By Josh Jewell
Everything you need to understand about the differences between Korean and British social development—and, therefore, the material inequalities engendered by globalisation more broadly—can be seen in the contrast between the two nations’ approaches to stuffed-toy construction.
I awoke on the morning of Friday 13th July at a friend's apartment in the Samyang-Dong suburb of Seoul, South Korea, to a text from my editor telling me that fights and even small riots had broken out in Build-A-Bear workshops across Britain and the US.
At first, I laughed. I inhaled some coffee and bore my laptop with me onto the balcony overlooking the northern skyline of Seoul. The throbbing, luminescent apple on my laptop joined the symphony of light that rang around the city. In the heat of the moment, I tapped away at a fluff-piece entitled “The Right to Build-And-Bear Arms" or something equally witty.
The comedy of the situation was so obvious that the ever-prescient Twittersphere joked earlier that the announcement of Build-A-Bear Workshop’s ‘Pay Your Age’ offer—where children could assemble a cuddly comrade in exchange for as many pounds sterling as they had years—would lead to violent scraps between beleaguered parents, hoping to secure for their child the intentionally scarce toy they desire beyond all reason.
Before the morning ended, however, I would guiltily CTRL+A, CTRL+X the entire article after realising the harrowing implications of that bloody day. Coincidentally, that day, my host in Seoul was taking her own son to South Korea’s equivalent of Build-A-Bear Workshop -- the austerely named ‘Centre for Research into Stuffed Animal Engineering’.
After completing a draft of my article, I sat watching my host’s son rendering something using CAD (Computer Aided Design). Having attended to a series of particularly intricate extrusions, the boy explained to me that he was busy designing a customised teddy. I asked him if he meant teddy bear. He laughed wryly. The “bear” part of the name is a relic from Victorian Britain where anthropomorphised Ursidae were popularised by early department stores such as Selfridges; today, he told me, the teddy can be any unholy hybrid of species. He anticipates just another three weeks of work before he can finally upload the CAD file to the Construct-A-Teddy database, where it will be 3D printed at a facility about 20 kilometres outside Seoul, and posted to him free of charge. This efficient package is all part of his birthday present. He is seven years old.
(For legal reasons, he explains, he doesn't want to disclose the details of his design, but he assures me it will be entirely anatomically original, while remaining very cuddly.)
It was only now, sitting in a plush office in a Seoul apartment, witnessing the level of sophistication of Korean toy design compared with the hackneyed manual self-assembly still demanded of British bear-lovers, that the full implications of the fights in Build-A-Bear Workshop become apparent.
My laughter had shattered, the pieces tumbling into a mosaic of bourgeois self-loathing. Everything you need to understand about the differences between Korean and British social development—and, therefore, the material inequalities engendered by globalisation more broadly—can be seen in the contrast between the two nations’ approaches to stuffed-toy construction.
In the wake of the Korean war, South Korea was forced to pursue brutal economic protectionist measures in order to develop its domestic industries, and fend off international competition to its burgeoning motoring and electronics companies. Today, despite the repressions of being closed to the world economy for decades, South Korean technology now leads the world. It is on the wave of this embrace of automation that my host’s son could so skilfully construct his ideal soft companion in the calm environs of his home.
By contrast, the chaotic crush that those poor parents had to endure in shopping centres across the western world on 12th July, gives an insight into some of the forgotten experiences of the new global working class that has been created by an international free market. While Margaret Thatcher’s disciplining of labour in the 1980s saw a shift away from domestic production, the lacunae of technological development in Britain meant that the nation was ill-equipped to keep up with the demand for cuddly toys. Exhausted parents, who, after their unions had lost all their bargaining power, were now working longer hours than ever, now have to spend what little down-time they have carting their screaming children to shopping centres in order to join the production line and assemble ‘Boris the Badger’ or ‘Curtis the Cowboy Panda’ by hand.
Despite promises to the contrary from Thatcher’s neoliberal economic policymakers, the productive base in Britain had not been moved overseas in a great stride forward for the nation’s development -- it had simply been hidden away. Those who joined the production line at Build-A-Bear Workshops found it: a little time-capsule of Fordist production that no amount of economic thinktankery could disappear.
Build-A-Bear Workshop was founded in Oregon in 1809 by Northwest Passage fur traders. Along with consignments of furs from local hunters, the traders would often receive small woodland animals for cheap fur or as food for their dogs. Eventually some traders began taxiderming these smaller animals and selling them. Such was the popularity of these small stuffed animals that a group of traders eventually set up shops in the largest towns along the trade route where customers could stuff skunks and weasels themselves, in-store. Soon, surplus materials were used to tailor waistcoats and hats for these little taxidermied creatures, which could be purchased as optional extras.
And so, Build-A-Bear workshop was born. Today the Workshop franchise owns over 100 shops in 200 countries, including Bygg-En-Bjørn in Norway, Tóg-Ainmhí-Bréagán in Ireland, and Rakentaakäsin-Uutuusleluiksi in Finland, which literally translates as ‘The Place Where Stuffed Animals Can Be Self-Assembled As Toys for Children and Sometimes Adults’.
Today, the violence that erupts when there is a particularly tantalizing offer at the Workshop reveals some unsettling truths about the economic climate in which we live. What happened on 12th July serves as a barometric reading of the lived realities on the other side of the international division of labour from the one most of us experience in our daily lives. It should alert us to the fact that the changes in the global economy over the last 30 years have not by any means been beneficial for everyone. The question that remains is, how much longer can we bear this?