“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
-Kofi Annan, 7th UN Secretary General
To this day, Barbie is adored like a Goddess and still treasured by the people of Taishan, Taiwan. Presently, the community of Taishan is preserving Barbie’s legacy with a small Mattel museum displaying the employees' uniforms, pay slips, documents, several vintage Barbies' and photos addressing the history of Mattel in Taishan.
In 1967, Mattel Inc. brought manufacturing to the rural town of Taishan to lower the cost of production. Taiwan was a small agricultural island, about the size of West Virginia 112 miles off the coast of Southeast China.
The factory started with 20 employees. At the height of manufacturing, the factory employed 1 in every 3 residents of Taishan and opened up 3 more factories in Taiwan. When the factory opened, eight workers operated one molding machine producing 180 of Barbie’s plastic body parts during an eight-hour shift. By 1981, only two workers ran a machine and made more than 2,000 body parts during their shift. The economy of the Taishan economy grew 9.5% from 1960 to 1989, and by 6.4% from 1990 to 1995. When the factory closed in 1987, it employed more than 8,000 women. In 1987 the factory closed and Mattel moved to China and Indonesia.
The Taishan community thrived during the 1960s' and 1970s' and Taishan soon became a vibrant industrialized town. Many of the factory workers said they were able to live a good life and provide for their families.
Ku Tsuei-eh, the founder of the Taishan Doll Museum says, "Barbie helped shape the lives of many Taishan residents." Ku was a freelance contractor and was part of the 1/3 labor force that was contracted outside the main factory. Ku made $10 a day and also sewed Barbie's outfits in her spare time. She says, "it was good money, so good you wanted to work all day and didn't feel like sleeping." Ku was able to watch her children while sewing dresses for Barbie. Many of the women made more money than their husbands that worked on a farm.
In 1971, Chou Su-chin, a former factory worker who started packaging Barbies when she was 18 years old, said, “I’d never seen anything as beautiful as Barbie. I loved the dolls so much, I really miss my job.” She said the factory had a strong union and that Mattel treated the workers well. Mattel offered free room and board at no cost, employees were offered free language and math classes, access to an on-site medical clinic and overtime pay. Mattel even offered extracurricular activities such as photography, flower arrangement, dancing, sports, and fishing. Mattel also threw worker parties and invited Taiwanese singers to perform. During the holidays there would be a bus to take the employees to visit their family.
Chou still carries around her Mattel I.D. badge. The factory workers worked eight-hour days and were paid overtime. She made $1.00 a day which was a little higher than Taiwan’s average wage at the time, which was 60 cents. She states, “Every day we’d get rice porridge and steamed buns for breakfast, for lunch, we’d get rice, vegetables and meat dishes. We were also fed on Sunday," their day off. Chou continues, "Mattel helped me have a family." Chou and her soon-to-be husband traveled to Taishan with hardly any money but were able to save enough with the free room and board to ultimately buy their own home.
Chou also adds, “the women who worked there had reputations for being beautiful and precious, just like the Barbie dolls. Three-quarters of the employees were women and it was known, if you wanted a wife, go to the Mattel factory. Young men would gather near the Mattel factory, hoping that they could attract a “Mattel Lady.”
The production of Barbie in Taiwan brought riches and jobs to a poor country and transformed Taishan, Taiwan into a vibrant economy that continues to this day. The Taishan Doll Museum holds a candle to the legacy of Barbie and shows how an 11 1/2" doll brought employment, happiness, sustainability, community, self-confidence and female empowerment to a small underdeveloped island.