Celebrating the Kid Inside
Text by Chen Nan
Does your mobile phone ring to the tune of Mission Impossible or Flinstones soundtracks? Welcome to the club. You are a Kidult, too!
Once upon a time, boys and girls grew up and set aside childish things.
But nowadays, moms and dads are likely to park their skateboards alongside their children's and battle their children for computer time so they can download the latest in pop-song mobile-phone ring tones. They are giving way to the "child inside."
Captains of industry pose for the covers of business magazines holding Super Soakers. The average age of video game players is 29 and rising. Top chefs develop recipes for Easy-Bake Ovens. Disney World, the top adult vacation destination in the world, is populated with adults not accompanied by children. Young people are delaying marriage and childbirth longer than ever, in part, to keep family obligations from interfering with their zest for fun.
Christopher Noxon has coined a word for this new breed of grown-up: rejuveniles, people who wand "to experience time the way we did as kids, to find some relief from the anxiety of the future tense." His ideas are included in his latest released book: Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up.
But while Noxon's account focuses on the United States, the phenomenon can be found elsewhere, including China. From university fans of doll-like accessories to the grown-up readers of Harry Potter, "inner children" are having fun all over. Most have busy lives with adult responsibilities, respectable jobs and children of their own. They are the grown-ups who cultivate juvenile tastes in products and entertainment.
Evidence of their presence is widespread.
The fact is: Toys are not the exclusive playthings of children anymore, though every dictionary says as much. That is particularly true among the producers of children's products, who are finding that an increasingly large section of their market is made up of adults reliving their youths.
"One day, I realized there were many adults, like me, obsessed with toys," says Peng Lei, owner of the Clockwork Monster (Fatiao Guai Shou) toy shop in Beijing. "So I decided to open a store for them, for people who hadn't had enough fun in their childhood." He put a sign on the door, "For aged 16 and up only."
Like similar toy shops in China, the items in Peng's store fall into three categories: plastic statues of action figures, movie and comic stars; cute models of cartoon figures from Japan and Hong Kong, like Hello Kitty; and traditional Chinese tin-toys.
Clockwork Monster though, is the pioneer of such shops and the centre of Beijing's toy culture. And since opening in 2001 it has attracted customers from most provinces in China, and even abroad.
Shanghai Kapo, which opened last year, is China's first toy shop for grown-ups. Entering into the Shanghai Kapo outlet, you are easily attracted by the display that includes stuffed toys, stationery, and computer and mobile phone accessories, all monkey-shaped and inspired. The prices range from 14 yuan (US$1.73) to 20,000 yuan (US$2,470) and most are priced at about 200 yuan (US$24.69). Daily revenues during the promotions amount to about 10,000 yuan (US$1,235). Every day, more than 200 people visit Kapo, and there are many more during weekends.
"Kapo is the first of its kind in China, and we expect to create a paradise of toys for adults," Jeff D. F. Sa, Kapo's managing director, said.
In previous eras, new technologies were often camouflaged to blend with everyday adult surroundings. The first phonographs, radios, and televisions gained mass acceptance after manufacturers packaged the devices in wood cabinets suitable for a living room.
However, today's computers, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets tell a different story. They are neither made nor used like furniture or hardware. Instead, they bear an unmistakable resemblance to toys, being transformed from purely utilitarian to positively toy-like objects.
Now, these kinds of shops and communities are appearing in other big cities. Guangzhou, China's biggest production centre of toys, even has a cartoon-related toy street, though most of its visitors are adults.
What about the consumers, who are fuelling the rage?
Kidults come in all ages but are mostly a product of the urban upper classes (free time and disposable income being essential to their lifestyle).
These days, many female Beijing office workers in their 20s have a great interest in collecting dolls. In the eyes of these collectors, dolls are no longer ordinary toys but objects endowed with new lives.
These doll aficionados collect quite expensive human-shape dolls of various types, such as BJD, PULLIP, BLYTHE and MOMOKO, rather than the traditional Barbies. These collectibles can sell as high as 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) each, with the cheapest ones going for 400 yuan to 500 yuan. These dolls are hard to find on domestic markets.
"Only one PULLIP doll cost me 500 yuan to 600 yuan," said Li Jing, 27, a kindergarten teacher in Beijing. Opening a cabinet at her home, she displayed her collections: five PULLIP, three BLYTHE, four MOMOKO and five soldiers. "I have already spent 7,000 yuan to 8,000 yuan on purchasing those dolls and that excludes other extra spending," she said.
Because outfits for dolls are too pricy, Li personally stitched the fashionable dresses worn by her beloved. "What's more, self-designed clothes are beautiful."
Still, kidults reserve their deepest respect for adults who manage both to take care of their businesses and to make time for play.
Looking at offices in Beijing, you can find that "cuteness" is rife, especially among "office ladies." Cartoon figures dangle from cell phones, cherries adorn bags and even office desks boast bubble-headed teddy bears.
"This style has suddenly become a fashion element in the office," said Sabrina, a 25-year-old office worker at Jianwai SOHO. "Today adults have too many burdens. Playing with toys can take my minds off such things."
According to Sabrina, she spends about 500 yuan (US$62.50) per month on accessories at stores in Xinjiekou, Dongsi and Xidan.
But the obsession with the youth-celebrating culture is not a secret for adults.
"I guess I'm a bit old for that, but I can share with my friends about my 'things'," She argued.
Many rejuveniles, however, reject the notion that their enthusiasms are childish in the first place. "I like those cute elements just because they're funny," said Liu, 34, a co-worker of Sabrina.
Whether they're following fashion or not, the one thing that does unite adult toy lovers, say psychologists, is they find it hard to cope with modern society. Some researchers say rejuveniles are simply seeking comfort in jittery times.
In fact, rejuveniles have been around for ages. Examples include William Shakespeare; Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll; Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, and, of course, those like Walt Disney who saw profit-making potential in the phenomenon.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all is: Actual children can't wait to grow up.
A Kidult may be a man or a woman, no sex distinction exists.
Kidults don't care whether their favourite games are clever or not; they are not ashamed of their passions; they do not feel the need to justify themselves with anybody, not even with themselves.
If Kidults have children, they are as likely to create a game for themselves as for their children.
Kidults have no melancholy memories of their "childhood games" as if they were buried in the past, just like half seasons and pandas.
Kidults are curious and have fun in trying new games every day.
Kidults will not be found leading "holy wars" against TVs or Playstations; they watch their favourite programmes and may even own all the game consoles on the market.
Kidults are not "outsiders"; they love being with friends.
Kidults do not "face" a game; they just play and try to have some fun.
Kidults make no class distinctions when they play, because once a work suit is shed, everyone is Kidult inside.
Kidults are not jealous of their own ideas; they will share a game if they invent one.