Sweet little collectibles

Chris Lau

There is far more to hugely popular PEZ candies than merely their taste

Chris Lau |

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Many special-edition dispensers are on display at an exhibit at Windsor House in Causeway Bay.
Sweets used to be wrapped in paper and foil. Then one day PEZ came along and changed everything.

The Austrian brand is famous for its sweet dispensers with their distinctive caps modelled after popular cartoon characters.

Flip the cap and a candy pops right out.

PEZ is now popular among children, but it hasn't always been. At the outset, in 1927, the company produced only peppermint-flavoured breath drops, which were targeted at smokers. The name PEZ itself came from the word Pfefferminz, meaning peppermint in German.

"The first dispenser ever made was similar in shape to a cigarette lighter, and is now stored in the company's headquarters in Austria," says Anne Lee, from China Pacific Group Limited. Her company has been selling PEZ in Hong Kong since 1998.

Over the years, PEZ went on to become a children's favourite. It did so by adding more flavours to its confectionery collection and putting cartoon characters' heads on its dispensers.

In 1952, the company patented its first dispenser. Initially, it designed its dispensers, too. The PEZ clown head is an old classic.

A few years later, PEZ started buying licensed cartoon characters to put on dispensers to appeal more to children.

"The very first one was Mickey Mouse from Disneyland," Lee says. "Now the company designs its non-licensed dispensers alongside the licensed ones."

Until recently, PEZ's designs were made mainly with North America in mind. It wasn't until 2003 that, urged by suppliers and collectors in Asia, PEZ agreed to base some of its dispensers on a Japanese cartoon character: Hello Kitty.

The kitten became a huge success in Asia and worldwide. Some collectors say Pokemon was the true pioneer, but Pokemon-headed dispensers came only after the cartoon became popular in the US, Lee says.

PEZ has been collaborating with the Japanese toy company Bandai ever since, releasing more dispensers that feature cartoon characters from popular mangas like Gundam and Dragon Balls.

The popularity of dispensers often reflect cultural differences. In Hong Kong, princesses or heroines with tanned skins usually do not sell as well as they do in overseas markets.

"Princesses with fair skins usually sell better," Lee says. "Jasmine from Aladdin will not sell as well as, say, Snow White."

Lee says local children, unlike their US counterparts, are also more likely to choose something adorable rather than whacky.

"Children in Hong Kong will go for the suited-up SpongeBob [SquarePants], but not the one in the swimsuit making a funny face," Lee says.

But most children seem to have something in common: they do not like dispensers featuring villains or the imitations of real people. So PEZ tends not to produce many of these, especially ones based on actual people.

Yet that doesn't mean you can't have a PEZ dispenser in your own likeness, Lee says. If you are willing to shell out a fortune for it, you can have your very own limited-edition PEZ dispenser.

But we warned: A customised dispenser costs more than HK$6,120, and you'll need to order several.

One bank and an anonymous celebrity in Hong Kong have tried to have their own dispensers produced - and failed.

Still, you can get an eyeful of dozens of unique limited-edition dispensers that are now on display in the lobby of Windsor House at 311 Gloucester Road in Causeway Bay.

As part of a drive to encourage children to read and to recycle books, anyone who donates a children's book at the display will get a PEZ dispenser. All books will go to Lok Kwan Social Service.

PEZ dispensers come in various forms.