If you could speak all the languages in the world, how would you describe love? Is it an emotion? A thought? A feeling or an action? Is it something that will effortlessly emanate from your being or something that becomes part of your identity?
For a 5-year old, Jian Yang, even without the complete understanding of the word or the notion behind it, he was well aware that he had found something that he would treasure in the years to come. His very first barbie doll. A doll that was initially supposed to be his sister’s, but according to charismatic and full-of-life Jian Yang, “Who buys a one-year-old a barbie doll? That one’s mine.”
Now playing with dolls and dressing them up at five is cute but at forty-two? Tricky. This is precisely why we asked Jian Yang about his relationship with dolls. What they symbolise and how people treat him as an active member of the doll collecting community. What are some of the misconceptions he has had to face? And how does he live daily with his massive collection?
Jian Yang expressed his journey as “natural.” When you are looking from a child’s lens, one does not think deeply about a lot of things. You live spontaneously where life is thrill chase, and if a Great Sharp barbie doll makes you squeal with joy, then so be it. And as a child, it is quite commendable that he was not pushed into following societal gender norms by being forced to like “boys toys”, a very crucial step that contributed to where he is right now.
So you have over 12,000 dolls in your possession; how did you find them? Is there a community you’re a part of where you discuss dolls and such?
I run a communications agency and do a lot of PR and Advertising, and since most of my clients are all over the world, I fly a lot. And then, in my free time, I fly some more, from Indonesia, Australia, Bahrain, Turkey – at some point, I even lived in the Middle East. And with every trip, I go to different toy stores and buy spontaneously. This is why I have many dolls from different countries. It all comes from travelling. I also believe that you do not need conversations or external sources to fuel the desire within you.
So do you think of yourself as a collector?
I try to shy away from the collector mindset as I believe it is a strange one. As I mentioned, I do not need a community to push me into buying dolls because that would take the fun out of it. It sometimes sets rigid rules upon people where they will feel their passion is less sufficient simply because they did not go that extra mile. For example, I buy what I want. I do not need to finish a series or feel pressured into getting the latest one. I don’t like that part of being in a community.
From your collection, is it safe to conclude that it is an investment?
Toy collecting is the stupidest investment you could ever make (laughs). So like I said, I am a forty-two-year-old. There are various $5.00 options you should be considering other than dolls for investment.
Sure, people buy vintage dolls but think about this; one out of every $2,000 could become valuable. But the other 1999 lost their value. So, now you have one $100 doll, which is currently $10,000 and a whole bunch of 1999, 50 dollar dolls, which are now $10.
So from a business perspective, it is definitely not a wise decision, but if you are sorely invested in your own joy, then is it really a loss? The connecting mindset between dolls and me is finding something that makes me happy. That is the most significant investment I can ever make.
What about your everyday life, has collecting dolls ever interfered with your social and work life?
Social life? Not so much anymore. There are so many perks that come from being the Barbie doll guy because people are intrigued by you and want to know you better, especially if You look like a regular guy, with a wedding ring on top of that! People are more accepting when it’s like that.
So are you saying that your treatment would have been different if you were more feminine than you are?
Yes, definitely. And it is sad these double standards still play a role. I mean, if I were to dress up in a more feminine manner, talk and act “girly”, then people would have been like, uh doll guy- of course, what would you expect! But I have built a career; I run an agency, gave my own Ted Talk show and published a book. Basically, there’s a white-collar, semi-successful structure that frames it, so if people hear I collect dolls, they don’t find it odd because “he is successful and he grew up completely normal.”
I have built my own narrative, and I can protect fellow doll collectors in my own way. Not all of us are drag queens, and both sides are completely normal but again, how the world perceives us differently.
So would you say you have moulded yourself to be a character that people are more accepting towards, or was it natural?
I’d say natural. I am naturally like this; it is not something that I had to build to fit in.
What would you say to aspiring male doll collectors who are more feminine than you are?
I don’t know, and I don’t get to answer that question. Again, because of the cultural lens. But there’s part of me that says, be yourself. Because the world has now been taught to accept you for who you are. That is the new narrative that has been going on now. More people are learning to be more accepting. In this day and age, we’re talking about diversity and body positivity and all of that stuff. Everyone is different. And that’s perfectly fine.
Were your close ones supportive when you started?
You know, like, it’s a fascinating media question because a lot of media houses have their own cultural lens on it when they ask this question. Because like American media, for example, when they ask that question, they expect lots of hugging and teary moments, but that’s different from what you would expect from a Singaporean home.
My parents don’t say, “oh my god, we support you!”. It was kinda like, “he’s got his own money let him do what he wants to grow out of it and grow into it.” Like, not overly supportive, but then like, they didn’t discourage it. So somewhere in between.
What about in High School?
Because of who I am, it was never a problem. I didn’t get bullied, and people didn’t find it weird. It was more of other people buying Swatch, collecting Air Jordans and here is this guy who likes his toys. I would also collect other things like Swatch, criss-cross jeans, or whatever was in style at the time.
What is the harshest critic you’ve ever dealt with?
I am a strong-willed person who doesn’t care about what other people think but once, an article went viral, and the comments were pretty mean. Like you can attack me, I can handle it, but my parents? Questioning their parenting skills? That’s just wrong.
Referring back to your #flushablefashion designs, you have a keen eye for fashion. Where do you get your inspiration from?
I will correct you. I do not know anything about fashion!
It started when I was travelling, and of course, I carried my dolls cause who doesn’t? I had gone to Sri Lanka and was there for 14 days, so one night, I got bored and randomly made a dress with toilet paper. I thought to myself, “oh my gosh, this is so fun”, and made more toilet paper dresses for my Instagram audience.
During that period, Nylon Magazine, Singapore picked it up and published it, and many other media houses followed suit. That was how 14 toilet paper dresses became a thing.
As for inspiration, with every travel experience, your sense of imagination and creativity is heightened. It gives you new ideas.
So overall, what motivates you to keep buying dolls.
I buy them because they bring me joy. That’s it.
Can you say collecting dolls has shaped you into becoming who you are today?
Yes, definitely. Yeah, I was forced to become a more confident person. When you become a lot more conscious of what the world could say about you, they could be critical and judgemental, and that could either make you a stronger individual or break you. You could choose to be unapologetic and protect your interests, or you could hide away and live in the shadow of the person you were meant to be.
Follow your own path.
Jian Yang shows us that no number is too high or low for our joy. Sometimes it can come in the form of travelling, work, hobbies, family and for some, it’s with 12,000 dolls. Either way, it is yours; own it and fight to protect it. You should never sacrifice your happiness in the name of conforming to societal norms. The world can bend, not you.