TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - She effectively left town more than 20 years ago, but Barbie is still the queen of a Taiwan town whose fortunes were once linked to the slender doll, and where many people just can't forget her.
Suburban Taishan, a short drive away from the capital Taipei, was devastated in 1987 when toy maker Mattel Inc closed its factory in Taiwan after 20 years and moved operations to China and Southeast Asia.
The factory had been the mainstay of the town's economy, and a third of the 10,000 population was left without jobs, while nearby restaurants and satellite factories were shut down.
But today, instead of filling orders for Mattel, the nostalgic workers create costumes for Barbie, ranging from traditional Chinese qipaos to Taiwanese aboriginal outfits to anything else they fancy at a newly created workshop.
"I'm just interested in this kind of work, and I couldn't part with my old job," said workshop member Chou Ching-fang, 56, as she finished sewing a Chinese-style evening gown.
The six-month-old Mei-ning Workshop has 15 members so far, and sometimes they stitch past midnight to create clothes for the plastic dolls, chatting as they go.
The women have so far outfitted a Barbie in a wheelchair, designed to resemble former Taiwanese first lady Wu Shu-jen and a Barbie in denim to imitate current first lady Christine Chow Ma.
The workshop also outfits dolls for special orders and ahead of Barbie's 50th anniversary next month, the women have created costumes for 1,200 dolls, 900 of which are on exhibit overseas. Some one-off pieces sell for about T$4,000 ($115) each.
A banner in the workshop reads: "Taishan, with 20 years of original equipment manufacturing service, is the second home to Barbie."
When it started operations in 1967, the Mattel factory would churn out 180 plastic legs in an eight-hour shift, increasing capacity to 2,000 legs later on. Order books were so full that some molding machines used to operate around the clock.
Taishan has commemorated this era of its history in a small Mattel museum, located in an office building, which showcases the workers' uniforms, their payslips and several vintage Barbie dolls in various costumes.
The town, better known for factories and auto repair shops, hopes the museum and the Mei-ning Workshop will one day help realize its dream of becoming a Barbie theme town and put it on Taiwan's tourist map.
"We hope memories of Barbie can be restored," said workshop manager Ku Tsui-e. "We also want people in the town to see the artistry behind the manufacturing."
Editing by Miral Fahmy