October 27, 2023
SINGAPORE – Student Jolie Lim got her first Sonny Angel doll out of plain curiosity.
After one of the 8cm-tall naked cherub angel figurines caught her eye at Tokyu Hands in Jewel Changi Airport in December 2020, she just had to get it.
“I thought they were really silly. They bring me joy.” said Ms Lim, who purchased a doll donning a crimson apple on its head.
Her best friend, Ms Jade Wee, who was with her when she made the buy, grew so enamoured with her friend’s new trinket that she soon went back to get her own Sonny Angel – hers wears a red rose as a hat.
The two 17-year-olds have since become Sonny Angel fanatics. Their collection boasts over 100 figurines, but Ms Lim and Ms Wee told The Straits Times that their first ones are among their most cherished.
First rolled out in 2004 by Japanese lifestyle company Dreams, the pocket-sized doll has gained renewed popularity in recent months, both internationally and in Singapore.
Priced from $12.50 to $16.50 each at retailers such as Japanese bookshop Kinokuniya and department store Hands – which Tokyu Hands was renamed to in 2022 – sales have skyrocketed.
Demand is so great that there are listings for some Sonny Angels on e-commerce platform Carousell that reach about 50 times the normal retail price.
A doll that brings ‘happiness’
The figurines are the brainchild of Dreams founder Toru Soeya, who named the dolls after his own nickname, Sonny.
Modelled after the Kewpie doll – which inspired the Japanese mayonnaise brand well-known to Singaporeans – Mr Soeya designed Sonny Angels to be a companion for working women in their twenties and launched them with the catchphrase: “He may bring you happiness.”
Each Sonny Angel has a pair of tiny wings and colourful, whimsical headgear, sometimes with a matching outfit.
Each doll is typically part of a set of 12 within the same series, which follow themes such as types of animals, flowers, or food.
Some series are available in a form called hippers, which can be stuck onto vertical surfaces such as computer desktops and mobile phones.
Sold in blind boxes, customers do not know which doll they are getting until opening the packaging – which Ms Wee said is a big draw of the collecting fad.
She said: “Because you don’t know what you’re going to get when unboxing, it gets really exciting to try and guess. And when you get the one you want, you’ll be really happy.”
This, however, can also make the experience frustrating, said Ms Lim and Ms Wee, as it can mean they may end up with designs they already own, or ones they do not like.
Growing community, growing demand
In order to sell and trade dolls with other fans, they set up a group on messaging platform Telegram in April.
The group has swelled to 865 members – about 250 of them joined since the end of September – and they discuss all things Sonny Angel, such as when restocks of the dolls are spotted at physical shops.
A check by ST showed that there are now at least two other similar groups on Telegram, one with around 600 members and the other, about 200.
A spokesperson for Hands said that it began selling Sonny Angels in December 2017, but that sales in September 2023 were three times higher than in the corresponding month in 2022.
The dolls tend to sell out around a week after each batch hits stores and restocks are irregular as suppliers often have low inventories, the spokesperson added.
As a result, popular Sonny Angels are sometimes resold for almost three times their original price online. Limited edition ones can even fetch up to $650 on Carousell.
An acquired taste for some
Many, however, still cannot wrap their heads around the craze.
Ms Lim’s mother, Ms Pinpin Jap, said that while she does not understand her daughter’s fixation with the figurines, she is supportive of the hobby as it makes Ms Lim happy.
She added that she often buys them for her daughter on her travels abroad as there are designs not available in Singapore. Aside from Japan, Sonny Angels can be found in about 30 countries, such as Malaysia, China and Australia.
Even some fans were not instantly drawn to the dolls.
“I thought they were weird and disconcerting because they’re just naked staring into your soul,” said Ms Yasmin Mohd Sani, who was introduced to Sonny Angels by a friend.
But things changed in June when the friend gifted her a Raccoon Dog Sonny Angel from the Japanese Good Luck series. Ms Yasmin even brought it along on her first day of work to calm her nerves, and has continued keeping it in her pocket almost everywhere she goes.
While she is not yet an avid Sonny Angel collector, she said that she has come to appreciate them as “charismatic little guys”.
She said: “I’m convinced everyone has their own Sonny, you just need to find the right one. It’s like having a friend to accompany you when you’re anxious.”
Ms Yasmin added that she enjoys coming up with storylines for the dolls with her friends and that they give people a chance to reconnect with their inner child.
It is one of the activities those immersed in the Sonny Angel subculture enjoy.
Collectors also enjoy taking photos of the dolls while out on excursions, or even while running day-to-day errands.
Some even purchase clothes and tiny furniture for their dolls from lifestyle shop Daiso – Sonny Angels are not manufactured with any additional accessories – or place the dolls in keychains originally made to display other toys.
Asked if they would ever get bored of collecting Sonny Angels, Ms Wee said: “I don’t think so, because there’s so many (designs).”
Ms Lim added: “Once in a while I stop buying them because I think I already have so many, but then I’ll see a doll that sparks my addiction all over again”.