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San Francisco mom ventures out to design Asian dolls

By Tenzin Wodhean, AsAmNews Intern

The past few years in the entertainment industry have been monumental in its progress towards Asian representation with Crazy Rich Asians (2018) arguably at the helm of catapulting that progress. However, when a San Francisco mother, Elenor Mak, embarked on a search for an Asian doll resembling her daughter, she found that the progress of Asian archetypes in American media had not reached toy store shelves.

This disconnection evoked a reminder of Mak’s struggle with self-acceptance growing up since she had to dilute her own Chinese identity to connect to White figures in media or toys. The glory attached to Eurocentric beauty standards in American media and in her own upbringing in a predominantly White neighborhood in Brooklyn had disturbed Mak’s appreciation for her own ethnic features, making her “wish that she was Caucasian.” Urged to not impart this to her daughter, Jillian, Mak set out to design Jilly Bing, an Asian American doll.

“I was always feeling like I wasn’t good enough whether it was the way my eyes were shaped, my nose bridge not being tall enough, wishing I didn’t have this boring black hair, wishing my parents didn’t speak Chinese or bring this weird Chinese food to school,” Mak recounted. “That was most of my childhood.”

Jilly Bing doll in the kitchen
Courtesy: Jilly Bing

The universal Asian American experience of harboring shame after hurtful comments about the smell or look of our ethnic foods inspired Mak’s approach to the story of Jilly. In Mak’s experience, classmates laughed at the “elaborate Chinese” dishes her mother made, leading Mak to leave her food uneaten in her cubby but that wasn’t the response she envisioned for kids facing similar experiences.

“With Jilly, we gave her a backstory where she loves to cook and bake with her grandma and showcases her food to her friends,” said Mak. “And they’re like ‘oh I don’t want to try that it looks and smells funny’ but Jilly instead of shying away she’s really bold, she’s a little bossy, [she responds] ‘You must try it.’”

It wasn’t until Mak’s exposure to Cantonese musicians and figures like Aaron Kwok and Sally Yeh was she able to discover the beauty in her features and culture. Attending high school at Bronx Science where the majority of the students were Asian also positively shaped her life. This turning point instilled in Mak the belief that the media that we consume reflect society’s beauty standards and influences of how kids perceive themselves; a belief that made Mak design Jilly as a figure of empowerment for Asian kids.

In Mak’s search for a design team who could execute the vision for Jilly, Mak came upon Dave Okada and his family. Dave Okada was a toy designer for the company, Kenner, and had experience working with the renowned filmmaker of the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas, to create figurines of the franchise’s characters. The Okadas were an intergenerational family with Okada’s Japanese-American roots tracing all the way to his granddaughter who is tri-racial, half-Black and a quarter White.

Jilly Bing doll in the kitchen
Courtesy: Jilly Bing

“What’s crazy is all three generations, all of them had to figure out how to find representation as kids. She talks about making her own dolls growing up. That was the unifying pain we all felt. We all felt this lack of representation,” said Mak.

In the process of designing Jilly, Mak and Okada spoke with parents or “future consumers” to navigate how they could capture the breadth of Asian cultures within a single doll. They knew Jilly had to serve as a source of cultural pride to encourage the passing on of heritage across generations. And what better way was there of translating that cultural pride than through Jilly embracing the love language of Asian cultures: food.

“When you come home, the first thing your Mom says is ‘what kind of fruits do you want? Have you eaten?’ ‘Have you eaten? in Asian language[s] is ‘I love you,’” Mak shared.

Another detail Mak was inclined to fulfill was designing Jilly as an Asian female who was non-stereotypical, one who was not demure or shy nor exoticized as an effort to “flip the script.” While remaining faithful to Asian features through Jilly’s almond-shaped eyes and button nose, Mak wanted to translate the boldness through the openness of her hands and the energy of her smile. Much of the deliberation about Jilly’s stance and facial expression came from sieving through many pictures of Asian girls at play.

“We wanted her to be able to race her brother up the hill. We wanted her to play sports. We wanted her to be ready for a food fight. We also wanted her to be, at the same time, lovable. We wanted to make sure she had energy to her hand,” says Mak, since many dolls tend to have hands “leaning downwards.”

Jilly Bing, as a company, intends to not only introduce cultural understanding for kids of Asian heritage but for non-Asian kids and adults as well in a “fun and light” manner. In fact, Jilly is accompanied by a zine called the Bing Buzz which highlights the breadth and depth of the celebration of the Lunar New Year across cultures and includes fun activities for kids.

According to Mak, “A lot of lunar new year celebrations, it’s associated with Chinese, it’s associated with dumplings. […] We kept going to the details: how the Vietnamese have a cat in their zodiac which is different than the traditional Lunar New Year. We talk about the Malaysian celebration where they throw their noodles up in the air.”

Girl plays with Jilly Bing doll
Courtesy Jilly Bing

Jilly Bing won’t be the only doll released from the company as the vision is to create a “cast of lovable Asian American characters that represent the diversity of what Asian Americans look like today.” In an illustration on the website, Jilly embraces two girls who Mak reveals one as a half-Black and half-Japanese character and the other one as a Filipina character.

Before the doll’s release on August 1, the anticipation for Jilly Bing was widespread as the company had gotten nearly 1,000 pre-orders for the doll across the country.

Tina Fang, a Chinese mother from New York, agreed it was generally hard to find Asian dolls yet would probably be available “somewhere in Downtown Flushing,” a predominantly Asian neighborhood in New York City. Fang has raised a daughter of her own who she described as having an upbringing surrounded by more American than Asian culture.

Upon seeing Jilly Bing, Fang remarked that Jilly Bing looked like Mulan.

“I don’t think there is a stylish Asian character [like this] and I like it. When my daughter was young, she liked Mulan too. I hope we can have more like this,” said Fang.

The doll is available for purchase on jillybing.com.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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