Some Taiwanese towns are famous for their clay teapots, others for their ornate painted umbrellas. But this grimy industrial city wants to be remembered for something completely foreign.


When U.S. toymaker Mattel Inc. began outsourcing Barbie-making jobs to Asia, Taishan was among the first to get a factory, in 1967. Although the plant closed 17 years ago as Mattel found cheaper labor in China and Indonesia, the town is trying to keep the legacy alive at a new museum -- more a shrine, really -- devoted to Barbie.

It's an example of how a piece of pop culture can influence a distant place and its people. For Taishan, "Bah bi wa wa" wasn't just a glob of plastic pressed into a mold. It was an icon that shaped the identity of the female workers and became an important piece of the town's history.

Barbie dolls are even credited with matchmaking.

"The women who worked at the Mattel factory had reputations for being beautiful and precious, just like Barbie dolls," visitors to the exhibit are told. "So young men used to gather near the Mattel factory, hoping that they could attract a 'Mattel lady.' "

The factory no longer stands, and the Doll Museum is on the fourth floor of the marble-coated Taishan Township Cultural Center, beyond a busy street of grungy car repair shops and betel nut stands.

The plant, a joint venture between Taiwan's Hua-hsia Plastic and Mattel, opened with 20 workers, eight years after Barbie went on the market. It employed more than 8,000 women by the time it closed in 1987.

Museum curator Wang Kwei-lan said manufacturing methods were crude at first: "The workers used rice cookers to steam Barbie's hair, and they used chopsticks to curl it."

But the Taiwanese factory did what the island has become famous for: making things faster and more efficiently. When the plant opened, eight workers operating one molding machine churned out 180 body parts during an eight-hour shift, the exhibit says; by 1981, only two employees ran a machine that made more than 2,000 parts per shift.

Chou Su-chin, who started packaging dolls in 1971 when she was 17, beamed with pride as she showed off her old Mattel ID badge.

She said that the plant had a strong union and that Mattel treated the workers well. The women lived 12 to a room in a factory dormitory, worked eight-hour days and were paid overtime. She said she earned about a dollar a day, which was a bit higher than Taiwan's average wage at the time.

"Every day we'd get rice porridge and steamed buns for breakfast. For lunch, we'd get rice, vegetables and meat dishes," she said. They were also fed on Sunday, their day off, she said.

Chou said Mattel was tough about one thing: theft. Doll-nappers were fired on the spot, but that didn't stop Chou from taking a few samples, she said with a mischievous smile.

Pointing to a bridal Barbie on display, Chou said, "See that one? I stole one of them."

Thieves would smuggle dolls out in pieces, and some days a female security guard would frisk the women, Chou said. When that happened, they would discreetly shed their loot until the ground resembled a battlefield of arms, legs, torsos and hair.

After the factory closed, its workers found jobs at other plants or went into new fields. Chou, who left after nine years, is now 50 and runs a karaoke club.

The Barbie in the lacy wedding gown -- the first one made in Taishan -- is one of only a few original dolls on display. There's also a "Black Barbie" from 1979 packaged in a slightly battered pink box that says: "She's black! She's beautiful! She's dynamite!" Malibu Barbie, the bronzed beach goddess, is displayed in a box that says, "The doll with the suntan look!"

The scores of other glass-encased Barbies were bought in department stores because the museum couldn't afford to buy originals from collectors, curator Wang said. But the museum had Barbie aficionados design special outfits for the dolls.

Although Mattel today manufactures a Barbie with Chinese features, it didn't back then, and a kindergarten teacher leading her class through the museum quickly noticed its absence.

"Oh look, they even have a black Barbie," she told her students. "But they don't have a Barbie with a Chinese face like ours."

Former Barbie factory worker Chou Su-chin at town's new Doll Museum.