Battle of Hong Kong toy soldiers, 19th century streets in miniature – toy shop owner revels in city’s history

After talking to Canadian second world war veterans, toy-soldier maker Andy Neilson promised to commemorate their bravery in defence of the city. Years later, he’s ready to release first battle figures on anniversary of battle’s launch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 7:31pm

It’s hard work running a successful business in Hong Kong, but for Andy Neilson it’s child’s play.

The former British Royal Marine is the man behind toy shop King & Country, in Pacific Place, Admiralty, which sells a wide range of miniature figures, including historically accurate military figures and a range that brings the streets of old Hong Kong back to life.

The shop has been in business for four decades, constantly introducing new figures. Its latest series, the Battle of Hong Kong, combines Neilson’s interest in both those themes.

“We’ll be the first company that’s ever produced miniature figures based on the Battle of Hong Kong, starting with the Canadian regiments – the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada,” Neilson says.

The outgoing Scotsman has his own reasons for making the Canadian regiments the first to be made.

History buffs re-enact Battle of Hong Kong on the streets to remind city of home-grown heroes’ defence against Japanese

In the mid-1980s he joined the Royal Hong Kong Regiment – a pre-handover British military volunteer organisation – and eventually became the regimental adjutant.

One of his duties was to accompany war veterans on “battlefield tours” of the most famous sites on Hong Kong Island where many of them fought, and he struck up a particularly close bond with the Canadian veterans.

“This was only 40 years after the second world war, so when I was showing them around, some of these veterans were only in their 60s or early 70s at the time,” he explains.

“I got to know them well and they’d tell me stories about fighting at Mount Butler or Wong Nai Chung Gap. Because they had actually fought there, some of their stories were amazing.”

As King & Country was only in its infancy then, he told the visiting veterans that one day he would try to commemorate their bravery and actions in the defence of Hong Kong – in miniature.

The Battle of Hong Kong through the eyes of people who survived it

Neilson kept his promise and King & Country will launch its Canadian soldiers range on December 8, the same day the Japanese launched their assault on Hong Kong in 1941.

The first set consists of six soldiers, including the man who won the only Victoria Cross in Hong Kong during the second world war – company sergeant major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Its citation for the award for gallantry describes “how completely surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy on Mount Butler, several enemy grenades were thrown which Osborn picked up and threw back”.

However, a Japanese grenade landed in a spot that made it impossible for him to pick it up and throw back in time.

“Shouting a warning to his comrades this gallant warrant officer threw himself on the grenade, which exploded, killing him instantly,” the citation says.

Unfortunately a lot of Hong Kong’s history has been ignored or forgotten, and this is a way of keeping it alive in people’s memories
Andy Neilson

Despite this historical detail behind his creations, the nature of his work means Neilson is still teased by his friends for having a “Peter Pan complex”, but it’s been a lucrative business model for him over the years.

Among the best-selling ranges the shop produces is “Streets of Old Hong Kong” – a colourful and dynamic series of Chinese figurines and buildings depicting street life in early 20th century colonial Hong Kong.

“This is one of our most popular, and is a big favourite with women. Guys would come in here and look at the military stuff, but their girlfriends would have no interest. Now the girlfriends love looking at these miniatures and buying them,” Neilson says.

“The miniatures are a depiction of Hong Kong in 1897 – 100 years before the handover, nearly everyone still wore traditional Chinese dress. Most of that has disappeared. People find it fascinating, especially women. They love the colours and the spectacle of it. It’s also non-violent and shows elements of traditional Hong Kong.”

Generally though, it’s history buffs that are attracted to King & Country, with about 70 per cent of their business coming from local Hong Kong people. One of its charms is that it’s a small shop that’s a throwback to the past.

“Unfortunately a lot of Hong Kong’s history has been ignored or forgotten, and this is a way of keeping it alive in people’s memories,” Neilson says.

He arrived in Hong Kong in June 1977, after five years as a Royal Marine commando in Britain. A friend from the marines told him he had joined the Hong Kong Police and suggested he do the same. Neilson went to London for the interview and six weeks later he was in Hong Kong.

Mad Dogs, Joe Bananas, King & Country – how Andy Neilson made his mark in Hong Kong

When his stint with the police ended, he and his then-wife, Laura McAllister Johnson, came up with the miniature figures idea in 1983, and they opened up the toy shop in 1986 on Wyndham Street in Central. Six years later the small shop moved to Pacific Place.

“I’m 68 years old. For my generation most little boys collected toy soldiers, so I’ve been into this for over 60 years,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in history and always been interested in the military. It’s like a drug.”

A trained graphic designer, Neilson designs all the metal, hand-painted 1:30 scale miniature figures, sketching them out for the sculptors. The design and production process for a single soldier takes between four and six months.

“I’ll talk to my staff first about creating a new product. Sometimes a collector will message me with their suggestions. I’ll research that particular period, then sketch out the figure,” he explains.

The sketches are sent to a team of sculptors in China, who use them to create a test model, which is sent back to Neilson.

“The sculptor takes my two-dimensional idea and makes it into 3D clay models. Afterwards I modify them and check to see if their bodies, heads or weapons need changing,” he says.

“Once everything is OK, we produce unpainted metal figures that are sent to an artist in China and our own artist here in Hong Kong, who do the final painting.”

The company produces between 25 and 35 figures every month – about 300 to 400 a year. A single figure can cost anything from US$40 to US$300.

There’s also King & Country store in San Antonio, Texas, to tap the US market.