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Hong Kong: 'The real Santa's grotto'

By Grigory Kravtsov, for CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 0451 GMT (1251 HKT)
2,000 exhibitors from 39 countries took part this year, the most ever.
2,000 exhibitors from 39 countries took part this year, the most ever.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hong Kong hosted the second largest toy fair in the world this week
  • Buyer likens it to a "Santa's paradise"
  • The city's toy industry is on an uptick, according to fair's organizer
  • Safety regulations for toy manufacturing in China have improved

Hong Kong (CNN) -- You may think Santa's grotto is hidden in a snow-covered Arctic cabin, but those in the know say its real location is Hong Kong's cavernous harbor-front convention center.

Each January for the past 40 years, the world's toy makers have converged on the city for the international toy fair -- the world's second largest.

Eyes peeled for next Christmas's must-have toy, buyers scour some 2,000 stalls that tout everything from classical wooden blocks to high-tech remote control gadgets.

"It's like Santa's paradise, there's absolutely everything that you can dream of here," said one Russian buyer who identified himself as Sergey.

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Bringing joy one wooden toy at a time

The fair, which finished on Thursday, featured everything from virtual pet rabbits to an area that showed how toys have therapeutic benefits for both children and the elderly.

Hong Kong's toy industry, which has struggled in recent years, may be slowly returning to its glory days, according to the fair's organizer.

Although the factory floors that were once dotted across the city are now in mainland China, Hong Kong still maintains its status as a hub for the toy industry.

"Hong Kong is the world's toy town," said C.K. Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Toys Advisory Committee.

"The designs, engineering, support services and also sales and marketing platforms, these are all in Hong Kong, so buyers are coming here to shop."

Alex Wong, sales manager of Wange Industrial Co based in China, which sells toy blocks, says the city is the ideal place to showcase his wares to the international market.

"Hong Kong is a financial center, we can introduce our products there," he said.

Safety concerns

China's reputation as a toy manufacturer took a hit in the last decade over safety concerns. In the largest scandal in 2007, millions of Chinese-made toys were recalled due to lead contamination.

Toy helicopter  Toy helicopter
Toy helicopterToy helicopter

But Yeung said that standards were improving and were now equivalent to those found in the United States or Europe.

Among the new standards is a ban introduced last year on six kinds of phthalates -- substances that can be absorbed through the skin and are believed to cause hormone malfunctions and deformations.

The move was widely praised by numerous activist groups such as Greenpeace.

Remi Leclerc, a professor who teaches toy design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says while the city remains an industry hub, Hong Kong has struggled to develop its own toy brands, instead specializing in manufacturing for big, multinational players.

"Hong Kong is trying to move away from that model, the revenue is developing a brand and being able to strategically manage it," he said. "Breaking that glass ceiling has been difficult here."

Leclerc also said Hong Kong must think carefully how it can stay ahead of mainland China, which has been making strides in both quality and marketing.

"Hong Kong at this point has no competitors in terms of training and developing that know-how, not only on that production level but also in the future in terms of value creation," he said.

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