If you’re a serious toy collector then you’ll either have a couple of Eric So figures in your collection, or you’ll be dreaming of having some. Eric So, together with Michael Lau, made the world sit up and take notice of Hong Kong’s ability to compete head on with Japan’s massive toy figure industry. Eric carved a unique niche for himself with his meticulous studies of Hong Kong’s other great export, Bruce Lee, collaborations with fashion companies such as SSUR, Devilock and Vicky Lam’s Real Clothing Brand, and his Estate set of figures, based on the Hong Kong of his youth. Full of humour and attention to detail, Eric’s work is now some of the most highly sought after in the world.
We took the opportunity to chat with Eric about the philosophy of Bruce Lee, running out of room for his toys, and why he can never escape from work, even on holiday…
PIXELSURGEON: Firstly, I would like to ask how you started working in the toy modelling industry. You were working as an art director in an advertising agency – what made you decided to make toy models instead?
ERIC: Like you said, I was working in an advertising agency for quite some time. It was OK, but gradually it was becoming more work, work, work and was a little bit boring. Also, I thought that I would like to develop my own character and do something that I like to do. So to begin with, I had my own exhibition of my paintings.
Like a lot of toy or model collectors, I started to build up quite a collection myself. It was then I realised that I was starting to have a higher expectation for my collection. I kept thinking, if only the producer could have done this and that to the figure, it would become a much better model. But I understood that a lot of times, because of the actual production process and the cost of the manufacturing itself, the producer might not be able to meet the collector’s expectations. So I decided to repaint and retouch my existing toys in hope that I could make them the toys that I wanted. From then on, little by little, I modified my toys until I could start from scratch to make my own.
You’ve mentioned about retouching and repainting your existing toys. Which ones were they or would you rather not say?
I really can’t remember! I was obsessively collecting toys at the time. I started going to Toys R Us maybe several times a day to see if there were any new stocks that had come in. Then, I managed to go to almost every toyshop around Hong Kong just about every day, including weekends, to talk to the shop owners, sales persons, and other collectors to exchange ideas and their collecting experiences. So, I honestly can’t remember when I started and which ones they were.
There seem to be three Eric So styles: realistic, such as the Bruce Lee and Chow Yun Fat models; the stylized, such as the cartoonish “Estate” toys and the semi-stylised, darker Hip-Hop models, such as the SSUR series. Which do you prefer or do you like them all equally?
I don’t really have any preferences. Like you said, some of my collection is realistic, some a bit cartoon, some are in between. To me, it all depends on the project itself, whichever style is best to present the project, and that will be the style I choose.
Do different styles present different design challenges?
Well, at this point of my production, I have strong support from friends and my suppliers, so when developing different designs, as the designer I can only concentrate on what I can do best which is sculpting, designing and some details development. However, things like making clothes for the models, or something to do with creating the model cast, I have to rely on my suppliers to help me. I have been working with my suppliers for quite sometime now and we have mutual understanding of each other’s work and therefore the production process becomes a lot easier.
I guess the biggest challenge now will be the lack of time. Like in 2002, I launched quite a few products but in 2003, I only produced a 12-inch figure of Sam Lee from the Estate collection. I am also currently planning an exhibition for my new paintings early next year. So for me now the challenge is how to have a better time management: shall I put more time into the commercial work? Or shall I concentrate on more personal creativity? I will have to make the balance somewhere.
Speaking of your paintings, I found some of your old collection from Eric So V1 website and they are really interesting. What is the topic going to be for your new paintings?
Hmm… I haven’t got a specific title or topic just yet. The collection that I am working on now are acrylic paintings based around my friends.
Back to toys: a lot of Western audiences really loved the Bruce Lee and Chow Yun Fat Collections. Have you created models of Bruce Lee and Chow Yun Fat as a way of raising the profile of modern Chinese culture around the world and in Hong Kong?
For Bruce Lee, there are two main reasons. Firstly, I really like Bruce Lee. Secondly, I would like to use Bruce Lee’s philosophy to inspired young people to be more hard working and put more effort into doing something useful. I feel that young people nowadays are very lazy, they do things without continuity and only concentrate on play time. When you look at Bruce Lee, he is a legend but he is not god. He is only human. Bruce Lee worked hard to make himself a legend. So I feel that if Bruce Lee can do it why can’t we? If we are all a bit more aggressive and work a bit harder, even though if we cannot hope to be as successful as Bruce Lee, even if we achieve 70% of his success we are not doing so badly, right? I guess my main message on the Bruce Lee Collection is to inspire young people that we can all make it if we work for it.
How about Chow Yun Fat?
Unlike Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat was a more casual idea. During the 80s to mid 90s most of the movies I saw was starred Chow Yun Fat. During that time, the Hong Kong movie industry was also at its peak. This brings back a lot of feelings close to my heart, and therefore it became the direct connection to my inspiration in creating a Chow Yun Fat model.
So do you think Chow Yun Fat knows about this figure you created?
Probably not. I don’t think.
Well, should he ever found out about it, he would be very impressed! I know I am, anyway! The level of detail in your models is incredible, in particular the clothes, which in photographs looks life-sized with correct folds and creases. Have you spent a long time researching the material?
Indeed, I spent a lot of time researching. For the Bruce Lee collection, like I mentioned before, one of the messages I would like to come across was that he was as human as all of us. Although Bruce Lee is no longer with us, I would like other people to be able to feel that his existence was real – like any normal human being, not a god.
In order to do so, I had to take notes of each key event of Bruce Lee’s life, when it happened, what he was wearing at the time. I also looked into what he liked to wear when he was resting or practicing Kung Fu. Once I gathered all this information, I organised it and took time to analyse them, and from then I would start to recreate the design.
How about the clothes for the other toy collections? Do you research to such extent as the Bruce Lee Collection or do you designed them from your own imagination and observations?
If you look at my So Fun series, there are quite a few fashion designers involved. Like the SSUR series, it was a much simpler process because they already provided an original item of clothing and I recreated it in the ratio of 1:6 and placed it on my model. Similarly, from RCB to Devilock from Japan, and the recent collaboration with Revolver from Japan. Because they already have their own clothing brands they were able to provide me with a selection of clothing designs. From their collections, I was able to choose clothes that were more suitable for a particular model design and/or for a particular project. This saved me a lot of time.
With the Bruce Lee Collection, it was very time consuming and difficult. It was very hard to gather information from the 70s. A lot of photos of Bruce Lee showed only part of his outfit and they were mainly in black and white. Sometimes, I had to find tens to almost a hundred photographs in order to see how the whole outfit would look like so that I could study the details of the cuttings on the front, back and sides.
With the other toy collections, it was a treat to have the actual outfits handed to me and be able to talk to the fashion designers as well; it made my production process a lot smoother and easier.
What’s the process of sculpting figures? What materials do you use?
I will start my figure by sculpting with some clay. Once I am happy with the design, I will take the master copy of this clay model to the manufacturer so that they can create a cast of it and duplicate the model. Once the duplicate model is done, we will start the painting processes. When I am happy with it, I will forward the cast to the factory for production. That’s followed by the packaging design and there we have it, a final product.
The actual production process is not very complicated, it’s the quality control that is the harder part.
So how do you go about the quality control of your creation?
The main thing is that I have good communication with the production manager and the factory themselves. At the beginning, the factory did not understand any of my expectations. For my supplier, they were really good at creating your average toys for Toys R Us. and to them, a toy car was just a toy car and a ball was just a ball. But for the line of products that I am creating, attention to detail is the top priority. The tiniest details of the shape, where each curve should go, the proportions of the figure, the texture of the clothes, etc, all are important factors to make my creations come to life. It took a long time, working together, learning through plenty of trial and errors for my suppliers and I to have a mutual understanding of my expectations. So now, the suppliers will take more care and time to look after my projects, which is brilliant. However, this also means that the cost of the production increases accordingly as time means money.
Were there any projects had to be cancelled because the trial and error process proved to be too expensive?
Ummm… some of them… Sometimes, after casting the master model and the initial duplication from the cast, I may find that the production cost will be so high that it will be totally unrealistic to carry on. At the end of the day, if my costs are high, the mark-up on my product will be even higher and I might price my figure out of the market and make a huge loss. So I’d rather keep the sample and make a small loss instead.
You’ve repeatedly said that you create your figures because it’s fun, not for financial reasons. Do you find this difficult in a very money-orientated society like Hong Kong?
Indeed. Hong Kong is a very money-orientated, materialistic society. A lot of people still think that being a doctor or a lawyer means success and earning lots of money. At the very beginning when no-one really knew who Eric So was, I faced a lot criticism saying, with people saying “You’re crazy! Spending all the time dressing and undressing your toys!” But I didn’t think it was so much of a problem. I mean, even Barbie dolls need someone to design them and there is no law saying that it has to be a girl designing toy figures, either!
Gradually, more and more people came to know my work, locally and internationally, and people’s attitude took a 180-degree turn. They would give me comments like, “Oh Eric you are so good. Your toys are really nice, even the Japanese market is accepting you – you are great!” So now, apart from Michael Lau and myself, more and more toy designers starting to step up and more creatives are starting to join our line of work. In the old days, many parents would hope their children would join the more traditionally academic industries, but now, more young people are seeing creating toys as a bright career possibility.
In recent years, with us toy designers becoming more popular, we hope that through media attention we can promote the creative Industry. From the 60s to the 70s, Hong Kong relied on electronics and clothing manufacturing as the main sources of its economy. Then in the 80s, a lot of these factories moved to mainland China and Hong Kong started relying on the stock market. But now the global economic situation is so low that now it’s becoming very popular to talk about the creative Industry, using your own imagination to create an industry. A lot of Hong Kong magazine editorials feature our careers as an example to other Hong Kong people how we started from nothing but made something of ourselves with our imaginations.
In the West, the creative Industry seems to be a bit more common. Often, we will have gatherings with other designers for drinks and exchange ideas or even collaborations on artwork. How about you guys? Do you meet up with other toy designers as well?
I think the atmosphere is quite different over here. Some may agree that Chinese people tend to be a bit selfish. There is a Chinese saying “one cannot keep two male tigers in the same mountain” [meaning you can only have one champion not two]. What I mean is, on a personal level, even though we may be great friends, from the work point of view, collaborations on artwork are rather difficult because some may see the company of another designer as a threat!
Like you said earlier, Hong Kong is still a very materialistic society, people only work if there is something in it for them. Plus, there maybe a lot of gossip turning a good idea into something totally sinister!
So I think, it is very much depends on the society itself and Hong Kong is a Chinese place and therefore you won’t see many collaborations or gatherings going on. It is rather sad really.
Would you like to travel around a bit more?
Yes. I am planning on having an exhibition of my paintings next year. Although I haven’t decided where will be my first stop but I am hoping that through my exhibition, I will be able to travel with it.
Is there a particular place you really want to go? Or somewhere that you would like to promote your work?
Well putting work aside, I would like to go to Europe for a holiday. From the day I was born, all through my education and my career, I’ve always been in Hong Kong. Although I have traveled for work before, it was always going to Japan or Taiwan, mainly in Asia. The furthest I went was to America. I would like to experience something a bit different, somewhere that may give me fresh inspiration, hence Europe. I just want to take a holiday there to enjoy and experience the culture, the European way of life.
Every time when I said I want to take a holiday I always end up working. Like one time when I went to Japan, I ended up going to meetings to help a business partner with some project production! So now I’ve decided that should I go on holiday again, I would not go to anywhere where there is either a business partner or anyone who may know me!
Well, should you ever come to London, let me buy you a coffee or something and I promise I won’t talk to you about work!
Funny you said that. Last time when I went to Paris, I really wanted to go to London. However, because I was running out of time, I ended up in Paris for the rest of the trip. So, like I said, I really hope that by using my exhibition as an excuse, I will be able to see more places this time.
Hope you can make it to Europe and London. I think you will enjoy the culture, the arts, the architecture…
And Arsenal! [British football team]
What inspires you to create figures?
A lot of people have asked me if there is anything or anybody or any events that have inspired my work. I feel that it’s more back to basics: try to use what I come across in my everyday life and my feelings as my inspiration pool. From that, I try to recreate the feelings of my experiences through my hands, and that is the most natural process for creative thinking. It is much better than trying to force yourself to find a particular event or person for inspiration. For example, the Estate collection was inspired by my childhood, as I was living in an estate myself. My neighbourhood, people I saw everyday, or even people I knew and my experiences with them, inspired all the characters I created.
What other figure makers do you admire?
No-one in particular. I think each toy/model designer is good at different things and each toy/model has it’s own character. I don’t think there is a fixed style per designer either, as each of them will produce a few different lines of product. It is easier to say which product designed by a particular designer is good. Even with my work, I don’t think I am a particularly good designer. Some of my work is good but not all of it. So it’s hard to pin point and say whom I like best.
Do you have a favourite character?
Hmmm… no-one in particular. Depends on how I feel. Sometimes a cool toy could be just something cheap from the market, but it’s fun. I think I tend to buy a toy because it’s fun. Like I said each toy/model has it’s own character so it’s difficult to choose which one is the best of the best!
Speaking of fun, a lot of your work seem to have a certain humour beind them like the Druggie from the Estate for example.
I think it’s to do with my personal character. You probably noticed that with a lot of my work, the colour and presentation are fun and I hope I can make people happy. One of the reasons why I enjoy making toys is that I loved them when I was a kid and I still love them now! I can truly understand the sort of happiness it brings to people. So I would like to share that happiness with the world. Also toys should be educational too. I would like to inspire people to think more through my creations.
What kind of music do you like?
To be frank, I am quite ashamed to say that I know nothing about music! When I was little, I didn’t really listen to a particular kind of music. I didn’t have any musical training either. I think only recently when I started working and meeting friends who are really into their music that I started to realise what music really is.
The few tracks that I have on my site have some relationships to me. The LMF one is because they are my mates, and we always hang out to play games and stuff. DJ Tommy is also my mate, so naturally his track is on there. Enter the Dragon was a tribute to Bruce Lee. So all these songs were chosen purely from a direct feeling I have with these people rather than based on the current trends.
How about when you are working? You must spin a few tunes in the background, surely!
My choice of background music is actually quite chaotic! Sometimes I listen to Jazz, sometimes pop music, Japanese music, something really, really loud. I always swap and change and therefore I don’t have any favourite type of music.
How important are your fans?
I am not too keen on the word “fans” to describe people who like my work. It makes me sound like I’m on a pedestal, some superstar or someone powerful! Even now, I still don’t think I’m anyone special. I just feel that they are more like friends who really appreciate my work. Sometimes, I may bump into them on the street, and we will chat about stuff like what toys we bought recently and they will be interested in what I’ve been up to, design-wise. It’s a bit like us now, this interview to me is like chatting to a friend.
My aim is to bring joy and happiness to people through my work. I like to be able to chat to people on a normal level. It’s rewarding to hear things like, “Oh I just spent a few hundred dollars on this toy and now I am skint but it’s really worth it because it made me happy.” Also in the past few years, through my work, I got to meet more like-minded people and to me this is more rewarding than having a crowd of screaming fans.
Do you find some of your fans’ obsessive collecting strange, or can you understand it?
Well, I can totally understand where they are coming from! I was like that and I’m still like that. But I think once you reach a certain point of collecting, you eventually start to become a bit more sensible about it. When I first started collecting toys, I reached a point which I collected absolutely everything and they had to be in a full set all the time. It was reaching a point of illness, really. I guess it’s lucky that Hong Kong is so compact and most apartments are very small. That’s when you start to think, “What’s the matter with me? I am running out of space, big time! What shall I do?” This is the point when I became more selective about my collection and become a more professional collector.
I am sure people out there are going through the same thing. So it’s up to me, Eric So, to work harder to create better toys to stay in their selection process!
How many toys and figures do you think you own?
[Laughs] I think I lost count actually. A lot of them are in storage and there are still tons lurking around in my place!
Your website is pretty cool; how did you know David (Huk Kan Yu) from DHKY and what’s your relationship like with him?
It was a coincidence. When I went to New York for my Bruce Lee exhibition, I had a guest book. When I got back to Hong Kong, I was replying to the messages in there and I came across David’s message saying that he really liked my work and hoped that we could collaborate sometime. I found out that David was a web designer and had his own website. At the time, I really wanted to have my own site but I had no money. David kindly built my first site for me and this was how our working relationship started and we’ve been working together ever since.
So what’s next Eric?
Apart from my exhibition, there will be a few new series of toys coming out in late November and December. The Travel Master Box Set, which consists of a new character called “The Travel Master” together with a View-Master and a 3D stereo reel containing seven frames with Hong Kong’s top sight seeing locations such as Star Ferry, the Tram from Wan Chai, Repulse Bay, etc. Hopefully, this will help to promote Hong Kong’s tourism.
Another series which I will be launching is called “I love animals”. It’s a series of mini soft toys, about three inches tall, completely different from what I normally produce.
If someone was coming to Hong Kong, where would you recommend they hang out and visit?
Actually, I rather take them to places like Mong Kok or Tsim Sha Tsui where the locals hang out. Just walk around the busy streets, do some shopping. I think this is the best way to experience our culture and gives a better understanding of Hong Kong.