I have been chasing Hoang Thai for a TFSource Collector Interview for what feels like years! While I admit that initially it was the prospect of seeing grandiose displays of multiples and expansive shelves full of entire sub-lines that attracted me to the idea, I have since come to cherish Hoang’s insight, enthusiasm and superb attitude towards the hobby and all the people in it. From all the way down under, and soon at a show called TFNation near you, I’m genuinely honoured to be able to give Hoang a platform to share his story, his enthusiasm and his perceptive opinions.
1) Who are you and what do you collect?
My name’s Hoang Thai and I enjoy the privilege of being a Transformers collector. But I wasn’t always a collector. I’ve been a Transformers fan forever but like many I endured a long period away as “I grew up.” In the intervening years though, I always watched with interest from afar. Be it the odd browse of a TF book or comic at a garage sale/op shop, a turn of the nose at Beast Wars, a quick search of the nascent internet for Transformers, or discovering the little beautiful corner of the web that was TFArchive, I was always in touch with the franchise.
Trying to be one of the cool kids kept it a closeted interest. That made it hard to return to collecting. The turning point was Dreamwave. I read lots of comics because it was easy to be a closet geek that way but Transformers comics had been long non-existent. The arrival of The War Within and Dreamwave’s G1 comics re-ignited the latent nostalgia that had always bubbled beneath the surface. For once I was grateful for my mum’s habit of holding onto anything of sentimental value as I salvaged what little remained of my childhood collection. For awhile however, I was still too tepid to actually collect but that changed in late 2004 when spare disposable income started rolling in as I started working and I collected my first new Transformer in years. The rest, as they say, is history.
An important person I have to acknowledge and thank is Louise, my wife. Not just for her tolerance but her support, acceptance and encouragement of my hobby. I think it’s fairly obvious from my photos that Transformers consume a lot of my life. Not just in mind, but money and space as well. The photos in the living areas represent a good day in our house. There are days where finding space for a cup of tea on the coffee table can be like finding an Autobot in Kaon. Boxes often amass around the house like rubble on Iacon after a Decepticon assault. Recycling bins regularly overflow with packaging like M.T.O.’s from the Corcapsia Incursion.
But beyond putting up with the myriad inconveniences that my collecting can bring, I think Louise has enabled me to confidently continue my collecting. I always expected a concession that I’d have to make was to curb my collecting in both value and volume. This hasn’t happened and my only constraint is space. No matter what size of house I buy, I am 99.99% sure that I will always find a way to scale my collection up to fit. (Trust me, I’ve given this a lot of thought!). So I owe Louise a great deal in enabling me to pursue this privilege with fervour.
Today, I collect most things Transformers but the core of my collection is what I term Neo-G1. As much as I’m down for Masterpiece, and they are nice pieces, what I love about Transformers is the modernised look of the toys. I just don’t want my G1 toys with modern engineering and articulation, I want their look to evolve as well.
There are two other particular niches too that I more than dabble in: clear Transformers and black-repaints. Every clear Transformer to me feels like a sparkling, shiny jewel that elevates the hobby in some illogical way that already having thousands upon thousands of toys doesn’t.
Another peculiarity about my collecting is the amount of duplicates I buy. Every figure I have in my collection has at least one spare. It’s an expensive habit. Louise can barely tell Optimus Prime from Bumblebee but she was decidedly less than enthusiastic when she started discovering this trait. There are a couple of rationales. One is that I like to have multiple displays. I have the “Showcase Displays” upstairs which are less cluttered than the “Box Displays” or the “Collection Displays”. A figure can fit in any one of those so spares are needed (and that’s why I could max out any house!).
My buying of multiples has died down in recent years. Once upon time in the Classics/Henkei era, my fear was that neo-G1 was only a fleeting side interest to Hasbro/Takara. So I fervently scooped up multiples of these figures thinking that it wasn’t going to last. I was wrong. In recent years between the love the third party scene and Hasbro have shown G1, it’s now clear that G1 in all its forms is here to stay and I’ve been able to scale back buying so many multiples and enjoy a more diverse range of offerings; some that improve on past iterations, some not so much.
You’ll find I dabble in other sci-fi toylines quite heavily too, from Halo/Destiny Mega Bloks to Macross, but Transformers is the cornerstone of my collection. There was a tug of war for a little while but Transformers won out. Easily. The other lines vie for space in the study (not pictured here) but a few shelves have been reserved in the premium cabinets of the Transformers toy room. In the room setup, I constantly toyed with their eviction but they’re here to stay. But with Beast Wars or Car Robots lacking any meaningful shelf presence…
2) How has the collecting scene changed over the last 10 years?
How it has changed! The most fundamental change to me has been how open the collecting community has become. Enabled by a proliferation of forums, blogs and social media, there are more ways to interact with other collectors, discover figures and rediscover figures than ever before. This has helped shape a thriving, diverse and creative community which helps power conventions like Botcon, TFCon, and TFNation.
Of course, there’s also the big third party component of change. No other franchise has a thriving third party scene like Transformers does. That speaks volumes about the success and power of the brand.
Retailing has changed too. No longer are retail outlets limited to the big retailers and BBTS/TFSource. There are so many options across different countries to gain access, especially early access, to toys. It has changed the thrill of the hunt, reducing the importance of retail finds, and created a competitive reviewing community that’s great for collectors.
But more important than the pathways to purchase or the range of offerings are how the design goals and principles have evolved over time. Car Robots brought back real-life vehicles, the Unicron Trilogy emphasised light, sound, combine and trigger-based play features. Diecast and real life was king with BTs and early Masterpiece. Over the course of that time we saw an evolution in the expectation of what should be achieved with articulation. These all collided spectacularly with the Movie toys which were over-engineered but met high standards of accuracy, style and poseability which seem to be the current third party motif. Animated and early TF:Prime saw toy designs that evoked the personalities of the characters they represented. Masterpiece moved away from diecast to a hybrid toy-screen accuracy then whiplashed to cartoon accuracy. Mainline toys have lower plastic quality but are now designed to encourage higher interaction and play value.
That’s a reader’s digest but I think those have all been fascinating changes to be a part of in the last 10 years. Yes, it’s led me to acquiring figures I regret owning now (and have too many multiples of!) but collecting is more than collecting figures. As @inkybauds once put it, it’s about collecting stories.
3) How do you see, or hope to see the scene changing in 5 years time?
The high end will get more high end. I think the evolution of markets dictates that the more successful a market grows, the more fragmented the market becomes. We’re seeing more and more high-end offerings that cater to very particular niches in the market. Masterpieces are offering more engineering innovations and accessories that surpass DX Chogokin standards which is reflected in the increasingly costly prices.
We’re already seeing the third party market, offical or unofficial, fragment more and more, trying to cater to different tastes and styles. Third party companies are trying to carve out niches like Iron Factory with Legends, Generation Toys with their Beast G1 or IDW-verse toys, or ToyWorld with their Studio Ox leanings. It’s necessary in such a hot market to experiment and find a basis for survival. I expect failures along the way but I think all this experimentation means there’s no better time to be a collector.
4) What has been your single biggest success as a collector or your greatest ever find?
My greatest ever find was a mid year toy sale launch night. Animated toys had just been released and boy were they different. Myself and a dozen fellow collectors from Ozformers were camping out at K-Mart waiting for the midnight launch. There was a rival retailer that had a cheaper price which we were hoping to price-match. To our surprise when one of us went through and price-matched, we not only got the cheaper price but also the standard 20% off. Basically all of us picked up the entire first wave assortment at close to 50% off.
Afterwards we rolled out to the local McDonalds, one of the cars (mine) blasting tunes from the TFTM Soundtrack. It was an early Thursday morning by the time we finished and I had work in a few hours. The shared nature of this moment has kept this as one of my fondest collecting memories. With the way retailing has changed, I doubt I’ll experience that ever again. It’s also part of the reason why I look upon Animated quite nostalgically and am ecstatic about the TFNation exclusive comic.
5) What is the most surprising or most outrageous collecting story you have ever heard?
Gosh, I don’t think there’s a story I’ve got that exceeds some of the incredulity heard here previously. A good friend of mine once found a Fortress Maximus body for close to nothing at an op shop literally in the middle of nowhere. It was in pretty good nick and much cheaper than the $1K I’d recently dropped on one.
6) If you could pick one item from your collection to keep, what would it be?
This is tough. It shouldn’t be. I’ve thought about this after every other collector interview I’ve read but it’s nice having the option of being non-committal.
If I had to choose one, it’d have to be a standalone figure. Something that I could look at and never make me feel like I only had a small fragment of the whole. I’m going to have to go with SparkToys Alpha Spark, aka War Within Optimus Prime. Stand alone figure? For the moment. Futuristic alt mode? Check. Huge nostalgia? Check. Premium format? Check. Shelf presence? Check.
More than the figure though, the War Within series marked a critical re-entry point for me into collecting. With a fresh new stream of disposable income, it would have been easy for me to find other avenues to throw away my hard earned but something in War Within sparked that magic I felt as a kid.
7) If you could have one collection out of someone else’s collection, what would that be?
Botcon 2006 Beast Wars Megatron. A reluctant latecomer to Beast Wars, I failed to fully appreciate the seismic impact of Beast Wars until much later. Not only did it revitalise the toy line but it moved the mythos in a significant way at a time when it had no obligation to. The interweaving of sci-fi concepts into a prehistoric era full of beasts and dinosaurs was masterful and Megatron was at the heart of this. Ruthless and calculated, with a touch of lightheartedness, this incarnation of Megatron elevated the template for the rivalling faction’s leader. Not until MTMTE did we see such progress again. This figure, and that Botcon year, captures the futuristic essence of that era in a way the beast modes alone couldn’t. I can only hope to someday acquire this piece from a fellow collector for an affordable price. Fingers crossed!
8 ) What advice would you give to a new collector starting out today?
I can imagine the plethora of niches and manufacturers being overwhelming for a new collector. If I were to summarise what I’d tell my younger self in a few bullet points, it’d be:
1. Take your time.
2: Try whatever takes your fancy.
3: Don’t worry about what other collectors think.
Make sure you spend time with a new figure. Get to know it. So often it takes three to four transformations to figure out the nuances of a new toy. Don’t rush it. Take your time, experience it to the max. With so many figures released now it’s easy to only get a surface appreciation of your figures as you chase after the next shiny thing.
The one thing I think you should be willing to do is to try whatever you like the look of. There’s so many dimensions now to buying a figure: Is there another competing version on the horizon, will it scale well with other figures I like, will there be a higher quality upsize of it, will it get a better exclusive repaint, will someone make add-ons for it, or will [insert reviewer] be reviewing it soon?
I think this dimensionality runs parallel with not letting other collectors detract from your desire for or enjoyment of a figure. It is a wonderful thing that more than ever there are so many avenues to getting feedback about a figure, but I’ve also seen spaces of negativity that relentlessly critique and denigrate rival options or question the validity or accuracy of a figure. But it is subjective. There are so many dimensions a figure can be assessed on that it will vary for each and every collector.
It’s really easy to let all these things paralyse your newfound collecting enjoyment. That’s true even for the veteran collector, let alone a newcomer. But it shouldn’t. My advice is if you really like the look of something, get it. Your collecting should be one of the greatest personal privileges you enjoy. And no one should be allowed to take that away from you. So. Don’t. Let. Them.
Will you occasionally buy a lemon? Yes. Will you eventually trade up for a better version? Will you like something that a lot of people hate? Definitely. Most likely. Will you be burnt when a company doesn’t see a project through to its completion? Probably.
But I think that’s part of the enjoyment of this privilege we have. It happens in the time scale of years and years. Not days and weeks. It will evolve and it will change. But being able to be a part of that change, that evolution, that’s what makes collecting fun.
Many kind and gracious thanks to Hoang Thai for words and photographs.
All the best