Nostalgic Taiwan town wants to keep Barbie legacy alive

The Meining workshop displays among others, outfits based on Taiwan's five first ladies. (AFP)

More than two decades since the last Barbie rolled off the assembly line in Taiwan, nostalgic former factory workers are preserving her memory by tailoring exquisite dresses for the iconic doll.

For these women, making the outfits is a labour of love, recalling the days when the plant run by US toymaker Mattel was a major employer in the northern town of Taishan, near capital Taipei.

Chou Su-chin smiles as she thinks about her first job. She left the island's impoverished southern countryside to sign up at the factory when she was 18.

"I'd never seen anything as beautiful as Barbie. I loved the dolls so much," the 59-year-old said, adding with a hint of sadness: "I really miss my job."

In its heyday the factory supported one in every three Taishan residents, and during the 1960s and 70s the community prospered as exports soared. The era coincided with Taiwan's transformation from a rural society into a rich industrialised one.

Today, the Meining workshop set up by the former workers close to the original factory displays about 100 hand-sewn dresses modelled by Barbie dolls, for which the dressmakers have drawn inspiration from Taiwanese and Chinese culture.

The dresses, which are for sale, include a regal gown inspired by Wu Zetian, a woman who ruled China around 700 AD, as well as a range of outfits based on Taiwan's five first ladies.

"For us, making a doll's dress is like creating a piece of art, and it's how we pay tribute to Taishan's history as a Barbie-producing town," said Ku Chai-ra, manager of the workshop. "We were practically raised by Barbie and it has become a part of our lives. It's a beautiful memory for all of us in Taishan," said Ku, a former Mattel worker like her mother.

The doll-sized wardrobes of clothes for Taiwan's first ladies feature a suit for Wu Shu-chen, together with miniature jewellery and a wheelchair.

Wu, the disabled wife of former president Chen Shui-bian faces a life sentence for corruption, as does her husband, who ruled Taiwan from 2000 to 2008.

Ku's staff also made mini qipao, the figure-hugging Chinese dress, based on those worn in pictures by Soong Mei-ling, the elegant wife of late Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the communists in China.

"The five first ladies are from different eras and represent Taiwan's history and its fashion trends," Ku said.

Many brides-to-be still come to the workshop to order miniature versions of their wedding gowns as souvenirs, she added.

Mattel began producing Barbie in 1959, and immediately struck gold with a product that appealed to the daughters of middle-class families throughout the increasingly wealthy Western world.

Eight years later, Mattel opened the Taishan facility, one of its first factories in Asia, attracted to the island by its then-cheap labour force and plastic manufacturing know-how.

But the dolls were out of the price range of the workers who produced them.

"Barbie was so precious at that time since it was for export only. Besides, we couldn't possibly afford a doll that cost more than our salary," Chou said.

A Mattel worker earned T$900 (Dh103) a month in the late 1960s while a Barbie doll purchased in Japan cost around T$1,200.

But T$900 was only slightly below the average income at the time and for a teenage peasant girl it seemed a fortune, Chou said.

Like her, many Taishan residents spent the best years of their lives in the factory until it closed in 1987 when Mattel relocated its production lines to China and elsewhere because of cheaper labour and material costs.

Many in Taishan now hope that their efforts to promote the town's Barbie connection will encourage the company to open a museum or a flagship store there, Ku said.

"It would be very meaningful as Taishan is practically a home town to Barbie," she said.


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