Photos courtesy of Maybeary’s Bears of Singapore
Residing in Singapore, which bear artist May Wong calls “multicultural and modern,” Wong draws from inspiration the world over to create her quirky and humorous bear designs. A great admirer of animated movies, Wong doesn’t hesitate to admit that she borrows a little bit of this and a little bit of that to cultivate her comical bear expressions.
“Cartoon characters do give me great inspiration,” she admitted to me in her Teddy Bear & Friends interview. “I really like Quick Draw McGraw, Scooby-Doo, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, the Tasmanian Devil, and, of course, Yogi Bear. Photos of animals that I see on Facebook or on the Internet are also a big source of inspiration. I love elaborating and even exaggerating on the features — a little like a caricature style that is wacky and hilarious.”
When Wong isn’t turning on a Saturday-morning cartoon or channel-surfing to find a classic Looney Tunes offering, she is sitting and envisioning what she can coax forward to amuse her collectors. Getting her fan base to chuckle and guffaw is what her work is all about: “My philosophy is bringing happiness to people with my bears. When a person looks at my bear and laughs out loud, I know it is a success. My work brings to people the message of joy and laughter — I want it to be the brighter and lighter side of life. My business motto is this, ‘Bear with Me, as you will laugh and love me!’”
Wong’s preference has always been to make one-of-a-kind characters; she does make limited-edition runs when commissioned by a shop or retailer to do so. Sitting down and planning out what to conjure up, Wong first considers the expression. She faces the bears’ faces before moving on to their bodies. “I make faces that talk to the people. I want their expressions to say, ‘I know you love me. Take me home!’ I believe that collectors will only buy bears that communicate to them. I put a lot of feeling into the bears’ faces because of this. I have done eyelids, large noses with embroidery yarn, clay, leather, and open mouths with clay teeth and suede tongues. A lot can be said through the bears’ mouths and even their eyes can talk,” she pointed out.
To help promote her business, and the avocation of bear collecting and bear making, Wong has taken part in television shows, documentaries, and on-site demonstrations at bear fairs. She also runs workshops, teaching the skill to a new generation of bear enthusiasts, and oversees a bear repair hospital.
“I started to learn about teddy bear making in 1997. I became a full-time bear maker in 1999, teaching workshops and making my animals. That lasted for about six years,” she said. “After that, I went back to doing it more as a part-time business. I would like to do it full-time once more.”
Looking back at her large amount of offerings, Wong was pleased by what she had accomplished. “I love to constantly change and innovate new ideas. I do not like to repeat the same patterns over and over again. Even if I changed to a new fabric, I don’t want it to be the same bear done over and over once more.”
When we concluded our interview in 2016, Wong was optimistic that she would continue to flourish and grow in the bear business, even if it was an uphill battle: “Sadly, I think, it is a shame that Singapore has not come to the level of acceptance of teddy bears as an art or adult collection, unlike other Asian countries like Japan and Korea, who have huge and successful teddy bear shows and museums. In our country, people relate art to musical plays, pottery, painting, or sculptures. To most people here, teddy bears are toys for kids and should not cost so much. Back in the late 1990s, Singapore had 10 teddy artist bear shops and about two teddy bear fairs a year. To date, I think we have one shop left and no more teddy bear shows or probably one in a year. Singapore teddy artists have all turned part-time or given it up to make a living via other means, and I am one of them, but I have not given up yet.”
If May Wong’s wildest dreams could come true, she has one wish that she hopes to fulfill. “I aspire one day to set up and run a teddy bear museum here in Singapore, like the Korean and Japanese ones. That would bring me such a great deal of happiness,” she revealed. I’m sure that the visitors to her museum would be smiling and laughing the whole day through.