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Move over ‘Barbie,’ this San Francisco mom designed an Asian American foodie doll

A kid embraced by their mom wile they pose for a picture while holding a doll.
Elenor Mak, founder and CEO of Jilly Bing, poses for a photo with a 3-year-old girl named Tammy after gifting her a Jilly Bing doll at Wu Yee Children’s Services. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

With the success of 2023’s biggest blockbuster movie bringing renewed attention to Barbie dolls, one San Francisco Chinese American mother saw an opportunity for increased representation in the world of toys.

Elenor Mak, an entrepreneur with a young daughter, has started her own line of dolls, releasing her first design, Jilly Bing, earlier this year. Jilly Bing, which Mak says is the "first authentic" Asian American doll, is named after her daughter, and Bing is from the Chinese word 饼, which means “cookie.”

Compared with other Asian dolls, Jilly Bing stands out because of the way the doll’s back story emphasizes Asian culture through food.

“She's proud of Asian foods,” Mak said in an interview describing Jilly Bing’s concept. “Egg tart happens to be her favorite iconic dessert.”

A doll sits on top of a white table in a green dress and white shoes.
Jilly Bing creator Elenor Mak named the doll after her daughter, while "Bing" is from the Chinese word meaning “cookie.” | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Mak said Asian food can bind communities across different cultures and generations, and according to Jilly Bing’s story, she likes to cook with her grandma and learn about Asian food cultures. Mak recently partnered with NextShark, an Asian American-focused news website, to launch a series of Jilly Bing animations that depicted the doll as a foodie who loves to eat traditional Chinese cuisine, such as steamed fish and sticky rice siu mai.

There are other Asian dolls in the U.S. market, but Mak said they tend to rely on stereotypes. In a viral TikTok video with more than two million views, Mak criticized some of the so-called Asian dolls that don’t look Asian at all. For example, Mattel, the company that produces Barbie, also has an Asian female doctor doll who wears clothes imprinted with pandas, a design choice that angered Mak.

Mak also thought some of the Asian dolls depict representations that children can’t necessarily relate to, such as an Anna May Wong Barbie that honors a legendary Hollywood film star who died in 1961.

“Not everyone can be the skinny, shiny Anna May Wong, but we see ourselves in Jilly Bing,” Mak said.

Jilly Bing is not specifically Chinese but has a more general Asian American identity, according to Mak. A large, 14-inch doll priced at $68 online, Jilly Bing has dark hair, almond eyes and a low nose bridge. She wears an apron with egg tart images, something Mak said is very playable for kids.

In addition to the Jilly Bing website, Mak confirmed the doll is available at selected stores in California, New York and Michigan.

This holiday season, Mak has donated 18 dolls to Wu Yee, a leading child care services provider in San Francisco, and she’s also working with Chinatown groups to donate more for kids.

A group of kids and adults in the background pose with dolls in front of them.
Making the peace sign are Jilly Bing creator Elenor Mak, left, and author Joanna Ho, right, as they pose with children at Wu Yee Children’s Services. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Virginia Cheung, director of advancement at Wu Yee, said that it’s important for a child to see themself in toys, which can benefit their early development, giving them a strong sense of self, self-empowerment and self-love.

“[Give] parents tools to teach that to their kids,” Cheung said, “so [the kids] can take these lessons and feel empowered as they grow and develop.”

Mak revealed that she’s in the process of designing two new Asian American dolls who like the Filipino ube tart and Japanese fish-shaped pastry taiyaki.

“How do we define an ‘Asian doll’?” Mak said. “Let's start with Asian food that we can introduce to the world.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com