Shanghai Pam and the Toy Store Adventure

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Travel Post: With apologies to Pictorama readers for the lack of a Saturday post yesterday while I made my way back from China, today’s post while it does cover toys, is a bit of a rambling travelogue. Fair warning to those who are looking for shorter fare.

Travel has been an increasingly frequent part of my work life and promises to be more so in the new gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A mere two months into the job and I find myself in the Shanghai Podung airport with a company laptop and a tummy full of mediocre pizza drafting this post. This after a fast and furious four plus days in Shanghai with Wynton Marsalis and the 15 member Jazz at Lincoln Center band and assorted other colleagues who keep things running on the road. Everyone has been unfailingly lovely to me since my arrival at JALC, more than ever while in China this week, but there’s no two ways around the learning curve of being about 11 weeks into a new and in many ways very different job. I was smacked with that reality repeatedly on this trip, and frankly I missed Kim and the kitties.

So when I realized that I had a rare afternoon off between rehearsal and evening concert on Wednesday, instead of sensibly finding a tailor and having a new winter coat made like my colleagues, I decided to take off in search of a store that sells antique toys in another part of town. Before leaving NY I had (of course) Googled antique toy store Shanghai and an article from a few years ago appeared. (I did something similar last fall when visiting Lyon for the Met, as told in my earlier post found here called Pepper Felix and Mickey Souris.) Out of the three described, one shop appeared to be my style. I mapped it online and while it wasn’t around the corner, it didn’t really appear to be substantially further than anywhere else I had gone in this sprawling city, although albeit in a different direction and distance can be tricky on Google maps in a foreign city. Although it seemed difficult, somehow seeing antique toys seemed like the shot in the arm I needed to bring me around to myself so off I went.

Meanwhile, please know that for me at least Shanghai rapidly dissolved into never-ending challenges of transportation, communication and culture. The Shanghai cab is where these elements combined into a triple threat. Whether it is a disinclination to deal with tourists and our self-evident communication issues, or if perhaps they are equally abusive to their own folks I am unsure, but since it didn’t take me long to figure out that the many cabs with their green lights happily lit could be (should be) picking me up. Meanwhile, if one had a Chinese-speaking companion with a phone app who could call a car you might find that your destination was too short to be desirable and they would also refuse you. It was frustrating to say the least.

After such a phone rejection, a colleague from Asia suggested an assertive approach which I adopted – essentially chasing cabs down and hopping in. Now here I do feel I need to apologize because I may have done real damage to the reputation of Americans in Asia single-handedly on this trip putting this into action. Ugly American to the extreme.

Before I continue with my story please allow me to supply two other key elements of my visit to Shanghai, everyday it was well into the 90’s and so sultry I could barely stand to wash my hair knowing that despite blow drying it would remain a damp frizz for the remainder of the day. (Natives repeatedly remarked on how the weather really wasn’t bad for this time of the year – a warning to self for scheduling future travel.) Next, please understand that traffic in this city can compete with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen – on a par with Los Angeles and London, and even topping midtown NYC during the worst of the Trump protesting and closures. Because of this the population, which is considerable as this is after all China, has turned to a fascinating array of two wheeled vehicles, pedaled and motored. (There is a subway, but no one seemed to encourage tourists to take it. Hmmm.)

On the streets, the variation on the Vespa and moped were topped in numbers only by the bright yellow free bicycles which are merely picked up, used and left as needed. (While I love this idea, I did wonder what happens if you ride somewhere and come out to find the bike taken by another needy citizen and no one else has left one?) And in this age of cell phones it was not at all unusual to find someone riding one of the above, on the sidewalk, while looking at their phone. Some even did all of this AND had headphones on – so they couldn’t be bothered by the screeching of pedestrians or fellow riders I assume. This means that, in addition to essentially running into the street in an attempt to force my way into a cab, I had to avoid being mowed down by a two-wheeled vehicle at the same time.

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Bike rack in Shanghai

 

As I am a resourceful, and admittedly somewhat competitive, New York woman traveling on business which required my presence in numerous parts of this sprawling city, I developed the following method. After scoping out a location carefully for a) reasonable egress for me into the street b) no obvious impediments for legally picking me up (such as a yellow curb or metal fencing and c) in the best of all worlds no bike lane which could mean the end of me or the cyclist as I dashed into traffic. The last one was the hardest and not an option I could always hold out for. I would also try to find a street that was very busy, but not verging on highway-ness.

Once an acceptable location was selected I would watch for a lit cab. I would stand, in fine NY style, just below the curb in the street and try to make eye contact with the oncoming cabs with their jolly green lights as I would at home. When this failed, as it virtually always seemed to, I would begin to eye cabs I could just take on. Obviously the easiest prey were those cabs where someone was getting out, but I was almost never that lucky. Instead I would find one forced to slow or stop by traffic and jump in before the driver knew what to do. Sure enough, getting rid of me was more work than most were willing to commit. I would produce a slip of paper with the address printed out in Chinese characters. This was usually met with some form of muttering and/or cursing but generally they got down to business after that.

The day in question was the first I was applying this methodology. After spending a good twenty minutes trying to get a cab the regular way I literally took off running after one at a light and threw myself in. Success! That morning I had asked the concierge to translate the address of the toy store onto one of the hotel’s cards in case the opportunity arose. I now handed the card to the cab driver and off we went.

My destination turned out to be a somewhat anonymous looking block with an assortment of generic looking stores. The description of the store lead me to believe that it wasn’t going to be all that obvious so I wasn’t surprised. I paid the man and hopped out into the hot, humid day. It was broiling, and my straw hat and sunglasses provided scant coverage, as did the sunscreen I had applied earlier. I walked an alleyway to a mews with some private homes. A woman was picking up a pile of trash by her house, a man in an undershirt looked at me inquiringly. Then this pretty little kitty came out to welcome me. He didn’t come all the way over for pets, but we enjoyed a few words and I felt like he was a good sign.

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Shanghai kitty

 

I left the mews and followed the street down aways. The store was said to be across from a popular coffee house according to the article and I saw a coffee shop ahead, about a block away. I headed over, but no toy store and the numbers were wrong. At this point I remembered that the map had indicated that the design and fashion school was located here. I was on what was evidently the urban campus for this school, scattered among design buildings and studios. Then I also remembered that there had been an indication of a building K in the address. I traced the numbers and typed where is building K into my iphone and asked google to translate for a guard. He enjoyed my ingenuity, but just waved in a general direction, useless.

This time I crossed the street and went down and along an old building with a number of early advertising signs on the side; this seemed promising. I entered a covered entry and found myself in a cool dark café, decorated with antique toys! It was lovely, and cool and dark. I quietly took these photos and was shown to a table. At this point I had neither time nor desire for food but I ordered a (warm) beer and happily drank it down. I typed into Google translator – are the toys for sale? Even though I knew the answer, no. I drank and paid for my beer and wandered back out. Frustrated and knowing that with the time it would take to both get a cab and get back to my hotel in traffic I would have to head back shortly.

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Toy cafe

 

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Display room behind glass at toy cafe

 

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Second room of toy display at cafe – and nope, toys are not for sale!

 

As I left the building I got a bit more daring. This had been the coffee shop mentioned in the article I was quite sure, not the newer one across the street which I had spied originally. So the toy store was either gone, or I was just missing it. Then I walked into a dark, fairly modern looking building and yes! To my right there was a doorway into a massive space. I had found the toy store at last!

An elderly man sat, drinking tea and talking to some comrades in the middle of the store. He got up to see what I was about. I gestured around me and fluttered my hand on my heart – I am in love with your store! He smiled broadly and gestured to me to have at it and chattered at me. We were sorry not to be able to converse – I can tell he had stories he was itching to tell!

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Toy store at last!

 

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Mysterious automaton at toy store.

 

As is the case with such places, much of what he was selling I either owned, was too large to contemplate acquiring or was not necessarily of interest to me, but most of all it felt wonderful to be among all these wonderful old toys! I found a case which contained a wind-up mouse band like mine, and its cousin the Dog Patch wind up band. This was my mother’s favorite toy growing up and I have long been in the market for one for her. This one was actually a fair price, but more than I had in cash at that moment and the idea of either obtaining more cash or trying to negotiate a sale otherwise was beyond me. (Most Chinese establishments are prohibited from taking either American credit cards and it is hard, if not actually illegal, for regular citizens to change American dollars into Chinese RMB.) Therefore, I settled instead on this nice Steiff penguin puppet which caught my eye early on. A pleasant negotiation which took place on dueling cell phones took place. There was a break in the middle so he could show me a giant music machine in action!

The puppet was lovingly photographed by him as a record of the sale and then wrapped up for me. I felt good about having found my way and the nice café, the cat and the store had restored me in some essentially way. Now, I girded myself for my trip back to my hotel.

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Penguin puppet mugshot!

 

I went back to the place where the cab had left me earlier. It was by a Holiday Inn, but not one where cabs seemed to congregate or stop. I employed my earlier technique and found myself in a cab a mere few minutes later. However, this cabby was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I handed him the hotel card and asked me to take him there. Now, in all fairness, it may have been confusion about what I was asking him to do, or maybe he really didn’t want to go there. All I can say is he and I more less started a shouting match in our own languages. Clearly he wanted me out of the cab and so I left.

I found the doorman to the hotel and he spoke English. I explained I had been in a cab and he wouldn’t take me when I showed the address. Meanwhile, much to my surprise the cabby was there. A three-way conversation ensued and the cabby and I returned to the car, however I never understood the source of his displeasure.

Off we went, cabby continued to curse and shout. Soon we were in a rush hour traffic jam to end all traffic jams. We drove and drove and I began to worry about making it back to the hotel in time. Then I began to worry about whether or not I was going to the right Marriott hotel (there are several in the this sprawling city) – and then, more or less on cue, it began to rain in a deluge. You-can’t-see-out-the-window rain of biblical proportions. The cabby’s cursing and yelling is now like something out of a cartoon just as the area is finally starting to look familiar. He can’t find the street though and there’s no way I am getting out and walking in this rain! I gesture around the block as if I know what I am talking about. Finally, at long last, my hotel. I paid him with exact change and ran from the car while he yelled at the doorman who wanted him to take another fare!

And that, Pictorama readers, was my toy adventure in Shanghai!

Riding the Big Bear

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have a general rule that if I see any early photos of people riding or posing with giant stuffed animals I just have to own them – pretty much regardless of condition and price. I admit to paying up for this one, despite the underexposure and probably some additional fading over time – its origins probably in a wash pail of dirty and over-used developer, decades ago. Kim has already performed the miracle of Photoshop on it and it is about 40% better here than in person.

I have the impression that the person selling it believe Mickey’s presence to be the come hither factor (and I have nothing against that nice, early Mickey next to our girl except that we can barely see him), but for me it was this splendid big Steiff-like bear she has climbed aboard that does it for me! Oh to live in a time when one had a choice of posing for a souvenir tintype photo with oversized Felix or Mickey – or riding an enormous black cat or bear! Gee whiz, those were indeed the days. (And still again I ask, why do none of these giant toys turn up so I can purchase them? Unfair fate!)

This photo is another tiny guy – only about 2″x3″ and tucked into this nice cardboard frame. It would be better shown if I was willing to take it out, but I love the little holder and removing the photo would destroy the now fragile holder. You cannot see it here so well, but it has a cardboard stand on the back so the photo can stand up on those cardboard feet you see. On the back, written in clear script in pen, it says, Esther from Erica Lee. There’s something a bit odd about that – why is Erica sending photos of Esther? Perhaps she is her mom?

Despite the lack of giant toys available to pose on or with, I tend to embrace every opportunity to have a souvenir photo made. I don’t especially like photos of myself, but for some reason photo booths and other like opportunities are different and fire up my imagination and desire. When at all possible, I drag my ever-patient and handsome mate into the picture. In addition to the link for this early blog kick-off post, Pam’s Pictorama Blog Debuts, I supply some long ago photostrip of photos below.

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Toy Cat

 

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Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: This cat is the sort I imagine I would have very much loved to own as a small child. He is sturdy, neat and bold in his black and whiteness, with round edges and a friendly face. There is a cheerful durability to him, small and convenient for a child to carry. I think I would have been very pleased to wander around with this guy clutched in my arms as a toddler. I feel compelled to report (Mom and Dad please take note) that I never had a toy stuffed cat as a child. Clearly I have been making up for lost time.

It is strange the toys that we do end up fixating on as kids. I have written about a soft black and white dog named Squeaky who went everywhere with me (featured in Felix on an Outing), but I also had a hard kuala bear my father brought back from a news junket to Australia, which I carried around when I was a little bit older. The bear did not have a name, just kuala bear, and he was made of some sort of real fur. That is a bit shocking to me now, however I was only about 6 and only thought that it was very soft. While the fur was soft the bear itself was stuffed with something very hard and he had spiky plastic claw paws. I no longer have him and have no idea what happened to him, but he seemed to belong more or less to the same family as the toys shown below from the Google image file.

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The question of the type of fur these bears sport seems to be open for debate online even now. The obvious guess is kangaroo fur since that country seems to have a surplus of kangaroos and no great love for them. I am sure that these days my mother (animal rights activist Butler) would never have approved it now. However, he was my constant companion for a very long time, eventually losing a claw or so and his ears and some other spots worn to baldness. We were inseparable.

This new toy cat has no maker tag for identification, but he came to me from Great Britain (a fine toy-making nation) and I assume it is his ancestral home. He does bear some resemblance to a small dog toy that came to me via Kim years ago, shown below. Perhaps not the same maker, but kissin’ cousins nevertheless. All of these are toys that have seen many miles and years, and much child love.

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Mickey and Men

Kids and Dad w: toy

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: The summer photo fun continues with this family snapshot. If I had to guess I would say the 30’s or 40’s although it has a timeless quality. There is no information on it and no evidence that it lived in an album. Since I collect such things, I do wonder about those photos which manage to find their way down the decades and end up with me (or another collector), as opposed to those which are lost or destroyed. It is easy to understand how the photo postcards got saved – especially those dandy ones posing with Felix. They were by their very nature special and probably had a place of honor in the family because they were fun and were kept by future generations – and eventually strangers. Snapshots like this one have a somewhat higher bar I think, but this is both a great photo and fun so it is easy to see how it was preserved. I think there is a part of me which collects them because the idea of all those homeless photos makes me sad.

I debated about the toy being a Felix or an off-model Mickey. Now that I have blown it up (it is a small, sort of 2.5″ x 3.5″) I can see that it is indeed a faux Mickey – maybe the kind given away as a prize at a carnival. He clearly has a place of pride squarely in the middle of this picture, Dad looking down at him. The two boys look so much alike they could almost be twins, but the one on the right is a bit older – and they look very much like the man holding them who we will assume is Dad. The small, comical hat on the older boy gives him a jaunty attitude, but the younger boy is the one holding Mickey. Meanwhile, Dad’s got them both, scooped up in his arms and they are enjoying a nice day in this pleasantly overgrown backyard.

The sun is just coming up on a beautiful, hot July Sunday morning here in New York City as I write this, and I suggest everyone grab a loved one and a toy and get a photo for the future today.

Homemade Mickey

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: This is the first Mickey I ever purchased. I bought him at a antique toy fair in Atlantic City years ago. He was quite ratty even then and I didn’t pay much for him. At the time buying mice seemed odd to the cat purchaser in me, but he wasn’t expensive and he seemed to need a home, so he was the first mice among my cats. I continue to have a soft spot for him and the cats don’t seem to mind him.

I didn’t realize it at first, but he seems to be made from a pattern. As my regular readers know, I have recently opined on my lack of sewing acumen. Long story short, I’m lucky I can sew a button on, therefore I am rather awestruck by someone assembling toys from patterns, a skill I would love to acquire.

I gather the practice was very common and there were a number of ways you could get the patterns, through magazines or purchased from a sewing store. (You can see my lament of the long-lost fabric and notions store – Needled – a recent post.) I was deeply tempted by someone selling a pattern for a large Felix toy on eBay several years ago. The photo below is from her ad. I believe, strangely, that it is for knitting Felix – how is that possible? (While I can imagine a universe where I sew – in fact I even had fantasies about being good at sewing when I was younger – I cannot imagine a world where I knit. Those big plastic sticks produce nothing in my hands, let alone a giant Felix.)

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Felix from a pattern available online

The seamstress behind my Mickey did a pretty superb job. The seams are very professional and the hand stitching attaching his hands and feet is neat and even. He appears to have had his eye moved on one side at some point, leaving a sort of beauty mark, but I think she or he had it properly stitched in originally. He was constructed of a soft black velvet which has worn away, but his arms, head, ears and tail are properly and perfectly put together.

It is tempting to think about – assembling my own toys with vintage patterns. However, I think I am smart enough to know it would all turn to chaos and dross in my hands so I think I will stick with buying.

A Mystery Bonzo…and Questions

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: We changing direction a bit today and I present for your consideration, this newly acquired Bonzo dog toy. I found this toy on eBay, made a mistake and didn’t bid – but fortunately for me he did not sell and I purchased him from the seller. I have photographed his wonderful, handwritten tag which seems very old as well. As far as I can tell it say, Bonzo and no 91 on one side and on the other Viola & Madeline Falkenthal 210-08 93rd Ave Bellaire Gardens, Cullens, Long Island. There is an online record of them living in Queens, Madeline Conlon nee Falkenthal 1902-1993 and Viola Albertina Connell, nee Falkenthal, 1906-1983. So strange what you can find on the internet. (I can only assume that they were very fond of their Bonzo toy, and I will of course keep the tag and their link to him.)

Bonzo is unusual in that he seems to only have one moveable arm, his left. There are no repairs so I assume this was intentional, but it does seem odd. He is in very good shape. His tongue seems to have been stitched back on but other than that he seems entirely original and intact. Bonzo also has a wide-eyed, open eyes which are found, but are less typical. That and the very black one ear left me wondering if instead of Bonzo, like Ooloo, he is another character in the Bonzo chronicle. I cannot find any evidence of this, but I am open to suggestions.

I assumed he was made by Chad Valley – the maker of most of the Bonzo dolls from this period seen today – as per my fairly long discourse on them in my posts Blame it on the Blog 2: Bonzo Dog Edition and the more recent Happy Ooloo to Me!. However, once in my possession, I realized he does not have the distinctive Chad Valley label on his foot, nor a Chad Valley pin. The eyes are glass, which is common for the period but not used on the Chad Valley Bonzo toys I have seen. There is, as shown below, a somewhat indistinct face as the only marker. My next thought was a company called Merrythought. They were evidently started in the thirties, in Great Britain, by some folks who left the larger Chad Valley toys. Although I have had trouble tracking down their early trademark, it seems to have been more distinctive label as well.

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So folks, a mystery Bonzo! I am interested in hearing back with any thoughts or clues. Meanwhile I have also included a photo of my Chad Valley fellow for comparison. More on this as my toy sleuthing continues!

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Chad Valley Bonzo

Felix Roly Poly

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Felix side view – check out the whiskers!

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: The parade of toys emerging as a result of our recent big pack up continues with this fellow who I kept out of a box so I could write about him. This Felix was made by Schoenhut in Germany and appears to have been made around 1922-1924, according to my research. Felix is made of paper mache and appears very sturdy indeed. Therefore, it was a surprise when my research turned up that he was actually a candy container. He only stands about 7″ high so I have to assume that the candy was small and there wasn’t much of it. I cannot see where he would have opened, nor how he has been re-sealed. (Leaving me to wonder – is it possible that the now old, old candy is still in there? Or is this misinformation?)

It is almost beyond my imagination to consider such a wonderful world where candy might have been delivered in such a container into the happy and greedy hands of children. These roly poly toys do not appear to be in short supply so children must have liked Felix more than the candy. In the mugshots above, you can just barely see that he maintains part of a Schoenhut sticker on his tummy and to my especial amazement, he has kept his whiskers all these years!

If Felix was not your roly poly of choice, you could have Santa, goblins, golliwogs, fat men and bunnies – among others. I do own some other black cat candy containers (covered in mohair) made in Germany. Alas, they are packed away and will have to await their moment in the spotlight at some future date.

Roly poly toys seem to have been around for a long time but I could not find out much about their origin. It seems that numerous cultures – Russian, Chinese and European – actually have versions of the toy. Quite simply, the toy is weighted and rounded on the bottom so if you push it over it bounces right back up. I guess this was devised for small children to entertain themselves with since they couldn’t actually knock it over. Wikipedia sites Weebles (by the Fischer Price company with the memorable tagline, Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!) as a contemporary manifestation of the roly poly. They do not mention the bottom-heavy, blow up knockdown clown toys of my youth which I adored. As big as a small child (I found the sheer size thrilling – I always liked big toys) you could sidle on up to it and give it a poke and it would go down – and bounce right back up! Wonderful! I think I could go out and buy one now and still enjoy it.