Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Trip to Toy Town 

Today I did something I always wanted to do – explored the district adjacent to downtown L.A.'s skid row, euphemistically called “Toy Town”. I say ‘euphemistically’ because there are precious few toy wholesalers in the area. Every other open-front store space sells car fragrances, bad resin statuary, Rock Star Beer and Red Bull, or hair accessories and keychains. Underlying the pervasive apple candy smell was the occasional wafting of raw sewage and vinyl.

Found some amazing cheap toys from China designed for who-knows-what-market. The best one was the "Electromotion Dung Beetle". It was a plastic insectile creature about the size of a baseball cap with wings decorated with letters of the alphabet (why?) and wearing tennis shoes. When turned on, its eyes flashed, its wings spread, exposing his guts which appear to be full of churning, colored, plastic sand. But that's not all -- it had a sound system that blared out some bad electronic Chinese pop music (complete with vocals) as it ran across the floor, legs a-pumping. An incredible number of features were thoughtlessly crammed into that one toy.

The box had lots of interesting sell copy - 'All new items, it cannot be missed!' 'Toy series with strong sense for playing!' and my favorite, 'The unlimited bout between technology and strength!' I didn't buy one because they wanted to charge me the full retail price of $4 instead of the wholesale price they quoted me first of $2.25.

Bought a few other toys that must have been designed by people smoking crack or inhaling too many toxic vinyl fumes. It is unbelievable that these toys go through an entire manufacturing process only to wind up....well, I don't know where. These are toys that never see the inside of any local toy retailers, if I can believe the woman I queried. She said that most of her big customers were out-of-state, Canadian or other international buyers (Mexico?) Interestingly, every outlet had a Chinese shrine and Mexican employees. The more enlightened owners were rattling off directions in Spanish. Others made do with both sides speaking halting English.

Almost everything I bought cost a dollar…but I suspect if I purchased in bulk the price would have dropped considerably. There was a series of simply designed pull-string friction toys that were the most, well, original. One looks like a Sphinx but with the body of a fish, the head of a girl with two arms extended around a dolphin attached by its fin, to her chest. A yellow and pink ‘lotus’ grows out of her back. When the string in her nether region is pulled, she is propelled forward on two wheels as the flower spins open. It is all rendered in carefully molded pink, yellow, green and flesh-colored plastic, and decorated with randomly designed stickers (the one on the front of the dolphin says ‘289’. If anyone knows the significance of that number in relation to fishy-Sphinxes, contact me immediately).

A similarly engineered toy features a big naked baby in a stroller. It is holding a bottle, but appears to have a small umbrella impaled in its head. Hanging from the umbrella are white dingle balls that spin wildly when the toy moves forward. This bears a sticker of a monkey with a banana peel on its head, and the number ‘209’. (Perhaps these are model numbers?) This toy is actually reminiscent of old tin toys with same enigmatic headgear.

One last item – “2 Funny Gums”. These cleverly designed faux name-brand gum packages have the words ‘Cockroach Mint’ replacing the familiar logo. It is called a ‘chewing gum game’ and bears a warning on the side of each package: ‘Forbidder to affright ill and cowardly person’. When the unwitting dupe pulls on the bogus stick of gum, a rubber cockroach verrr-ry slowly snaps down on his finger. (I think the rubber bug is too big and it takes too long to free itself from the package…)

All of these toys bear tiny warnings of ‘Choking hazard. Not for children under 3 years.’

The knock-off market was enough to make a Disney or Nickelodeon lawyer’s head spin like an impaled umbrella. Some were thinly disguised re-uses of Toy Story character molds, while others were bad versions of SpongeBob Squarepants. Would a child be fooled by a knock-off? Or just as happy with one? And what would a child’s reaction be to receiving a boy doll called, ‘Lovely Child with Cutie Cellular’? I could not stop wondering who buys all these toys? Or whether a child unschooled in irony would appreciate the absurdity of the play value?

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kiss Me Jocko 

Sorry, all weekend that song was running through my head..."Another opening, another show..."

Thanks to all of the LATDA supporters who showed up for pinot (grigio not noir) and popcorn at the Noho Gallery last night! It was a festive event drawing people from as far south as Irvine and as far north as Marin. Worlds collided and merged as friends of Harvey Jordan mingled with friends of LATDA. In fact we discovered some very mystical overlaps in the two circles.

Special thanks to Nancy Lane and Zhanna of Color Me Mine for wine and cash register wrangling (as well as gracious hosting); Barbara Kwong (affectionately known as the 'Genius' sister)for her amazing snickerdoodle, chocolate chip, and oatmeal cookies (if you didn't come and taste these, you should kick yourself for an opportunity missed); Harvey Jordan for inviting us to collaborate; Farrah at Duck Soup, Rocky Behr at the Folk Tree, Alex Dong at Lexin Toys, Dave Schylling at Schylling Toys, and Billy Shire at Wacko, for their toy donations and loans; Jay Aldrich, Marilyn Frandsen and Vicky Murakami-Tsuda for their toy loans; and Unkle Dan Kwong for documenting the affair. And thank you to all our friends who fed the monkey with donations and purchased memorabilia all to support our cause - you inspire us to bigger and better future projects!

More thanks to "Team Jocko" - Bev, Blue, Gary for their versatility and ingenuity in preparing everything from popcorn to product up to and after the last minute; and Ron Stroud at JANM for production aid.

Let's do this again real soon! And if you haven't seen the show yet, you have until April 24th! (There may be a test...)

Friday, March 11, 2005

NoHo Reception! Don't Forget! 

Don't forget! Saturday, March 12 from 5:00-8:00PM. For those of you who are near the Metro line, the Color Me Mine Gallery is three blocks south of the NoHo Metro station on Lankershim. It is a comfortable flat walk after a pleasant, traffic-free ride on the subway and no need to worry about parking.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

In praise of LATDA's 'Graphics Guy' 

By now many of you have received the postcard advertising our most recent show. Whether you have received the real or the virtual card, you will probably recognize the creative hand of Gary van der Steur, who only half-jokingly refers to himself as our 'graphics guy'. We know him as much more (as you will in the future) since he has almost single-handedly created the look and tone of LATDA. Father of Jocko and Jacko, writer of the LATDA theme song (we must be the only museum to have its own theme song - how cool is that?), designer of our official t-shirt, our web site - Gary has really put his heart and soul (and his quirky, edgy mind) into this work. All without monetary compensation, we should add.

If you haven't already linked to his web site through ours, take some time to do so soon. Make yourself comfortable and explore his personal works (he's just finished a new piece called "Moon in the Trees") and marvel that all you see, hear and read comes from one source.

When you've finished listening, laughing and crying, stand up and clap your cymbals together in applause!

Then push one of the donation buttons on our web site so we can start paying the guy someday!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Happy Girl's Day 

Last year was the first time in 18 years that I forgot to put up the Ohinasan. We were just coming down from the frenzy of college application deadlines. My mother was having a hip replacement on March 2, so much time was spent driving to and from the hospital, and no one was in the mood to partake in the ritual of unpacking the twelve dolls and assembling the wooden dais. Once I realized I had missed March 3, I guiltily decided to let the dolls slumber for another year in their acid free tissue.

It is my contention that the time from January 1 to April 5 (my birthday) passes faster than the rest of the months of the year. Nearly every day in January is someone’s birthday in my family, and then you have the shortest month. This year was no exception, but there was the added stress of trying to curate and install an exhibition (albeit small) in 21 days. So when I realized last night (really this morning because I went to bed at 1:00 am) that it was Girl’s Day again, I was determined to get up early and set the dolls up – even if it meant being late for work.

For those of you who have no idea of what I am talking about, March 3 in Japan is designated as Hinamatsuri, or the Doll’s Festival. Sometimes it is referred to as Momo-no-Sekku (Peach Blossom Festival) or Girl’s Day (as opposed to May 5 which was known as Boy’s Day when they fly carp kites in celebration). What started out as a Chinese custom of transferring one’s woes to straw dolls and sailing them down a river (away from you) developed into a celebration centered around an elaborate set of dolls representing the Japanese Imperial court. The future of the daughters in the house were attached to the ceremonies and rituals surrounding the display of these dolls once a year. Tea parties involving fancy food preparation were part of a young girl’s training. Superstitions arose from how one honored the dolls. In some regions, keeping the display up longer than three days, meant the daughter(s) of the house would never marry. In other areas, keeping the display up for a month was insurance of marital bliss.

In our family, we had a fairly modest set that was given to my mother at birth. When I was old enough to research such things (and after seeing Shirley Temple’s set at the Museum of Science and Industry) I realized that we seemed to be missing several of the beautiful accessories that are part of the display – lacquered dishes, a palanquin, an orange and peach tree, and two lanterns. Also missing were several musical instruments, the Imperial crowns, and one samurai sword. When I asked my mother about this, she said that she did have all the accessories, but when her family was being sent to one of America’s concentration camps during World War II, her mother threw anything that was overtly symbolic of Japan in the trash. This included the Ohinasan. Fortunately a non-Japanese neighbor witnessed this event and rescued most of the pieces and saved them until my mother’s family returned from Manzanar years later. I later learned that this was the fate of many a Hina doll set belonging to Japanese American families during the war. Some people only threw out the two figures representing the Imperial couple, so many sets are missing those two dolls.

My siblings and I were a little less than reverent when it came to the Ohinasan. While we enjoyed unpacking the mothball scented toys and setting up the lacquered palace, it was not unusual for my mother to walk in and find that we had switched heads around (having discovered that the tiny wooden heads were easy to remove and replace) putting the old bearded samurai head on one of the ladies-in-waiting or something equally hilarious.

As I grew older and more respectful I started to search for replacement parts, but the set was old and of an unusual scale so it was difficult. Over the years my brother and husband have fashioned small instruments and a new sword for the musicians and samurai. I found a crown for sale in a gift store that had old stock. It is a tad ostentatious for the Empress, since it is of a larger scale, but I don’t think she minds much. When LATDA has its first Hinamatsuri exhibit, you can judge for yourself.

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