Some people call Michael Lau Kin-man the godfather of toy figures.
The PVC toy figures the Hongkonger has created come in unique styles and weird shapes.
Some may find these plastic figures worthless, as they do not have any practical use. Lau however argues that if there weren’t any “ridiculous” designers, there wouldn’t be a proliferation of artwork.
The designer sees himself offering dreams and filling people’s emptiness through the tiny little figures.
Lau has attained fame because of his toy figures. However, his biggest dream is to establish himself as a painter.
Growing up in a rural village in Sheung Shui, Lau is the second youngest child of the family. He enjoyed a carefree childhood as his parents were busy earning money to support the family. He often drew graffiti inside the tin shack. In his teens he indulged himself in football and in dating girls.
Upon completion of secondary education in the late 1980s, Lau casually picked a painting-related job.
Fixing inkjet paintings in a small gallery in Jordan, Lau learned that painting was more than brushing on a blank canvas. Fine-tuning of the paintings afterwards was equally important.
After one year, Lau switched job to do window display design at Yaohan Department Store in Shatin. Meanwhile, he started to attend evening classes at First Institute of Art and Design after work.
“That’s when I truly began to appreciate the art of painting,” Lau recalls.
During the three years of study, Lau had equipped himself with excellent painting skills. He was always the first in class as he grasped every opportunity to learn. He would visit exhibitions and read reference books in bookshops whenever possible.
“I often found myself surrounded by a crowd while drawing on the campus,” says Lau proudly.
Lau came across figure design by chance. At first he was a keen toy collector of 12-inch G.I. Joe figures and soon he started making figures for himself and his friends.
In 1998, he was invited to do comic strips for a magazine. He designed skateboard clothes and shoes for the characters as well, successfully capturing the city’s pop culture at that time.
Lau then turned the characters into figures and put them on display during the Hong Kong Toys Exhibition. The figures became an instant hit.
Lau rode on the momentum by holding a huge exhibition the following year.
“In Japan, designers would launch only one or two figures every year. Yet I was doing ninety-nine figures at one time. That’s how you become a major designer in the figure world.”
No wonder Lau has been dubbed the godfather of toy figures.
Lau’s one-of-a-kind figures stunned the market and his creations were soon perceived as much more than toys. Observers described the pieces as works of art.
When the exhibition was over, Lau picked two figures and decided to go for mass production. Like many others, he has learnt some painful lessons while starting up a business.
“I was thinking of producing only a few hundred units. But it was hard to find someone who would accept such a small order. Toy Factories’ standard output was at least over ten thousands,” Lau noted.
On top of that, quality control was no easy task either. Lau devoted a lot of time and effort to work out all the problems.
All his hard work paid off. The golden era of figures started from year 2000. At that time Lau would have 1,000 figures sold out in three days. That helped him strike his first pot of gold.
Lau believes that his success owes to the fact that he has seized every opportunity that came his way.
Without a strong foundation in art and design, Lau would not have landed the opportunity to create comic strips for a magazine. And without the comics, the toy figures would not have come about.
While Lau’s figures are hugely popular, painting is still what he loves most deep down.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 13.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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