Site icon Southeast Asia Globe

Bring up the bodies

Decades of expertise and exquisite attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Museum, which is also home to the region’s largest and most diverse doll collection

Text and photography by James MacDonald

The fluorescent lights, popping and buzzing, take a second to flicker on. It is too much to take in at first. But slowly, the figures and faces begin to take shape. Thousands of dolls and figures of every shape and size stare blankly into space.

Ladies in red: traditional Chinese dolls, in their elaborate costumes and headdresses, smile daintily at the Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Museum. Photo: James McDonald

The Chiang Mai Doll Making Centre and Museum was established nearly 50 years ago by the Boonprakong family. Youthana Boonprakong, known as Mr Lek, learned how to make dolls as a child and eventually took over the business from his mother.

Best face forward: colourful Thai dolls dazzle in pretty jewels. Photo: James McDonald

Dolls in traditional costume from communities around the world line the museum’s halls. Figures from Canada, Bolivia, Austria, Hungary, Australia, Switzerland, Taiwan, China, Brazil, South Africa, France, New Zealand and more – close to 100 nationalities and ethnic groups in total – are all represented in the carefully organised and well-kept displays. 

Many hands: a factory worker scrapes away excess porcelain following the removal of doll parts from their moulds. Photo: James McDonald

There are almost 50,000 dolls in the museum and, glancing over them, Mr Lek knows exactly where and when he acquired each and every one, and is able to relay its unique history and its place within the collection. 

Organised chaos: a traditional hill tribe costume is stitched together by one of the factory’s workers. Photo: James McDonald

Along with dolls from around the world, the museum also includes dolls that are made onsite by hand. Traditional hill tribe dolls, representing the indigenous groups of northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, come with immaculately reproduced traditional costumes that are informed by Mr Lek’s extensive hill tribe contacts.

Figure it out: tiny wigs are glued to the heads of each doll, bringing them to life. Photo: James McDonald

International orders are placed from European countries including Germany, France and Switzerland, while the Japanese have also begun to take note of the unique hand-crafted selection. 

Stuck on you: glue gun in hand, a factory worker applies the finishing touches to a range of brightly coloured dolls. Photo: James McDonald

“The market used to be much bigger, but times have changed,” says Mr Lek. 

Cover yourself up: a pile of dolls is dressed in the cobalt blue of traditional hill tribe costumes. Photo: James McDonald

With close to 60 years in the industry, however, Mr Lek is wise to its ebbs and flows. Local and regional demand has stayed relatively strong, and the factory continues to hum with activity. 

Open and shut case: Mr Lek inspects the giant kiln that fires the moulds for the porcelain doll parts. Photo: James McDonald

And so the days go: porcelain is poured and shaped; costumes are researched and crafted; and dolls reflecting the history, diversity and cultures of this corner of the world are brought to vivid life. 

James Macdonald is a Canadian photographer, photojournalist, cinematographer and multimedia producer who has worked in Asia, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Americas. He first picked up a camera
in 2004 after high school, travelling and working his way through Europe.
He has been based in Asia since 2013.

Keep reading:
“Fire and brimstone” – Wickedly sweet iced coffee is a signature beverage in Southeast Asia, but its sugary kick comes at a price for miners in East Java who battle toxic fumes and treacherous terrain to provide the sulphur used to process sugarcane

Exit mobile version