MICKEY Mouse, Dr Who, Tom and Jerry, Tin Tin, Star Trek… the list goes on. And it doesn’t even include the wide array of super heroes available. Surrounded by toys of every era and genre, even adults can be forgiven for peeling back the years and wanting to behave like children.
And I’m guilty of that! The jet black six shooter with ivory white handle at the Wild West section immediately transports me back to my childhood. Barely 10 and armed with what was then my most precious possession, I would holster the gun and join my friends in defending our neighbourhood against imaginary gangs of outlaws and robbers.
“Imagination! Allowing their creativity to run wild is one of the best ways to develop a child’s mind,” concurs Richard Tan when I caught up with him at the museum’s top most level. “Unlike children today who generally rely on computer-generated games, kids in the past had actual toys that they could play with in whatever manner they liked. With their unbridled imagination, the sky was the limit!”
The affable Tan, curator of the Mint Museum of Toys in Singapore, recommends that visitors commence their visit by taking the elevator straight up to the highest level before working their way down slowly as the exhibits in this five-storey museum are displayed in such a way that they tell a unique story.
“Apart from obeying the laws of gravity, people get to see how toys evolved as they make their way back to the ground floor,” says Tan, beginning his introduction to the museum’s collection of 8,000 toys that come from all four corners of the world.
“You should have a brighter lighting system,” I remark as I find it quite a challenge to see some of the inscriptions on the boxes, especially the ones placed right at the back of the display cabinets. Apologetically, Tan informs me that the lights in the museum are purposely dimmed to help preserve the toys and their original storage boxes.
I listen in amazement as he tells me that the original storage boxes are, at times, more valuable than the toys themselves. Most people, he shares, throw away the boxes the moment the toys are taken out to play. “The original boxes that you see here are very rare. We have no choice but to control the light intensity to maintain their vibrant colours. In fact, the museum just won an award for its novel design in keeping out the sun’s damaging ultraviolet light.”
The toys’ near pristine condition, despite their age, helps me to understand their relation to the museum’s name. Smiling, Tan adds that the name could also stand for “Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys”, something that’s very much in line with the museum’s aim to give visitors a pleasant emotional link to their childhood through toys.
RARE AND VALUABLE
As we arrive in front of a floor to ceiling cabinet filled to the brim with toys at the landing, Tan explains that these collectibles had been specially chosen to give visitors a preview of what to expect on the next level. Gesturing towards several Batman figurines, he announces that I’d be seeing a lot more of that soon.
The Batman and Popeye toy and collectable collection located on the fourth level is said to be the largest in Southeast Asia. In front of me is a boisterous group of teenagers excitedly feasting their eyes on these rare and valuable toys.
Not long after, I too find myself entranced. Pressing my face to the glass, I marvel at the sight of two very rare toys. The Batman Magic Slate Printing Plate in front of me is said to be the only one in the world while the original Batman Robot box beside it is one of only two known to be in existence today.
Strolling to the adjacent cabinet, I catch sight of the only known examples of Chief Miles O’Hara, a Bat mobile and a blue version of the Green Hornet cars in the world to exist together with their respective original boxes!
Boasting of a unique collection of collectibles originating from more than 40 countries and valued in excess of S$5 million (RM15.6 million), the Mint Museum of Toys has entrenched itself as a strong top-of-mind recall for visitors who choose Singapore as a holiday destination.
Among the other highlights on this level are the 1960s battery-operated Popeye Pushing Tank, said to be one of only four known to exist in the world and a unique 1970s poster showing King Kong atop the World Trade Centre instead of the Empire State Building. When asked to provide valuations, Tan reluctantly tells me that the tank is currently valued at US$14,000 (RM59,458) while the mistakenly-printed poster is simply priceless!
As we breeze through more goodies on the lower levels, Tan jovially reveals that he’s one of the fortunate few who gets paid to do something that he truly enjoys and is passionate about. Smiling, he recalls falling in love with these playthings when he was given a Dinky toy car on his 5th birthday. “Toys in the past were made of metal. They could withstand rough treatment and still emerge unscathed. This contrasts with the flimsy plastic versions today which fall apart easily,” he says before drawing my attention to several windup cars which were made in Japan.
“These simple mechanical toys made in the 1950s inspired many children to become engineers later in life,” remarks Tan as I look at him questioningly. Bemusedly, he produces another similar toy from his bag and proceeds to show me the inner workings of the spring-driven car.
His face earnest, Tan shares: “In the past, these gears and springs fascinated children. When the mechanism failed, they’d try to replace the damaged parts on their own. Apart from inculcating a passion for invention, this learning process also helped the young solve problems independently and develop a dare-to-fail attitude. After all, things couldn’t get any worse as the toy was already broken!”
“Level Two. Surely Level Two,” I exclaim when Tan asks which part of the museum I fancied most when we reach the end of our tour. It is the presence of the museum’s oldest and most expensive toys there that sealed my decision. The former comes in the form of the 1840s German Tumbling Toy while the latter is a 1930s Mickey Mouse Hurdy Gurdy which costs in excess of US$35,000. Coincidentally, both hail from the great toy-making nation of Germany.
After a thrilling hour-long walkabout, Tan and I end up at the basement which is home to the museum’s restaurant aptly named Mr Punch Public House. Obviously, this name was inspired by the popular Punch & Judy puppet shows.
As we take our seats amidst walls plastered with vintage tin and enamel advertising signs, Tan goes on to reveal that the toys I’ve just been admiring are just 10 per cent of a massive collection belonging to museum owner, Chang Yang Fa. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. A very large part of Chang’s collection, amassed over a 30-year period, is still stashed away in a secret warehouse,” quips Tan, while resisting my request to reveal the location of the secret hideaway.
Containing my disappointment, I switch my attention to the graphically-attractive signs and instantly recognise several household names such as Milkmaid, Van Houten, Campbell and Ovaltine. These were common sights in sundry shops throughout Malaya and Singapore in the 1960s but today these rare pieces are enjoying great demand among collectors and can command high prices.
Before leaving, I make a quick dash into the Mint Shop for a final browse. Visitors harbouring a hope of starting their own toy collection will be pleased to know that selected replicas of exhibits are sold here at a fraction of their current market value.
As I wave goodbye to the genial curator for a most delightful afternoon, a ridiculous thought suddenly crosses my mind. For some inexplicable reason, Tan suddenly reminds me of Larry Daley, the role played by Ben Stiller in the Night At The Museum movie franchise. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the toys were able to come alive at night! Imagine what great tales they’d whisper into Tan’s ears! Now that’s a thought…
Mint Museum of Toys
WHERE 26 Seah Street, Singapore