Treasure in playthings

Toy collector Chang Yang Fa is the owner of the Mint Museum of Toys. Most of the collection is kept in a warehouse in Ang Mo Kio.

SINGAPORE - In the last of our fortnightly series, In The Vault, we step into a warehouse in Ang Mo Kio.

Inside the warehouse unit are two custom- built levels.

Each level holds several cardboard boxes on shelves built for storage.

Steel ladders provide access to reach a treasure trove of toys, first- edition posters, first-edition comics, masks, enamel signs, vintage bicycles and even rare teapots.

These are all part of the Mint Museum of Toys' extensive collection kept in storage, the exact location of which owner Chang Yang Fa prefers not to reveal.

The museum, which opened in 2006, is in a shophouse at 26 Seah Street, opposite Raffles Hotel.

It has been converted into a modern gallery for Mr Chang's vast collection, estimated to number a staggering 50,000 toys. At any time, there are about 5,000 toys on show at the museum, with the rest in storage.

Apart from the permanent collection, the displays are changed several times each year for special shows during the Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Formula One seasons.

Mr Chang's collection, which he started from childhood, stems from a love of art.

This love, he adds, deepened when he visited a toy museum in Edinburgh as a student. "I have always loved toys and through them found a medium to satisfy my love of art," says Mr Chang, an electrical engineer by training.

Even as a child, if he felt a toy was special, he would keep the packaging intact.

Showing Life! his extensive collection in the warehouse, the chatty 64-year-old, who is married with three grown-up children in their 20s, says: "Many toys are also the embodiment of good engineering."

Indeed, looking at some of the vintage toys in mint condition, it becomes apparent what little engineering marvels they are in the way they have been put together and the precision needed to even create something like a small vintage car.

Mr Chang says that for years, his collection had been in storage and accessible only to him.

He decided to open the museum to share them with people and also to show how toys too are a form of art.

Toy collecting is serious business, he says.

In 1991, for example, a 19th-century American tin toy sold at a Christie's auction for US$231,000 (SGD$294, 000).

While his collection has not been valued, he has spent "a lot of money" over the years sourcing toys from auctions around the world.

Many toys in his collection are treated with the same reverence accorded to rare and valuable objects in museum collections.

The museum's curator, Mr Richard Tan, who is around for the photo shoot, has white gloves on as he pulls out toys and posters for the shoot with Mr Chang.

The Mint Museum of Toys is widely regarded as Singapore's most successful private museum and over the years, Mr Chang has received many offers to buy some of the pieces, particularly enamel plates.

He declined all of them.

He says: "To me, each of these is special. It tells a story which I want to share and want others to enjoy."

But what keeps this successful private museum going is not just the toys on show.

There is special programming, exhibitions as well as a pub and restaurant which are being renovated.

"I want these toys to remain in Singapore and hope visitors from other parts of the world can enjoy them too when they visit us."

deepikas@sph.com.sg

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