Every once in a while, my mother and I gather over the phone in avid discussion. Despite being 8000 miles and 16 hours away from each other, we talk not about our day, the rising prices of eggs in America, or the relentless afternoon sun in Hong Kong. Instead, we talk about rosy cheeks, little hooves, and a button-like snout. We gush about pigs, or newly released products of one in particular: cartoon character Lulu, costume guru and star of the blind box toy franchise—which, amongst many others, has taken Asia by storm.
Chinese artist Cici first showcased the pot-bellied persona in 2019, at the Hong Kong STS Art Toy Shows. Shortly after, she collaborated with local company TOYZEROPLUS to launch “Lulu the Piggy Classic 1”— the first in what would become a long line of popular blind box series.
Where It All Began
Blind boxes, also referred to as mystery boxes, are sealed packages that contain randomly distributed products. Offerings range from trinkets like miniature toys and stationary to jewelry, electronic devices, and other more valuable items. Buyers pay a designated price for each box—while they are usually informed of the possible prizes inside, what they ultimately acquire rests on a combination of luck, experience, and not-always-accurate hunches. The concept finds its origins in 1980s Japan, during which bags were used in place of boxes and could be found in department stores such as Matsuya. This earliest form of the blind box is called fukubukuro (“lucky bag”), and it continues to be a popular business strategy—whether on the daily or during holiday season—for managing leftover inventories and promoting fresh products.
Where Is It Now?
Over the years, the concept of randomized packages has spread all over the world, reaching international and local customers alike. In China, the company Pop Mart—which specializes in retailing blind box figurines—has risen through the ranks of the global toy industry just within a decade. After launching a temporary location in London last year, the company recently opened its first permanent store in Europe (Paris), not only demonstrating its own rapid growth, but that of the wider blind box toy market.
While Pop Mart does house some figurines from the western mainstream, such as their Minions, Friends, and Harry Potter collections, the brand’s best sellers often belong to anime franchises, or to individual and small business designers. From “Duckoo” (South Korea) and “Dimoo” (Mainland China) to “Molly” (Hong Kong) and “The Monsters” (Hong Kong/Belgium), the beloved IPs found at Pop Mart underscore—first and foremost—the creative minds of East Asian artists around the globe.
It is not difficult to grasp the universal appeal of blind boxes; not unlike gashapon (capsule toys dispensed by vending-machines), or even Kinder Eggs, blind boxes call to our natural curiosity and desire for excitement. Of course, what lies inside matters— to this day, I still hold my breath when peeking into a new Lulu box—but it is the experience, as a whole, that gives the blind box its irrefutable charm. From choosing and purchasing to opening one, the entire process builds anticipation and a feeling akin to agency. Whether one draws the collection’s hidden design in a single attempt, or the same design thrice in a row (and believe me, that will happen), the blind box is something you feel compelled to return to time after time. At its core is the ancient principle of risk and reward; yes, I see the association with gambling (and to an extent, that is what blind boxes are about). But to say they merely encourage impulse purchases—and hold little cultural value—may, perhaps, be too hasty of a statement to make.
A figurine blind box series is often designed around a specific “theme” or “concept”— to be realized through the figurine’s outfits, expressions, and sometimes auxiliary accessories. In recent years, for example, “Lulu the Piggy” designs have corresponded to seasonal or quotidian themes such as “Beach Party,” “Farmer” and “Fitness.” “Dimoo” concepts including “Zodiac,” “Jurassic Park” and “Space Travel” have also graced storefronts and online shops, tackling the diverse aesthetic preferences of its demographic.
What I wish to highlight most, however, are the East Asian elements frequently featured—by East Asian artists—in blind box designs. Lulu the Piggy’s “Journey to the West” series incorporates characters from the classic Chinese novel of the same name. Sweet Bean’s “Akihabara” series reflects the liveliness of Tokyo’s famous shopping hub. Molang Rabbit’s “Jeju Island” series highlights the South Korean island’s unique scenery and specialties. These blind boxes transport pieces of East Asia across borders, to diasporic audiences or those interested in learning about its peoples, places, and beliefs. They provide opportunities for cultural appreciation, identification, and affirmation. Buyers see in these thoughtful creations glimpses of folklores, landmarks, holidays, and fashion styles that have long since been embraced by different East Asian populations.
I remember the first time that I saw Lulu’s “7-11 Convenience Store” collection: from the nostalgic Nestle ice-cream freezer to the miniature orange trash bin and Octopus card reader, everything brought a wide smile to my face.
Collecting blind box toys is an individual hobby, but in many ways it also involves community and interpersonal relationships (case in point: my mother and I). Trading is a common activity amongst collectors, and just like in any other fandom, it generates a sense of commonality and belonging. For some, sharing enthusiasm over a miniature pig figurine might not amount to much, but in the fraught milieus that we reckon with every day, it does provide some much welcomed comfort and delight.
Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how blind box toys develop over time—for now, I believe their popularity will only continue to grow, bringing new opportunities to showcase East Asian artistry as well as life.
Even as I write this, I’d like to believe that the next Lulu series is being designed somewhere in secret, ready to surprise me with yet another splendid concept.
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