By now, the craze of loom bands or rainbow loom has reached Malaysia,. although it had already reached its craziness in the west since early of the year. Originally targeted at kids from eight to fourteen-year-old, somehow the loom bands disease has spread its tentacles to adults all around the world – from Pope Francis, David Beckham to the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and Prince William.
At one point, it was so crazy that a Briton – Helen Smith – who tried to earn £50 by putting a dress made entirely from 24,000 colourful rubber bands on eBay, but got a shock of her life when the dress modelled by her 12-year-old daughter Sian was snapped for a jaw-dropping £170,000 (US$276,000; RM900,000). Not bad for something made purely from rubber bands, the same materials used by many Malaysian poor kids in the 1970s to make skipping or jumping ropes.
More than 40-years ago, many poor kids couldn’t afford expensive toys, let alone smartphone or tablets. But they were creative in making their own toys – kites, wooden rifles, and skipping or jumping ropes made from rubber bands which they could get them free, over a period of time accumulating. That was how “Rainbow Loom” creator – 45-year-old Malaysian-born Cheong Choon Ng – got creative and made tons of money.
However, the engineer from Taiping, Perak, didn’t invented nor patented his creation in Malaysia. Instead Mr Ng is an American, thanks for Malaysia’s racist policy that forced many talents such as him to seek education in the United States. Ethnic-Chinese students have been discriminated for as long as one can remember. And it happens every year, even till today, when straight-As students will be denied entries into local universities.
Like many ethnic-Chinese, Cheong Choon Ng who dreamt of becoming an engineer, landed in Kansas on a snowy day in the spring of 1991 together with his brother – barely spoke any English. Interestingly, a year after he graduated, the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis started. While many Malaysians lost their jobs, Ng could find job easily because the U.S. economy was booming at the same time. He started a career in crash safety in Detroit’s motor industry.
The Malaysian immigrant was still attached as a crash-test engineer for Nissan United States when he started what appears to be his attempt to impress his two daughters – Theresa, now 16, and Michelle, now 13. The girls were making bracelets out of small rubber bands when the father joined in and showed them how to link the rubber bands together, using the same technique he had used during his childhood to make jumping ropes back in Malaysia.
But the bracelets kept falling apart. He went down to his basement, grabbed a scrap board and stuck multiple rows of pushpins into it. Then he started linking the bands in a zigzag, like a diamond shape, and it worked fabulously. The next day, his daughters took a bunch of colourful bracelets to school. Needless to say, Mr Ng became a neighbourhood superhero overnight. It was his older daughter, Teresa, who first suggested selling them.
Leveraged on his engineering background, which includes product design, quality control and manufacturing experience, plus encouragement from his engineer brother, Cheong Yeow Ng, he spent the next 6-months developing and perfecting the product. Eventually, he designed 28 different versions. After convinced his wife, the family invested their entire savings of $10,000 (£6,156; RM32,600) to order tooling and 2,000lb (91kg) of rubber bands from China, and assembled the kits in their garage.
For months, nobody was interested in his product simply because people didn’t understand how they worked. Hence, Cheong Choon Ng asked his niece and daughters to create YouTube videos, explaining how to make rubber-band bracelets. He also bought Google ads – Adsense – to help spread the word. His luck changed for the better in July 2012 when the owner of a Learning Express Toys store, a chain of 130 franchises, placed an order for 12 loom-band kits, and less than two weeks later, she called to reorder for US$10,000.
When Mr Ng and his wife saw the order amount, their jaws dropped. By December 2012, their monthly sales hit US$200,000 and in 2013 alone – sales hit 3.5 million looms and US$40 million (£24.6 million; RM130 million). The loom-band kits was listed as one of the top toys of the summer of 2013 on the Learning Express Toys chain’s Web site. Now, Mr Ng is no longer working for Nissan but manages a staff of 12 and rents a 7,500-square-foot warehouse near his home to handle distribution.
Nevertheless, now-millionaire Cheong Choon Ng has two major problems. First, he has to make sure his toys do not fade in popularity, as commonly happens to other toys. Second, he has to be one step ahead of imitators. To tackle the first problem, Mr Ng is constantly working on new tools to make more exciting rubber bands and more bracelet patterns and accessories. As for the second challenge, he’s depending on the rainbow loom ecosystem, the same way Apple iPhone is guarding and locking loyalty on its iOS ecosystem.
It’s not hard to understand why Cheong Choon Ng will go all the way to protect his invention. The rubber bands have brought in a whopping £80 million (US$130 million; RM420 million) of fortune within 3-years to him. They currently take up 41 of the top 50 positions on Amazon’s toy charts and sales of the kids’ accessory did £1 million worth of sales in Britain in July alone. His Choon’s Design LLC has sued several companies for patent infringement. Among them – LaRose Industries LLC and Toys R Us Inc.
A World Bank report from 2011 concluded that 20% of Malaysian graduates opt to quit the country, with Singapore cited as the preferred destination. More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since Independence.Last year alone, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas, with 47.2% going to Singapore, 18.2% to Australia, 12.2% to US and the rest to other countries like UK and Canada. As for Cheong Choon Ng, the United States would like to thank Malaysian racist “Barisan Nasional” government for the latest talent.
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