Obsessed Much: Dolls

It’s human to collect. From predilection to investment to nostalgia, collecting is instinctual. The accumulation of stuff is how we expand our knowledge and our visual literacy. Even living in a country with high humidity and where space is scarce, we continue to amass. What we gather differs from person to person and for our inaugural showing, we present the collector with the largest Barbie doll assemblage in Asia—Jian Yang
Published: 26 June 2023
Guy and dolls.

Contrary to popular belief, Barbie dolls aren’t the only things that Jian Yang collects. He has in his possession Transformers, M.A.S.K, Masters of the Universe—the toys that the kid who grew up with in the ’80s, in all probability, that is what Yang would have amassed.

To set the record straight about the press-hailed collector of over 12,000 Barbie dolls (and counting), the turning point began in 1996, when a 17-year-old Yang was writing for The New Paper (TNP). It was an advice column called Attitude Page and profiles needed to be made on Yang and the four other "teen journalists". When a TNP photographer went over to Yang's house to shoot him and his collection of Swatch watches, he noticed the Barbie Dream House and stacks of boxed Barbie dolls in his room.

This isn't the totality of Jian Yang's collection.

“He asked if those belonged to my sister and I said no, they were mine,” Yang says. The photojournalist calls up the writer, tells her that profiling a teenage male who collects Barbie dolls would make for a better story and the die was cast.

Ever since that TNP article came out, Yang leant into the label. During those days sans social media, Yang didn’t have the option of curating his own personae. In his social circle, he was that guy; he had to live up to public expectations of the “guy with a collection of 250 Barbie dolls”. Over the years, his collection ballooned and speculation about who Yang is—from his sexuality to his parents to his personality—continue unabated.

This is the most expensive thing I paid for. Made of silkstone, the base doll retailed for SGD59.90 each. When they launched in 2000, Singapore had one blonde and one brunette doll created as a partnership with Swarovski. One of a kind, they were put up for silent auction at Robinson's. Someone suggested that I could get one of the dolls for SGD3,600. Not thinking anything of it, I just put in that bid amount… and I got it."
“I appear in a lot of media and I don’t like framed articles of myself because I find it very wanky. So I took these newspapers with images of myself and made #flushablefashion dresses out of them. I find this to be a more interesting way to preserve a memory of oneself.”

That is until he was asked to give a TED talk about his book #flushablefashion. The photo book is a compilation of Instagram images that Yang took of his Barbie doll in outfits that Yang created from toilet paper. In preparation for the presentation, Yang thought about what he really wanted to say and realised that not only did he need to defend his choice of collection, but he also had to defend his upbringing, the people in his social ambit. Yang needed to communicate his own side of the story; he wanted to address the stereotypes that people have attributed to him without ever having met him in person.

"Back in 1987, the toy tanks and cars were sized for figures measuring three and-a-half inches. The Barbie Ferrari was just too big so I didn’t get it. Years later, I found this one for SGD100 and the car came with other Barbie paraphernalia. Near-perfect condition. The only thing I had to replace was the stickers on the car. I searched online for them, printed them out in the same original colour tone and white glued them to the Ferrari."
“I was 19 when the My Fair Lady collection came out. They were expensive for a teenager so I could only afford one out of five. Over the years, I managed to buy the set through determination and hard work. There was a sense of achievement that came with each purchase."

“If you met me without knowing I have a doll collection,” Yang says, “you would have formed a different takeaway. There’s always going to be preconceived notions about who I am.”

“I've designed my house in such a way you'll see hints of my collection until you arrive at the living room (where it's housed). I've also placed many in-jokes in my home. For example, if you open up this kitchen cabinet, you get to see... my spice rack."

So, Yang took back the narrative, crafting a persona that challenges gender norms. As a co-founder of the communications consultancy, Distilleri, honing and boosting his image proved easy. In the end, it all points back to Barbie, whose tagline is, “you can be anything you want to be”. You can claim that Yang is a man who is defensive of his loved ones; a man who is comfortable with playing with dolls, all that is true… but at its core, he is just a kid at heart.

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