DRESSED IN A stained uniform with his feet thrust into cheap plastic slippers, he has a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a finger sticking in the drink he's about to serve. The stereotypical image will be familiar to anyone who's patronised a local diner or cha chaan teng: the surly waiter. The 23cm-tall action figure, dubbed 2da6 (or yee da luk in Cantonese), represents big ambitions despite its plebian roots. Its creators, Wendy Mak Wing-ting and her younger brother Kevin Mak Ka-yeung, hope the new toy will boost the fortunes of their family business, Maksco. Their grandfather set up the company, one of Hong Kong's oldest toy manufacturers, in 1958 mainly to make water pistols for export. Initially producing toys to others' specifications, Maksco later came up with its own ideas. But, like most local toy companies, the products continued to be sold under other brands. The Mak siblings hope to change that: six years ago, they set out to create collectable toys that would reflect the city's unique street culture. It's a risky venture in a market dominated by recognisable characters from Japan and America - from Doraemon and Hello Kitty to Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse. However, the response to yee da luk, a colloquial phrase meaning small fry, seems promising. The 2,000-piece, limited-issue figure has attracted retailers in Hong Kong and overseas, appearing in toy shops in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris, says Kevin Mak. But the Maks remain modest about their progress. 'Creating something under our own name is what we really want to do. Someone has to take the first step,' says Wendy Mak, who trained as a graphic designer. Although local companies produce 85 per cent of the world's toys in their mainland factories, only 10 per cent are sold under their own brands, says Yeung Chi-kong, executive vice-president of the Toys Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong. (According to trade figures, Hong Kong exported HK$79 billion worth of toys last year, but Yeung says the total may be as much as HK$100 billion since some Hong Kong companies export directly from the mainland plants.) 'While Hong Kong brags about being the king of toy exports, in fact, we only serve as labour for overseas toy companies which pocket the bulk of the profits,' he says. The city needs more local toy makers to establish their own brands in order to stand out globally, Yeung says. Hong Kong is well set up to take that path. With half a century's experience in toy production, many companies have mastered skills in design as well as production, says Peter Dean, who heads the toy design lab at the Polytechnic University. Local companies were already designing toys for their overseas customers 10 years ago, he says. 'Companies come from Europe and North America to buy very good quality at good prices. They just send the local firms sketches of what they want, which are always featureless,' Dean says. 'The sketches are often the only thing we have. It is the Hong Kong manufacturers who fill out the details to make the products and then send them the prototype. 'So when you know how, then you want to have your own brands.' Yeung's company, Blue-Box, is among the first Hong Kong companies to produce and market its own lines. Over the past 50 years, the company's range has expanded from the most basic cars and dolls to encompass learning toys for preschoolers, collectable figures and music gadgets, which are sold around the world. Designers have to be sensitive to emerging fads and to different cultures to create toys that will capture consumers' attention, for instance, tapping into popular cartoons for inspiration, Yeung says. For Blue-Box, an indispensable step is to invite children to test prototypes before releasing a new toy on the market. 'Kids are the ones who decide which toys to buy even if their parents are the ones who pay for it,' Yeung says. While he concedes it's a struggle to carve a niche for their own brands in Europe and the US, Yeung says local toy makers should not give up. 'Hong Kong has an edge because it's familiar with both Chinese and western cultures and can cater to the tastes and play patterns of children from different backgrounds.' But the shortage of toy designers is a constant obstacle to the industry's growth. Yeung complains of limited training opportunities, noting that courses on toy design and manufacturing are available only at the Polytechnic University and the Institute of Vocational Education (IVE). And since 2001, toy design became just one of many subjects in the university's school of design, says design lecturer Remi Leclerc. Only about 20 toy designers have graduated from the Polytechnic University, while 54 other designers, the first batch from the IVE's diploma programme launched three years ago, will emerge in June. 'What we need is creativity and innovative designs. Take our company: we need to create nearly 100 new items every year to keep up with trends and survive the fierce competition. So we need more young talent to join the industry,' Yeung says. Yeung says the government and tertiary institutions should train more personnel for the toy sector. 'We shouldn't be content with taking orders from overseas. It's time for us to think outside the box and sell toys bearing our own brands,' he says. The toy company executive should take heart. Over the past few years, change has unfolded quietly in the design world. Following the success of their 2da6 figure, the Maks released six other designs for the line - a second-generation cha chaan teng waiter featuring more detail, a scaffolding worker, a gas delivery man, a rubbish scavenger, a fung shui master and a street sleeper. They have been selected because they are unique to Hong Kong, Kevin Mak says. Meanwhile, toy figures from trend-setting designers such as Michael Lau Kin-man and the Brothersfree collective - Winson Ma Che-hung, William Tsang Chi-wai and Kenny Wong Shun-ming - are winning fans around the world. 'They draw inspiration from Hong Kong culture. Their stuff is Hong Kong-designed, Hong Kong-made and Hong Kong-inspired,' says the Polytechnic University's Leclerc. 'The significance is that they are very local. These may be small productions, but people in America and Japan are very attracted. What's interesting about this generation of toy designers is they really look at the urban culture in Hong Kong. 'It's the first time such a thing has happened in the local popular culture and it really helps place Hong Kong on the world toy map in a very nouveau, unique and personal way.'