When he started traveling to Jakarta regularly for work a few years ago, he finally made his way there. In the depths of the legendary toy market, he stumbled upon rare finds—oddly misprinted doll heads and doll-sized jewelry. Since then, he made it a point to pay the market a visit every time he was in town.
The 42-year-old from Singapore is said to have one of the largest collections of Barbie dolls in the world.
“I’ve been doing this [collecting] since 1984, when I found a doll under the Christmas tree,” Yang told VICE in a video call from his house. He wore a pastel pink Barbie T-shirt and sat in front of a glorious wall of dolls.
That doll under the Christmas tree was a Great Shape Barbie decked in peak 80s aerobics gear that was meant for his sister, but back then, 5-year-old Yang claimed the toy as his own. He hasn’t kept his hands off Barbie dolls since.
“Basically, throughout my life, there was a relevance that made me want to buy another pop culture-type Barbie,” said Yang.
Each of Yang’s roughly 12,000 dolls has a unique story to tell. For example, there’s the Kylie Minogue doll gifted to him by a friend in Melbourne, and a Barbie doll believed to be worth SG$3,600 ($2,700) that his former boss won at an auction.
But what does he even do with all these dolls?
“So when you say ‘play,’ right, you probably think I have little tea parties and have a dream house [and] dates with Barbie and Ken. That actually never happens,” Yang said.
“I like to change hairstyles. That’s one of my things. I like to re-dress [the dolls] for occasions,” he added, recounting a time he showed up to an exclusive gala with a Barbie tucked inside his tuxedo jacket—the doll was dressed in a ball gown, of course.
“My dolls will follow me everywhere… I’m quite shameless about it,” he said.
He also carries around a doll-sized alter ego with its own Instagram account that’s always “ready for a moment.”
One such moment happened in early June, when he headed out for lunch with his friend to enjoy a plate of char siu (barbecued pork) rice. Before they left the house, he hastily fashioned the tiniest char siew rice packet out of brown paper—if human Jian Yang was having char siew rice, his vinyl avatar was going to have his own serving, too.
“You’re so weird,” Yang remembered his friend remarking. And while his doll-neutral friend ordered lunch, doll-obsessed Yang was busy snapping photos of his handicraft.
“My mind works in a 1:6 scale, which means that every time I’m out shopping or in tourist souvenir shops or wherever it is, if I find anything that’s almost doll-sized, I actually buy it,” Yang said. The 1:6 scale is a common form of measurement for fashion dolls like Barbie.
“I’ve never considered myself a collector,” he said. “I’m a boy that never stopped playing with my toys.”
“If you think about what a collector should be, a collector is actually someone that keeps things in boxes, in pristine condition,” Yang said. “I take shit out of the box. I will change the hairstyle. I’ll re-dress it. I’ll drop it into the sea. I will bring it to the pool. I will do whatever I want with it.”
And he brings this attitude of play everywhere he goes.
His toilet paper series, tagged on his Instagram posts as #flushablefashion and #havetissuewilltravel, was born out of boredom one night in his hotel room during a business trip to Sri Lanka around four years ago. Whipping out tape and scissors from his bag, he created a toilet paper dress for the Barbie he brought along on his trip.
Then, he set himself a fun little challenge to make one dress for his Barbie using hotel toilet paper every night for around two weeks.
Since then, whenever he traveled, he would do a country-related series using toilet paper.
“I say this as a very jaded 42-year-old—the world is going to burn you. I’m sorry, but it will,” said Yang. “Life isn’t as beautiful as people make it out to be.”
“So if you have to go through that stuff, doing something beautiful, plastic and shallow—which is playing with your damn toys every day—is going to at least dull the pain.”