Meet Elenor Mak, the founder of Jilly Bing, a company that is changing the face of the dolls and toys industry. Her journey to creating Jilly Bing began with her desire to break down stereotypes and provide a positive reflection of Asian-American girls.
Elenor believes that toys play an essential role in helping children make sense of the world around them, and dolls are an essential tool in building self-esteem and self-acceptance. Her mission with Jilly Bing is to create a line of dolls and toys that accurately represent Asian-American children and help to nurture a deeper appreciation of Asian culture.
By involving children and families in the creation process of Jilly Bing, Elenor hopes to create a community that celebrates diversity and encourages a sense of belonging.
Read through as Elenor shared about her childhood as a first-generation Chinese-American, and her mission to create dolls that reflect the diversity of Asian American girls and promote cultural understanding.
FROM MACAO TO AMERICA
I am a first-generation Chinese-American. My Mom was born in Singapore, and my Dad was born in China. They met in Macao and immigrated to the US before I was born. Growing up, both of my parents worked as back-office postal clerks, which required grueling night shifts and strenuous manual work. Their limited English disqualified them from jobs that would have been easier, like a front-desk clerk.
Despite that, my Mom firmly believed in only speaking Chinese (Cantonese) at home and even sent me to Saturday classes for Mandarin. As an adult, I am so grateful for my Mom’s insistence that I am fluent in her native language because it helps me remain connected to my heritage.
MY MOTHER MADE SURE I HAD A VOICE
As a young child, I was rather shy. By contrast, my Mom is a strong, outgoing woman. But being a non-English-speaking immigrant, she lost her “voice.” She would make me challenge adults when she didn’t get the right change at a shop or something was wrong with an order she had placed. Perhaps because of this, I came out of my shell by the time I was in second grade.
Looking back, I believe my Mom was determined to make sure I knew I had a voice or say in matters, even as a kid, so that I would not be afraid to use my voice as an adult.
My daughter’s voice is Loud with a capital “L,” even at the age of 3, which is so at odds with the stereotypical representations of Asian girls and women as demure, pretty little things. I wanted to break down those stereotypes and create a doll that is similar to the Asian American girls we know and love
A REFLECTION ON MY FIRST DOLL
I don’t recall my first impression of my first doll, named Ada, but she was a gift from my parents, and I was only 5 or 6 years old, so I’m pretty sure I was thrilled. She wore a baby bonnet, and I remember wanting to take care of her as any good Mommy would.
I also remember thinking that her blonde hair and blue eyes were so beautiful. Of course, I didn’t have those features, so on some level, I guess I wanted us to look more similar. My Mom tells a story that, one day, I took scissors to Ada’s hair because I wanted her hair to be like mine, which — like many Asian girls growing up in the 1980s — was a short bob. Long, blonde hair was something beautiful people had, something “other” people had. I do remember feeling like an “other” when I looked at Ada.
THE IMPORTANCE FOR CHILDREN TO SEE THEMSELVES REFLECTED IN THEIR TOYS
Toys help children make sense of the world around them, and some of the first toys ever discovered are dolls that date back to 8,000 BC in Japan and 2,000 BC in Egypt. What is baffling to me is that the year is 2023, and missing from toy shelves in US stores are authentic-looking Asian dolls.
The ones that are available are cartoony-looking or dressed in very traditional clothing that does not reflect today’s Asian American children. Several dolls are brunettes with round eyes, an Asian-sounding name, and an upward swish of black eyeliner that supposedly creates Asian eyes.
While I was initially saddened by this, I’m now thrilled that I get to create a company that solves such a glaring error. We are so proud when parents see our first doll and say, “She looks like my daughter.”
HOW NOT HAVING A DOLL THAT LOOKS LIKE THEM AFFECT CHILDREN AS THEY DEVELOP SELF-ACCEPTANCE
When an Asian child walks into a national chain store and heads to the doll aisle, and sees lots and lots of dolls, but does not see a doll that looks like them, that is the moment that the first damage is done to their self-esteem and self-acceptance.
The moment they start to wonder, “Why not?” Or even worse, the moment they think, “Is there something wrong with me because I look Asian?”
DOLLS AS CULTURAL MIRRORS TO NURTURE DEEPER HERITAGE APPRECIATION
Role-playing with dolls, action figures, or even stuffed animals, help children sort through their emotions. When they pretend to be superheroes, they are trying to feel powerful. If you hear a child tell a stuffed animal to “wash your hands before dinner,” they are probably trying to make sense of their parent’s rules.
We want our dolls to help children understand their heritage. We are creating accessories that help recast their interpretation of Asian food, for example. It is not smelly and embarrassing, as I thought it was when I was in elementary school. Asian food is something that their doll loves to make and celebrate. If the doll herself plays with mini egg tarts or sushi rolls, the barrier to understanding is instantly lower.
As strange as it may seem, there is no one-stop-shop for parents who want to teach their kids about Asian cultures. It requires a lot of legwork to find resources, and parents are busy. In fact, 91%of Asian American parents we surveyed replied “yes” when asked, “Do you need help finding educational content to teach children about Asian culture and heritage?”
I want Jilly Bing to be the brand that makes it easy for parents to introduce and deeply explore every aspect of all Asian cultures.
INVOLVING CHILDREN AND FAMILIES IN THE CREATION PROCESS OF JILLY BING DOLL
When we were creating the prototype of the doll, we leaned on my children and our friends and family to see if our vision was resonating with them. To gather data, we surveyed adults through several social media networks that have huge followings. It was not a short survey, so I was amazed to see how many people gave us feedback; it was another moment when I knew we were striking a chord with many Asian adults who felt unseen as children.
Now we have the luxury of formalizing feedback with focus groups and people who want to support our mission of representation. We created an official Jilly Bing Ambassador Community for our strongest supporters, and we will turn to them for feedback on future dolls and new products.
WHAT MY DAUGHTER THOUGHT WHEN SHE FIRST SAW THE JILLY BING DOLL
Jillian was just shy about her third birthday when she saw the prototype of the doll. First, she did a big dramatic gasp, and then she said, “Me!” and hugged the doll so hard that its not-quite-fully-secured head popped off the body. At that moment, I knew we had a winner.
WHAT PARENTS ARE SAYING ABOUT JILLY BING
Much of the feedback is coming from adult women. Just like my daughter’s first reaction, they say they gasped out loud, and many say they proceeded to cry. I keep hearing, “This is the doll I always wanted when I was growing up.”
One woman captured how heartbreakingly wrong the status quo is: “Even in play, Asian girls have had to envision life as someone else … This vision is so much more than a toy, it is being seen!”
ADDRESSING THE NEED FOR INCLUSIVITY AND DIVERSITY IN THE TOY INDUSTRY
The toy industry needs a refresh, as do media companies that are creating content for children. It feels as though they are checking off boxes. They want to be able to say, “Look, we have an Asian doll. We have a Black doll.” Or “Here! We did a movie with Chinese immigrant parents and US-born kids.” But they are just doing the bare minimum.
I like to think Jilly Bing is the first company to take a holistic view of how representation can live and breathe within our children’s daily lives, instead of being compartmentalized inside a checkbox. My analogy is Paw Patrol. Those pups are everywhere, from socks to movies to enough toys to fill a football stadium.
If our vision becomes a reality, the fun, cheeky characters and accessories, books, and content that celebrate Asian American culture will be everywhere too.
What can consumers do to drive this change? I ask them to support us by purchasing a doll at www.jillybing.com and spreading the word. As the famous saying goes, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”