housing more than 10,000 vintage playthings dating back as far as the early 19th century, ben’s vintage toy museum is a veritable feast of nostalgic joy.
between its much-raved about food and well-photographed street art, penang’s george town is not lacking in attractions to charm tourists and keep them coming back to walk the city’s storied streets, peek inside pre-war shophouses and explore the clan jetties. adding to the allure, niche museums have sprung up within the core heritage zone in the last few years, each dedicated to a specific subject that you wouldn’t think is fascinating enough to fill up an entire gallery. admittedly, it’s all too easy to dismiss them as little more than tourist traps cashing in on the city’s growing appeal but take a closer look and treasures may abound.
taking up two units of a quiet stretch of low wooden buildings along lebuh acheh, ben’s vintage toy museum is one such unexpected find. the facade is a colourful mess of aiskrim potong chillers and random dolls that can pass for a convenience store until you spot the pasted letters that spell out its name. step in and you may take a while to adjust to the interiors – dim, except for the fluorescent lamps illuminating the floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets that plaster the walls.
the displays within are neatly arranged and grouped according to common themes: wind-up toys, tin vehicles that run on tiny wheels, plastic figurines with movable limbs and replicas of classic cars are among the vintage gems that greet you through the glass. the toys were amassed over a three-decade period and meant as a personal collection until owner malik ben, who used to run an antique gallery nearby and in kuala lumpur, decided to put them all under one roof and open the doors to the public.
“my father sourced them from all over the world,” reveals malik ben junior, who manages the museum, adding that some of the items were purchased off toy collectors. it was actually his grandfather, a sailor in his younger days, who began collecting interesting toys on his travels that started the family heritage. “we have some of the toys in duplicate numbers, and they’re available for sale if anyone is keen,” says ben junior.
on a quiet day, he would gladly give visitors a tour and explain the origins of each item. there’s a tabletop pinball machine from the 1960s that still works or you may like to take a closer look at the antique handheld viewfinder and perhaps play a game of bowling on a miniature plastic console. most of the toys in the museum are still in good working condition and visitors are encouraged to give them a try. although, you wouldn’t want to rest your weight on the wooden rocking horse, the museum’s oldest and one of its most precious acquisitions. made of mahogany, its origins can be traced to 1800s england.
those are just the tip of the museum’s 10,000-strong archive that includes black and white photographs, and superhero comics published in the 1950s.you do have to take your time browsing through, but think of it as a treasure hunt down your personal memory lane – if you’re old enough – or a lively history lesson that affords glimpses into what entertainment meant to the masses through the decades.
you will find yourself pausing often as nuggets of recollections come to mind, or marvelling at the authenticity of the displays – if you never thought you’d see a penny farthing in penang, head to the second floor gallery, where a 150-year-old model sits among children’s self-pedal cars and baby strollers. others may make you smile and wonder out loud: why, for example, is that plush spiderman riding a wooden horse above the staircase and where is he going?
full of surprises and teeming with nostalgic delights, like a toys ‘r’ us cocooned in a time bubble, this is one museum that doesn’t just capture the zeitgeist of eras past but in its exhibits, you may just see your own history too.
ben’s vintage toy museum 55 lebuh acheh, george town, penang opens 9am-6.30pm daily admission rm6/adult; rm3/child
this story first appeared in the edge review