Yesterday, my 2-year-old son asked me to buy him a yoyo. His request brought me right back to my childhood in the mid 1980’s in China. I was about 5 or 6 then and personally living through the height of the first wave of Reform and Opening Up. Even for a young kid in Shanghai, the social transformation was apparent. I still vividly remember that on the one hand, we were using food rationing tickets to buy rice, eggs and other produce; but on the other, there was a tantalizing drink called Tang whose commercial was playing on TV channel day in and day out. (There must had been only 2 or 3 channels back then and the Tang commercial was the only commercial available to air). Most importantly for a Chinese, Tang wasn’t rationed. It was available in fancy food shops to those who could afford it. I still remember the premise of the commercial. A happy family of 3 was introduced to Tang by a man in space suit. The commercial proudly claimed that American astronauts drank Tang. There was a split second in the TVC where the family held their glasses of Tang together and the shot moved to slow motion of a perfectly round drop of Tang bouncing in the air. My friends at school discussed this shot again and again. We wondered if Tang could produce perfectly round bits of drops that other drinks couldn’t. It remained a mystery for a while since none of us had actually tasted Tang. I couldn’t really remember when I eventually drank Tang. But the curiosity, desire and envy produced by the commercial was almost universal for people in my generation. We felt as if Tang and its commercial were a window to the Western world. We thought every family in America drank Tang and that’s why they were so happy. And for the first time in a long time, we could have a bit of that too. (Tang is still available in China, but it’s seen as a washed up 80’s and 90’s drink. Not till just now when I did research for this post did I realize that it was a 60’s drink in the US.)
Now back to yoyo. Its amazing success was later than Tang’s. It was the early or mind 90’s. A Taiwanese guy was appearing on TV everyday, performing fancy yoyo tricks and introducing the toy that took America by storm to China. Yoyo was a novelty toy that Chinese had not seen before. And the guy called himself ‘the king of yoyo’ and became a household name. The Chinese embraced yoyo as we do iPhones and iPads today. We thought playing with a yoyo was so new, so fun and so cool. Everyone wanted to own a yoyo themselves, kids and adults alike. So very smartly. the king of yoyo started to sell his own branded yoyo’s. I was amongst the many millions of kids who begged their parents for a yoyo and was lucky enough to get a hold of one. (Yoyo wasn’t a cheap toy for most urban Chinese). I remember that during each recess, those of us who had a yoyo were the most popular and cool kids. Everyone else wanted to be your friend so that they could play with your yoyo for a minute or two. And then just like Tang, yoyo faded away. But those of us who grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s fondly remember these 2 things as a window to the Western world during our childhood. They stood for novelty, optimism and now when I come to think of it, entrepreneurial spirit to a young Chinese mind.