Barbie's Taiwanese Homecoming

A plastic, fantastic tale of globalization.

Ku Tsuei-eh, who doesn't speak a lick of English, calls the plastic pop princess by her given Chinese name: Bahbi wa wa. The prim 49-year-old founder of Taiwan's recently opened Taishan Doll Museum gushes girlishly about the "product of her youth"--the Barbie dolls she used to dress during the 1980s as a contractor for the toy maker Mattel.

Barbie is revered like a messiah in Taishan, a municipality nine miles southwest of Taipei that the blonde doll transformed from an agricultural village of 5,000 to a manufacturing center nearly the size of Boston. When Mattel first broke ground here in 1967, Taiwan was still considered an underdeveloped country. But the Barbie factory, which was quickly followed by three others on the island, helped unleash an astonishing, foreign investment�led economic miracle. The island nation's economy grew by an annual average rate of 9.5 percent from 1960 to 1989, and by 6.4 percent from 1990 to 1995, shifting from subsistence farming to industry and services.

By the late 1980s, however, Barbie had moved on to cheaper labor markets such as Indonesia and China, leading Taiwanese workers to complain, just as Americans have in recent years, that their jobs had been "lost," "stolen," or "outsourced" to low-cost Third World labor. But the impact that Mattel left on the town, and the country, was indelible. Barbie generated enough momentum for Taishan to continue to thrive long after she left.

"Taiwan presents a textbook case of the economic and political merits arising from globalization," says Christopher Lingle, an economist at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala and the author of The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century. "Its linkage to the global trading system brought enormous riches that have been widely shared. These material improvements provided the national self-confidence that transformed Taiwan from a dictatorial, one-party political regime to one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia." The island, which is approximately the size of West Virginia, is the fifth largest economy in Asia, among the top 25 economies on the planet, and America's eighth biggest trading partner.

"At one point, more than half of the Barbie dolls worldwide were made in Taiwan," says Ku, who chairs the Taishan Township Office and Community Rebuilding Team, the group that spearheaded the creation of the Taishan Doll Museum, which opened on April 24, 2004. "Barbie shaped the lives of many Taishan residents. Now we're using her popularity to shape ours."

I'm a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie World

For two decades, the famous doll with the golden tresses and torpedo breasts was the symbol of financial opportunity in a country where no one looked like her. As word of mouth about Taishan spread, people traveled from all over the island to claim their piece of the plastic.

Ku was one of them. For five years, she made around NT $360 ($10) a day if she worked hard, sewing Barbie's outfits in her spare time. It was good money, she says--"so good you wanted to work all day and didn't feel like sleeping."

Ku was part of the unsalaried freelance labor force not included on Mattel's 8,000-employee payroll in Taishan. While body shaping, spray painting, hair implants, and packaging had to be done at the factory, other facets of Barbie assembly could be contracted out. It's estimated that a third of Taishan's population freelanced for Mattel in the early 1980s. Housewives like Ku were the perfect candidates: They could watch their kids while sewing dresses for Barbie. In fact, many of the women earned more money than their farmhand husbands.

Chou Su-Chin, a former factory worker, started packaging dolls in 1971 when she was 17. She still carries around her old Mattel ID badge. She has shared other souvenirs of her Barbie tenure with the museum, where she volunteers. Chou flips through a photo album of her early years at the plant. This was where she met her husband; that's him in the photo singing at a Mattel party; there she is with her colleagues in the day's fashionable mini-chun (miniskirts).

"Mattel helped me have a family," says Chou. She and her future husband came to Taishan with little in their pockets but were able to save enough money with the free room and board that Mattel offered to eventually buy their own home.

Besides the dollar-a-day salary (much better than the 60 cents a day that the average worker earned in the 1970s), Mattel offered perks far superior to those offered by the typical employers of that place and time. Single girls and the factory's few bachelors were offered room and board at no cost; employees could enjoy free language and math classes, complimentary uniforms (not mandatory), access to an on-site health clinic, and overtime pay. There were extracurricular clubs as well: dancing, sports, fishing, photography, flower arrangement, and more. Mattel threw their workers parties and invited famous Taiwanese singers to perform. During special holidays, there would be a bus to take the employees home to see their relatives. Even the food was reputedly good: rice porridge and steamed buns for breakfast, vegetable and meat dishes for lunch, and meals on Sunday, their day off.

Chou, Ku, and other nostalgic Mattel workers see Barbie as a link to significant times in their lives: their youth, marriages, first home purchases, and child rearing. Many employees began working for Mattel in the '70s during their teens and stayed until the plant shut down in 1987. Some were students from southern Taiwan still in high school who worked part-time. "Mattel couples" like Chou and her husband were common. In fact, it wasn't unheard of for a whole family to work at the factory.

The women who worked there had a reputation for being as beautiful and precious as the dolls they made. And with more than three-quarters of the employees being female, the saying went, "If you can't find a wife, go to the Mattel factory." The men did. Every day after closing time, local young men and soldiers stationed at the nearby military base would gather outside the factory gates, hoping to meet their own "Mattel beauty." "Even the town mayor was looking," Chou says.

Cover Girl of the American Dream

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