head.

As RhiRhi (RuiRui, if you prefer) is in a dual language pre-school, and gets 4 hours or so of Mandarin a day, a dual English/Mandarin toy or a doll that speaks Mandarin sounded like a good idea to me.

toys1I found toys that would teach Rhi English and Spanish

toys2I found a laptop that would teach her French along with English

This wasn’t working out quite the way I’d planned.  Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language in Singapore.  Why aren’t there toys that count/colors/etc in Mandarin?  Why was this proving hard?

I consulted twitter, and the news from local parents wasn’t good.

Such toys are hard to find.

How abt those toys that can do voice recording? Get someone to say a few lines in Chinese n Rhi can play them back

Popular has dvds and books, but not toys

An American friend who “love(s) a good internet challenge. Especially when I should be sleeping” found me some options.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 12.33.43 AMLanguage Littles-Ling

There was an affordable version of this but it was snapped up before I was able to buy it (although all the dolls I found were used-apparently the line of dolls has been discontinued).  I ended up buying one for Rhiannon off US eBay.  It’s being shipped to my in-laws and either brought here by them, or waiting in the US until our Christmas visit.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 12.33.21 AMNi Hao Kai-Lan Cellphone

Far more affordable and easy to get was this toy cell phone. (Although, again, I had to order it from US Amazon, and have it shipped to my in-laws, who can bring it or toss it into our birthday care package).  For the record, Ni Hao Kai-Lan is a US kids tv show.

toys 3

Playskool Poppin’ Park Learn ‘N Pop Lion

This lion was found on US Amazon, and I was planning to order from the US. The US version counts in English, Spanish, French and Mandarin.  However, when I went to Mustafa, I found the lion above, which speaks English, Mandarin, and Bhasa Indonesian for about 40SGD.  This is the ONLY toy I have found in Singapore that that has the option to speak Mandarin.

Why is it, in a country where Mandarin is spoken by 50% of the population as their primary home language, I can’t find Mandarin speaking toys?  WHY?!!!!???!!!??? (see 2010 stat here)

Seriously, why is it easier to find a Spanish speaking toy (not that there’s anything wrong with spanish speaking toys) than a Mandarin toy?  I can’t be the only person to find this bizzare, and somehow wrong.  Why is it easier for me to find a Mandarin speaking toy in the US than it is in Singapore, where it’s one of the official languages? 

While we’re on bizzare toy trends, I need to get this off my chest….

dolls 1Notice a trend?

Dolls 2How about now?

Exactly why, when whites are not a majority racial group is almost EVERY freaking doll in Singapore WHITE?  Racial diversity in dolls seems to be the white dolls that have brunette or red hair.  White skin, blue eyes, blonde hair is what stares out at me from the doll sections of local toy stores.

It is worth noting that the most “Asian” thing I found at Toys R Us were Hello Kitty items.  Which is disappointing.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about my misconceptions about what life would be like in Singapore before I moved here.

Misconception #5–That there would be a plethora of dolls that looked like my girls, instead of an ocean of white blonde dolls


My daughters are half Asian.  They are not naturally blonde, nor are they particularly pale (I, on the other hand, buy the lightest possible shade of powder–and sometimes it’s too dark for my skin–or at least that was true when I lived in the US), although by Indian standards, they are very “fair.”  Most dolls you see at Toys R Us do not look like them.

I had this notion that when living in Asia, it would be super easy to find dolls that look like the little girls that live here (and by extension, my daughters). This has not been the case. I underestimated the fetishization of the white beauty ideal here.

I began an exhaustive search of Toys R Us for a non-white doll for Ellie.  The results were hardly inspiring…

dolls 3There were tan colored LaLaLoopy dolls (what’s a LaLaLoopy anyways?) but considering that they have bright white skin or bright pink/blue hair, I’m not sure that they should count.

dolls 4I found vaguely ethnic “Barbie Fashionista” dolls.  Truly tragic that this was perhaps the most diverse doll I found that my elder child would actually play with.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.10.57 PMBarbie also had the “Dolls of the World: India” to offer me, but I’m not entirely sure the line isn’t borderline racist.  India Barbie has a pet Monkey.  Mexico Barbie has a pet Chihuahua.  China Barbie wears a sexy red cheongsam and has a pet panda.  The France Barbie carries a basket of bread.  Holland Barbie wears wooden shoes.  Yes, India Barbie’s got a bindi and a sari, but the whole line feels like an exercise in lazy cultural stereotypes.

dolls 5I found this “people of the world” collection of dolls at ELC, but again I’m not sure if it walks the line of lazy stereotypes.  Look, the American is a white “cowboy.”  The Chinese doll is wearing a red cheongsam.

I realize that it’s hard to convey “other” cultures without falling back on stereotype, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it.  Why can’t a Latina, or an Asian, or an African American wearing jeans be the American?  Why does the “Chinese” doll always wear a cheongsam?  I know a lot of ethnically chinese women, and none of them wear a cheongsam except at CNY (and even then…not so much).  My French friends manage to get through the day without their berets and baguettes.  My Australian friends have a disappointing lack of crocodiles and kangaroos parading after them.  When you pick the lazy stereotype, you make all the other faces of that culture (The aborigines, the Alaskan Native Tribes, the Indian or Pakistani British for example) invisible.

Again, I went on an internet search for biracial or southeast asian dolls.  American Girl Dolls brag that you can find the doll that looks JUST LIKE ME.  Ellie’s never going to get one that “looks just like me” because none of them do.  There are white dolls.  There are “asian” dolls (although Mattel, who owns American Girl seems to be unfamiliar with the idea that “Asia” encompasses the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and India as well say, China).  There are African American dolls.  There are dolls that are vaguely Latina (but only if you’re light skinned enough).  It’s very clearly a white america’s view of what “multicultural” looks like.  But then, this is the same company that brought us the Barbie’s of the World, so I really shouldn’t be shocked.

I found two websites that have drawn from many sources to find a far more generous collection of identities.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.26.56 PMBiracial Bella Doll (4kidslikeme)

4kidslikeme is a website that specifically is marketed to children of color and biracial children (although largely directed to an American audience, worth noting).  I chose to highlight the doll above because she’s a New Yorker with an African American Mom and a White Dad.  I want the girls to grow up seeing dolls and characters in books who aren’t just one identity (white, Indian, American, Singaporean) but who also span identities like they (and Bella, above) do.  You can be sure I’ve bookmarked this website, as they have not just dolls but books, art projects, and dvds which address a variety of identities (and abilities).

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.32.38 PMBaby Aasha, a Doll of India and South Asia

Also worth noting is Pattycake Doll Company.  Again, they draw from a number of sources to give a wide selection of dolls of varying identities.  I tend to like 4kidslikeme better as I feel their collection is less stereotype-y (and encompasses books and more), but in this situation beggars can’t be choosers.  Pattycake could use someone to rewrite their categories (dolls for black kids, dolls for asian kids, etc) but when I compare their selection to the overwhelming blonde hair blue eyes Toys R Us, I’m deeply grateful that someone is thinking about and marketing to kids and parents who want more variety.  I’m thinking Ellie will get Baby Aasha for Christmas.

I’m hardly calling the US a utopia.  “Variety” in dolls at a US Toys R Us means that there are African American dolls as well as white dolls.  Rarely you’ll see an “Asian” (to Americans, I’m sorry to say that Asia means China) or Latina doll.  The difference is that I have more web options in the US, so I can by-pass Toys R Us and go straight to internet shopping to find that wider selection.

These two trends are related, and problematic

I’ve engaged in discussions before about the degree of white fetishism present in Singapore.  We’ve talked about skin-whitening cream here on Expat Bostonians (read the comments) and the overwhelming number of white models used in Singapore publications/magazines.  My friend Notabilia and I talk this sort of thing to death all the time, including how I am swarmed upon entering stores, and she gets dirty looks until they hear her American accent.

We’re starting an apartment hunt and we won’t be eligible for some apartments that say “no Indians.”  We’ve written off a condo after a friend (white) who is married to a non-white partner told me that the security there almost never checks ID’s of white residents and checks those of non-white residents more than half the time.

If you only give a child white dolls to play with, white characters on tv, white musicians, white models, etc–they’re going to internalize that they “should” look that way.  Hair is a highly political topic within the African American community-whether it should be natural or relaxed with chemicals, and what that says.

When a culture (and while I’m calling out Indians, I have friends who say that it’s also an issue in the African American and Latina communities) prizes “fairness” and lighter skin as “better” or more desirable, it is a problem.  When Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan are the face of skin lightening creams, it sends our children a message.  When you need to launch a “Dark is beautiful” campaign to try to counter this fetishism, there is a problem and it needs to be talked about.

Look, it may be a bit unfair to call out Mattel for their American Girls look like me dolls.  It is true that they can only create a finite number of skin tones and hairstyles before it is cost prohibitive.  But when a girl goes into the American Girl store to find a doll that looks like her and can’t, what does that say to her?  The marketing matters.

When we think in terms that are so binary that a biracial family featured in a cheerios ad creates a racist backlash, there is an issue.  When the Straits Times of Singapore does an article portraying four kids who are SURPRISE! Singaporean (behind a paywall) because they don’t “look” Singaporean, there is an issue.  When I get solicited for “a western expat who is using TCM for in additional to prenatal care” and by Western, they mean white so they can create a specific image on their reality show, there is an issue.  When “a salon good with expat hair” means white women’s hair, it is an issue (for the record plenty of Asian women share my fine, flat hair type, and plenty of white expats have thick curly hair).

Toys and games should allow a child to see something of themselves in them.  So when 50% of Singaporean speak Chinese as a primary language at home, and more than 50% of kids in Singapore aren’t white, my inability to find non-white, non-English toys is a problem.

It is a problem worth talking about.  I don’t have a solution, but I think we need to name this as a problem and to talk about it.

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Identity, Shopping, Singapore, Third Culture Kids, With Kids. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Uncomfortable Truth about Toys in Singapore

  1. katrijn says:

    A memory: when I was of Barbie-playing age, Barbie was blond. And I am not blond even though I am white and admittedly have large, albeit green, eyes. By putting this on the agenda, we have come a long way. I’d love to see more Asian dolls.

    But even more, I’d love for people to call my platinum blond, big blue eyed child a “Japanese doll”. How’s that for stereotyping? What message is that sending my tomboyish little girl? And what’s with the Japanese anyway?

  2. kvanditzhuijzen says:

    I know, it is amazing how little coloured dolls are around. I find the selection of toys here very american, a lot of plastic anyhow. European brands tend to be more varied. If you are still looking: IKEA does a line of 3 soft dolls, great for a 2 year old, one is blond, one is Chinese, and one is a dark brown with short curly hair, more african than asian. We have two (not the blond one funnily, although both my daughters are very much so, they were a gift) and the girls love them. They are not stereotype at all, very nice for a two year old and cheap too, you can buy lots of clothes and accessories as well. I bought my girls two really nice Chinese dolls at HongKong airport, good quality old fashioned dolls, and a place like Lims (HV) has these cute little Chinese ethnic dolls, but they break easily unfortunately.

  3. kvanditzhuijzen says:

    Just realising I said American in the first line, but I would not really know what it is like there, do yo think toys there are similar to here or not?

    • In US toystores you see more african american dolls but only other ethnicities infrequently. It’s a larger issue that ties into creating white as the standard of beauty and the message it sends to our children who are not white. Toys R Us are much larger, and they sell more Disney princess stuff (as an example–every section is larger–image a store 5 or 6 times as large) they don’t have significantly more variety in terms of ethnic dolls/toys.

    • I would say the biggest difference is that you have far more options because of online shopping which isn’t as big a thing here as it there. So while Toys R Us isn’t terribly diverse, websites like the ones I highlighted give you alternatives.

  4. PK says:

    Thanks a bunch! I’m off to mustafa to hunt out the only mandarin speaking toy in the whole of Singapore.

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