Playing With Toys For Ideas And Inspiration At Work

Alvin Tan from the National Heritage Board loves designer toys. But they do not just sit pretty on his display shelves. They become part of the work he does.

Alvin Tan’s passion revolves around collecting figurines of all shapes and sizes.

Workspace or toy store? In Alvin Tan’s office, figurines of all shapes and sizes line his bookshelf and cabinet­ – some of them still in unopened boxes. You’ll find familiar faces like Wonder Woman, Stormtroopers, and even a little figurine shaped like a coronavirus (with a bottle of hand sanitiser, of course).

It began with Star Wars, and the force has been with him ever since.

“My interest in toys started when my parents bought me my first Star Wars action figures (C3PO and R2D2) after we watched A New Hope in 1977,” the Deputy Chief Executive (Policy and Community) at the National Heritage Board (NHB) said.

“Toys, in general, remind me of my childhood. I guess I had fun collecting them as a boy and I wanted to extend it into my adulthood.”

Alvin’s love for toys transitioned into adulthood.

Beyond Nostalgia

But it goes beyond nostalgia. Alvin’s hobby reflects one of his deep-seated values: creativity. He is drawn to designer toys because of their unique designs and innovative features.

“As a kid, I would use my toys to come up with new storylines, break characters out of their defined roles, and lose myself in imaginary worlds. I wanted to hold on to this sense of curiosity and creative play, and to apply them to my work,” he said.

Among other things, Alvin’s work involves thinking up ways to boost visitor numbers at NHB’s heritage institutions. For this reason, he is always curious about what museums around the world are up to and how innovations even beyond his sector can be applied to the work he does.

Alvin’s job also involves boosting visitor numbers to NHB’s heritage institutions.

Dabbling With Ideas

In 2018, Alvin and his team were looking for a fun way to promote public awareness and appreciation of Singapore’s national monuments. He suggested a giant inflatable mascot that travels from monument to monument on weekends as part of a social media campaign.

“We wanted a mascot that would be eye-catching and associated with the past, so I thought of local toy designer Wu Ziqi’s Monster Little creations,” Alvin said.

The public loved the inflatable dinosaurs, and Alvin and his teams were encouraged to feature more toys in their outdoor installations.

Installing Art At The Museums

Since then, the NHB has worked with Hong Kong artist Sunny Tam for an outdoor installation at the Sun Yat-Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. Called “Rolling in Abundance”, it featured four life-sized roly-poly fish lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2020.

Tam’s works are known for their bulbous designs. The globular fish were doubly symbolic: roundness sounds similar to the Mandarin word for a reunion, and the design also pays homage to the full and bright mid-autumn moon.
Tam’s works are known for their bulbous designs. The globular fish were doubly symbolic: roundness sounds similar to the Mandarin word for a reunion, and the design also pays homage to the full and bright mid-autumn moon. Fish hold significance in Chinese culture too, symbolising completeness and abundance. Photo credit: Sun Yat-Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

For the Lunar New Year this year, the Sun Yat-Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall joined hands with artists Tan Yizi and Lee Hsieh-Lung of Blackbox, a design and collectible label based in Chengdu, China.

Browsing the artists’ Instagram account, what caught Alvin’s attention were toy figures of guardian lions, traditionally placed at the entrances to houses and buildings to protect them. The artists had created cuter versions of these lions, which Alvin thought would work well for the lawn installation. 

quirky-alvin-05-Double Prosperity - photo courtesy of SYSNMH
“Double Prosperity” reiterates the belief that good things come in pairs, and served as an expression of the memorial hall’s wish for protection against the COVID-19 pandemic and blessings for Singapore’s economic recovery and well-being of all Singaporeans. Photo credit: Sun Yat-Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

“Our lawn installations are generally very popular and the visitor numbers are usually very good,” Alvin noted.

Of course, aesthetics are only part of the equation.

“We always adopt a more modern, youth-oriented and pop culture take while retaining the traditional and cultural elements,” Alvin said.

“That’s how we distinguish ourselves from other installations that you might find at Chinese Garden or Gardens by the Bay, while relating and linking back to the cultural and festive elements.”


Alvin points out that there was initial scepticism from his colleagues about toy-inspired installations. But they came around after he brought some of his collection to meetings and shared photographs to help them visualise how the installations would materialise.

There is also the challenge of making sure a toy design or an artist’s work can be translated appropriately for the theme of a project.

For example, Alvin had wanted to work with Malaysian artist Kamwei Fong to use his cat illustrations for the Malay Heritage Centre’s lawn installation next year. But it was not meant to be because of technical difficulties.

“When his illustrations (created using tiny individual strokes) are enlarged, they will become pixelated and this would compromise the quality of the installation,” Alvin said.

There is also the issue of ensuring a designer is willing or available to collaborate with the NHB. For this reason, Alvin is always on the lookout for young and emerging talent to work with, and he is already on the hunt for possible designers and artists to work with for next year’s series of outdoor installations.

Alvin explains that blending passion with hobbies

Marrying Hobbies With Work

Alvin’s toys have been part of his workspace for the last 10 years. Apart from providing inspiration, they help him relax when he needs to take a break and serve as a conversation starter, especially when meeting new staff.

“I feel that bringing a fun hobby like collecting toys to the workplace makes me more relatable and approachable,” Alvin said.

He acknowledges that he has been lucky to be able to blend his passions and hobbies with work. And he believes where possible, officers should try to marry their personal interests to their work to achieve some semblance of work-life balance.

“My advice would be to join an organisation whose mission and culture are aligned with the values of your hobbies/passions,” Alvin said, adding that officers should find ways to show how these hobbies and passions can contribute to the work they do.

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The Takeaway

  1. Sharing hobbies is one way to build rapport with colleagues
  2. Blending passions and hobbies with work could help achieve some semblance of work-life balance
  3. Join an organisation whose mission and culture aligns with your values
    Jun 9, 2021
    Keval Singh
    Teck Lim
    Keval Singh
    Yip Siew Fei
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