Still here, still alive: Neo Happyland Inc.
Mamiya RB67 - Ilford Delta 3200
Sometimes it’s the little things that brings us a boost of serotonin; a distraction to take us away from what’s happening in our reality. Something that can shut out the negative thoughts and create a space for us where everything is alright.
What we enjoy doing can be anything, Maybe it’s experimenting cocktails with good company, listening to your favorite K-pop band and their podcasts, or collecting toys/figurines that reconnect to your childhood. There’s always something we enjoy doing, whether we discovered it or not, that sustains our mental health. Now my question for you is, “What are the little things that you enjoy?”
While you contemplate, I want to introduce you to a shop tucked away in a hidden corner of Chinatown that has been around for decades providing a quick escape from reality. Welcome to Neo Happyland. Family-owned hobby and toy store that specializes in plastic model kits, and collectible anime figures, Neo Happyland was passed down to the current owners Alan and Natalie Wan after Alan’s parents retired. Originally named Happyland, a subsidiary of Ng Hee Kee, a well-established Hong Kong book distributor. During its peak, there were six Happylands in So CA. The Bamboo plaza location opened in 1989 with a main selection including Chinese books, magazine, newspaper, CDs, VHS tapes, laserdiscs) and video rental. But in 1994, Happyland’s Bamboo Plaza branch was sold to Micheal and Linda Wen and the name of the store changed from Happyland, to Neo Happyland.
Over the years, Neo Happyland evolved from mainly selling books, magazines, DVDs and other Chinese pop culture products to a toy collectible and hobby store. Today the store specializes in Gundam Model kits (aka Gunpla) while carrying other brands of hobby products, tools, paint, collectible products and anime figurines. You can find this shop in Bamboo Plaza from the entrance on Hill St.
The amount of work that you both put together to operate Neo Happyland carries a heavy toll physically and mentally, and that’s not including other responsibilities outside of the shop. For some the fatigue that is endured and their toll on their mental health may be enough for someone to toss in the towel if there wasn’t anything that helped sustain them.
What brings you fulfillment that has sustained your mental health? What makes it worthwhile to keep coming to the office and keep the doors open?
If we were to break it down into 3 main reasons: sentimental value, responsibility, and passion.
I grew up in Bamboo Plaza; at its prime, visitors would line up for two hours to get the best Dim Sum in town at the Empress Pavilion. However, those times are long gone. Since the closure of the restaurant, the plaza had a hard time attracting new tenants and in turn, caused a sharp decline in foot traffic. Around that time is when my parents passed down the store to me. I promise you, it wasn’t a set up for me to fail. It was more circumstantial.
When the pandemic first hit, we had to face similar hardships faced by most small businesses when they reopened. We were then hit with a break-in, following a massive leak from the ceiling that flooded half of the shop, and it was rather hard to not question, “Why am I still doing this?”
The plaza was a time capsule for me. I know every corner of that building. Heck, I used to have a store on the second floor of that building, Robocon. I have a lot of good memories in both the shops I own and the building itself. I met my wife there, so in a sense, it’s true a second home for me. It is those feelings I have for the building, maybe even Chinatown as a whole, that kept me going.
The shop was passed down to me by my parents and it represents our journey as first-generation immigrants. It supported us throughout the years and it was something that we are proud of and I certainly want to keep it going. When the pandemic hit, there were legitimate issues that would prevent us from continuing Neo Happyland but it was that sense of responsibility and knowing that my parents had it tougher that kept us going.
Lastly, I am a toy collector. I like it so much, I have my own shop! Having this shop enables me to collect the things I like and share that passion with others. I curate the selection in the store and I rarely stock things that I don’t have an emotional connection with. Of all the things I collect, my favorite is Gunpla (Gundam Plastic Models). I appreciate the engineering behind every kit and the fulfillment you get when a project is completed. I enjoy having a physical space where I can share that passion with like-minded people, exchanging ideas on model building techniques and sharing the final product once it’s finished.