I'm continuing to read about the history of toys.

The U.S. imports between 50%-75% of its toys from Chinese manufacturers (depending on the year), and my understanding is that they many western countries follow similar practices. I've been trying to nail down the earliest origins of this trend, and how it developed historically, but have had little luck separating the history of toy making from the long history of U.S.-Chinese economic relations in general. Any help would be appreciated; thanks for your time.

Bonus Question: I'm guessing the answer to this question begins with China being reopened in the 70s, but was there ever any significant toy trade prior to the revolution of 1949?

Bonus Bonus Question: Based on comments made below, if anyone wants to expand their answer to also include more general information on the history of toy imports from east to west, that would also be great, and possibly worth a bounty. But as per site rules the original question stands as is.

Bounty Edit: The bounty is already reserved, when the 24 hour requirement is up I'm giving it to J Asia for providing such an extensive answer. All of the answers were great however, so thanks to all three of you.

  • @user2448131: When were you a kid? I'd be curious about Japan as well.
    – Random
    Oct 17, 2017 at 18:44
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    @user2448131 Here in the UK, I seem to remember that it was "Made in Hong Kong" in the 1960s and "Made in Japan" by the late 1970s / early 1980s. Oct 17, 2017 at 18:48
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    Many Asian countries went through phases where they started with cheap, easily massed produced items before moving on to more advanced stuff. So for a while, "made in Japan" implied crappy, poorly made merchandise before their economy exploded and they became known for well-made electronics and cars. A number of Asian countries went through these phases. China's just earlier on the curve. Countries have to go through these phases because you can't go straight from no industry to high quality products.
    – user15620
    Oct 17, 2017 at 19:44
  • @Era - Are you looking for historical data? If so, which period or just generally during formative years of China's export market? Finally, only interested in toy exports?
    – J Asia
    Oct 18, 2017 at 8:35

3 Answers 3


Growth of China’s Toy industry

Toy making in China began to take shape with the arrival of tin-can manufacturing around Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Western influences in the area led to the manufacture of Western tin-plate toys that became quite popular. War-related toys, such as fighter planes, tanks,and soldiers, dominated the market around the time of the Japanese invasion of China in the mid- 1930s. After the Communist Revolution of 1949, toys became a vehicle for propaganda, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966– 1976) when dolls in Mao suits and cars painted with political slogans flourished.

By the early 1980s, Hong Kong had become the world’s largest toy exporter, but rising labor and land costs pushed the colony’s toy manufacturers to relocate across the border to China. In 1984, China designated Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, its first special economic zone (SEZ), offering foreign investors a tariff- free environment with low- cost labor and cheap factory space. Hong Kong toy manufacturers moved more and more production into China while leaving in Hong Kong the value- added work, such as product design, production planning, quality control, management, and marketing.

Drawn by the incentives of the SEZs, multinational toy companies began to set up shop in China, especially in the Pearl River delta region of Guangdong. China developed a solid network of supporting industries and services, such as logistics, communications, and component manufacturing, which helped international companies to strengthen productivity, reliability, and delivery.

By 1993, China had become the world’s largest toy manufacturer and leading exporter, reaching an export volume of $8 billion. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 strengthened its domestic industry, and its exports rose sharply. In 2006, China exported 22 billion units of toys worth $7.5 billion. By the end of the year, Chinese toys accounted for 75 percent of world output.

Source: Berkshire Encyclopedia of China (2009), pp. 2305-6.

Critical success factors for new product development in the Hong Kong toy industry

The toy industry is one of Hong Kong’s oldest and largest export industries, and it is generally agreed that Hong Kong is the world’s leader in toy exporting. In 1996, its production output had reached HK$ 2.5 billion (HKTDC, 1999). One of the strengths of Hong Kong’s toy industry lies in its ability to incorporate technology and skills from other industries such as clothing, electronics, and metal industries. Building on their base in plastic moulded toys, Hong Kong’s toys manufacturers have added production skills from such industries. As a result, they have been able to upgrade the quality of their goods and obtain good profits. The second advantage of Hong Kong toy companies has been the movement of their locations of production to Mainland China and other Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, so that product costs can be dramatically reduced. As a result, Hong Kong’s role is shifting towards quality control, management, marketing, and new product design.

As well as their leadership in toy exporting, Hong Kong’s toys manufacturers have also become some of the most efficient toy production managers in the world, particularly when toy production involves components made of different materials. Through their Original Engineering Manufacturing (OEM) contracts, Hong Kong’s toy manufacturers are also well informed about the market trends in the major toy markets of the US, Western Europe, and Japan.

Source: Technovation, Volume 25, Issue 3, March 2005, Pages 293-303, p.293.

To end, here is a good explanation of Deng Xiaoping's open door policy, Economic Reform and Growth in China (Department of Economics, Princeton University, 2004) (pdf).

A good, but basic, overview of how US-China trade developed in early years - U.S.-China Trade, 1971–2012: Insights into the U.S.-China Relationship 米中貿易 1971〜2012年, The Asia-Pacific Journal, June 16, 2013, Volume 11 | Issue 24 | Number 4 (pdf available).

Finally, any mention of toys from Asia (Hong Kong) should always involve Li Ka Shing - for instance, Thoughts Of Li Ka-Shing (Forbes, 2006). This press release by HKDTC might be useful, 2011 - Toy Town.


The main driver was China's open door policy, which started in 1978.

Before that, China had no material commercial relationships with the US. The latter didn't even have diplomatic relationships with mainland China (they treated Taiwan as the legitimate China) until Nixon visited China in 1972.

In the mid 1980s private sector began to be a thing again in some areas, and things quickly picked up from there - it naturally helped that the US was the world's largest consumer market and that China had a cheap workforce.

Per the comments to your question there was already a trend to manufacture toys in Asia in the 60s and 70s, but the real inflection point occurred when production moved from Hong Kong (and Taiwan) to - much cheaper - China in the late 1980s.


These aren't exactly "toys," but bicycles, a recreational vehicle, were first made in China in the 1930s and 1940s. That is, they were first assembled from foreign made parts in the 1930s, but manufactured "locally" in the 1940s. Presumably, some of these goods were for export or re-export.

This occurred after China was able to raise tariffs in 1928 against competition from Hong Kong. Even in Hong Kong, large manufacturing firms did not appear until about 1900, and large scale mechanized processes not until the 1920s.

China was late to the manufacture of "toys" because of its subsistence economy, but there was a spurt of production of "non-serious" goods (such as cinema) in the early 1930s, and then again in the late 1940s, that is around the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45, before the Communist takeover. It might be noted that mass-produced items for amusement did not become common even in the western world until the late 19th or early 20th century.

In fact, the history East-West trade suggests that it was the concepts behind toys, e.g. porcelain dolls, went from east to west, but the toys themselves, went from west to east. As Denis and others pointed out, toy manufacturing went from Hong Kong (a western outpost), where it grew rapidly in the 1960s, to China in the late 1970s. At that time, the standard of living in Hong Kong, while below the British standard of living, was already (and still is today) higher than China's

  • Hi, I think Denis de Bernardy said toys were manufactured in China starting in the late 80s, though they had been manufactured in other parts of Asia in the 60s and 70s. Are you saying a significant quantity of toys were actually made in China during the 60s and 70s?
    – Random
    Oct 18, 2017 at 16:46
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    @Era: I would say Hong Kong in the 1960s, and it started in China in the 1970s, but that would be the "late" 1970s (1978-79) so that doesn't really contradict Denis if he uses the mid to late 1980s for large scale or "significant quantity." My other comments, about the 1930s and 1940s referred to "token amounts." But who knows how fast and far they would have risen if it weren't for 1) the Sino-Japanese war and 2) the Communist revolution.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 19, 2017 at 2:35
  • Thanks. Don't know why you got downvoted, it was a good answer.
    – Random
    Oct 20, 2017 at 7:18
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    @Era: I believe that I was downvoted for referring to "token amounts" in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1970s. But as I understood the question, you wanted the "first" instances of toy production, not necessarily Denis' "real inflection point." The potential was there by the late 1940s, it just wasn't realized in say, the 1950s like Japan because of Mao's emphasis on "heavy" industry (e.g. backyard steel).
    – Tom Au
    Oct 20, 2017 at 11:50

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