Soft toys get a new lease of life at Singapore’s ‘toy hospitals’

Demand for these soft toy services has been increasing, with the highest number of requests at one hospital being 70 in a month.

Chin Hui Shan

Chin Hui Shan

The Straits Times


Ms Pamela Theng of Soft Toy Hospital sewing the head of a plush toy back onto its body. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

October 16, 2023

SINGAPORE – For two years, Ms Wong searched high and low for a monkey soft toy for her 13-year-old son, who had owned one since he was born.

It was his favourite toy and he took it to bed every night, but after a decade of wear and tear, the toy was in a bad shape – the ears had huge holes in them, the stuffing had fallen out, and the colour had faded.

Ms Wong, who wanted to be known only by her last name, could not find the exact same toy again and tried to get similar ones, but her son could not get used to them.

“He is very attached to it. The monkey was sitting there in his room before he was born,” said Ms Wong, who is in her 40s. “The toy has a unique texture and it is something he grew up with, so it is very comforting for him.”

In desperation, she turned to a “toy hospital” – a business that offered to repair and clean soft toys – and asked it to recreate her son’s original toy with similar fabrics that she found.

At Stuffed Toys Hospital in Aljunied, the “doctors” can clean soft toys, replace parts of the toy, and even make new clothes for them, among other services. All customers have to do is to get a quote for the services they require, send the toy in and collect it when the job is done.

After about a month and forking out $370 for two replica toy monkeys, Ms Wong is relieved to finally have them at home, helping her son sleep peacefully.

“It was all worth it. It was not cheap, but I was desperate. If there were a brand new toy that someone was selling for $1,000, I would have bought it because I know how important it is to my son,” said Ms Wong.

“It is something he needs for his comfort and I think for any mother, these things cannot be measured by value. Any price was worth it for me.”

Stuffed Toys Hospital, which is home-based, has cleaned or repaired more than 3,000 soft toys since its inception in April 2018.

There is a wide range of services to choose from and the prices depend on the complexity of each case, as well as the size and condition of the toy. Cleaning and changing the stuffing of a 15cm-tall soft toy can cost upwards of $77, while replacing its limbs costs from $40.

The turnaround usually takes about two to three weeks, or up to 10 weeks for more complicated cases.

While its owner Jane Cher, 25, understands that repairing may cost more than getting a new toy, she said that behind the price tag is the amount of time and effort dedicated to giving the toy a new lease of life.

“There are people who get shocked by our prices. Someone even once told me that they bought the toy for only $10 but asked me why the price to repair it is $100,” she said.

“But it is not as easy as it seems. Every toy is different, and there is no one standard procedure.”

Demand for these soft toy services has been increasing. Ms Cher said she receives about 50 orders a month, nearly double the 20 to 30 a month in 2022. The highest number of orders she has received in a month is 70.

Another company, Soft Toy Hospital, has seen the number of queries about its services increase by about 20 per cent this year from 2022. The company, which is in Jurong East, receives about three to four queries a day, and can sometimes get up to more than seven a day.

Soft Toy Hospital – managed by husband and wife Isaac Kong and Pamela Theng, both 51 – offers services like cleaning and repair. Cleaning and mending a hole of a 15cm-tall toy costs upwards of $50, while making new clothing – ranging from a basic T-shirt to a cheongsam – for the toy starts from $35.

The idea of the “toy hospital” sprang from the couple’s original service of teddy-bear making, something they picked up when they began courting in 1997.

However, demand for their teddy-bear making services gradually fell and, in 2016, they pivoted to toy repair and cleaning services.

While both sew and stitch, other duties are divided: Mr Kong handles the operational aspects of the business including marketing and does mechanical repairs such as fixing music boxes, while Ms Theng tackles washing, stuffing and more complicated sewing cases.

For them, the best part about the job is being able to help people.

“Customers come to you with a problem to solve and when we manage to solve the problem, I find it meaningful and rewarding,” said Mr Kong, who picked up sewing when he was 25.

One of their customers, Ms Elizabeth Quek, 39, sought the couple’s help in removing an eye from her three-year-old daughter’s new Dinkum Doll.

Her daughter Aria had her left eye removed a year ago as part of her cancer treatment, and Ms Quek wanted Aria to have a soft toy that would normalise having just one eye.

Ms Quek, a social worker, had tried reaching out to tailors as well as removing the eye on the toy herself but to no avail.

At Soft Toy Hospital, the couple removed the “tightly stitched” threads of the eye and covered the hole with fabric of similar colour and texture. The whole process took about two months, including sourcing of the right fabric, colour testing and matching, and cost $110.

“Recently, Aria pointed out to me that her doll Sprout has only one eye like she does. One-eyed Sprout helps her to make sense of and create opportunities for conversations about having one eye,” said Ms Quek.

“I hope that more children will be able to have such conversations about diversity through their toys as well,” she added.

Stuffed Toys Hospital’s Ms Cher, who left her previous job as an operations manager in a start-up to pursue this full-time from April 2022, said that the best part about this job is witnessing the transformation of the toy.

“It’s very rewarding to go through the entire process of fixing the toy and knowing how it looked like before and how it looks like after,” said Ms Cher. “I myself feel very happy so I cannot imagine the joy the customers feel.

“Most of the time, these toys are a gift from close relatives, such as grandparents who have already passed on. Helping them (customers) to retain such treasured memories is very meaningful.”

Ms Amirah Munawwarah, an art psychotherapist at Promises Healthcare, said that soft toys act as comfort for many.

Citing studies, she said that soft toys are common items for children to have while growing up, and during their childhood, these toys provide a sense of comfort and support as the children navigate uncertain, challenging and tough situations in life.

“With the soft toy becoming our comfort object while growing up, people attach meaning and purpose to soft toys. They then become emotionally attached to them as our brain recognises the soft toy as a source of comfort, security and the safety they provided us with in childhood,” she said.

Ms Cher first started providing these services after her mother helped her re-stuff and clean her 16-year-old Pooh toy and give it a new lease of life in 2018. She then picked up sewing skills from her mother.

While picking up sewing and tackling each different toy is tough, it is managing customers’ expectations that is the hardest part of the job.

In the first year of operation, one of her customers broke out in a flood of tears upon collecting the reworked toy as the changes were not what she expected.

Ms Cher said: “We should have communicated better with the customer to manage her expectations. Even for us, we do not have a fixed visual representation of how the final product will look.

“Sometimes, a slight difference to us can be very, very different for them.”

Now, she is able to explain the procedures better to her customers and updates them constantly while the toy is in the “hospital”.

At the end of the day, what keeps the people behind these “toy hospitals” going is the smiles they are able to put on the faces of their customers as they collect their reworked soft toys.

“If the customer is willing to send their toy to get it fixed, it means that this toy is very precious to them,” said Ms Theng.

“And when we are able to meet their expectations and make them happy, it makes me happy too.”

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