Sending several hundred 15cm (six-inch) figurines of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to the United States was a proud but somewhat surreal moment for businessman Joe Chan Cho-nam.
The 33-year-old owns a company, [email protected], which makes hand-tailored figurines, the only firm of its kind in Hong Kong to cater to both the retail and mass production markets.
The company, established in 2003, has two mini-shops tucked away on the upper floors of local shopping malls but enjoys a much larger overseas market, receiving orders from high-profile clients including European royal families and the campaign teams of the two main candidates in the 2016 US presidential election.
According to Chan, most of these delicate toys will be used as souvenirs for high-class events and promotion campaigns.
His company has a production house in Taiwan with more than 100 craftsmen, where nearly 10,000 figurines are made every year, each selling for about HK$580 (US$74) on average.
Bobblehead figurine culture is more popular in Western countries than in Hong Kong, Chan explains. “I wouldn’t say my company is famous overseas, but most customers familiar with figurines probably would have heard of it,” he adds.
“When I accept orders I try my best to show respect to the actual person.”
For customers who request figurines of public figures such as celebrities and politicians, especially foreign ones, Chan asks for patents to use their images to avoid possible portrait rights violations.
The figurines, which are made from a material called polyresin, can be created in exact accordance with photos that clients provide, or by using descriptions they give.
Chan recalls that he once received an order from the friend of a firefighter, who wanted the figurine posing as if using an axe to break into a building on fire.
“You need to be cautious, and consider whether the request is reasonable,” Chan, who filled the order, says. “I don’t want to offend anyone.”
In his Causeway Bay outlet, shelves are crammed with lifelike statuettes of local and foreign public figures, including US President Trump, the city’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and China’s Premier Li Keqiang. All of them stand in the shop window, facing out and smiling at passers-by.
Chan says that these figurines are only for display, adding that he chooses which ones to put on the shelves based on his own understanding of “people of fame and representative [of their country]”.
However, there are people he deems “important” but “dares not make”.
“I didn’t because I was afraid that my figurines would infuriate someone, as sarcastic cartoons are not really part of [mainland China’s] culture.”
Chan says that he has witnessed an increase in the number of local customers in the past three years, despite the rise of 3D printing technology.
“A lot of my clients in Hong Kong are individuals who usually want figurines of their friends as gifts. You can’t really use 3D printing as it’s supposed to be a surprise,” he explains.
He hopes to see a popular figurine culture in Hong Kong, with more people willing to enjoy the fun it brings rather than just “how similar the figurines and the actual people look”.
At the end of the day, what impresses the owner most is the stories behind ordinary people.
He remembers an 80-year-old grandfather coming to the shop, with a black-and-white photo of a serious looking man wearing an old-style tunic suit. The customer, who seldom spoke, asked for a figurine of the man, who turned out to be his long deceased father.
Two weeks later, when he returned to pick up his order, he brought another photo with his mother in it.
“I could just feel how much he missed his parents,” Chan says. “That’s the kind of moment when I realise I can help people with their life.”