I would consider myself a pretty big fan of McDonald's.
Case in point, when I wrote this previously:
love letter article was published, I noticed amid the hubbub that is the Facebook comment section — almost like a tiny coil of curly fry hidden in the nest of french fries — a humble request.
I was intrigued. Had I finally met my match, or my kin?
Some stalking on social media subsequently led me to the page that Tay Swee Hock apparently manages, "McDonald Toys Singapore".
The array of items on the page, emblazoned with the golden arches, carefully laid out and photographed, was impressive.
Any doubt I had about this man's "superfan" title was erased after the seemingly endless scroll of photos on the page.
I thus found myself on Tay's doorstep some weeks later.
As Tay welcomed me inside enthusiastically, there was little to indicate the extent of his obsession.
I had expected a house with McDonald's merchandise littering every surface, but the man's home is neat, clean and almost devoid of clutter, with the only mess being his two-year-old son's toys in the middle of the living room floor.
Instead, Tay had contained his collection to a single room in his four-room flat.
Two walls are occupied by floor-to-ceiling cupboards packed to the brim with an assortment of McDonald's-related knick-knacks, while the other two are fronted by glass cabinets and drawers displaying Tay's crazy assortment of McDonald's pins.
Whatever wall space available is plastered with McDonald's posters and flyers, as well as carefully laminated print-outs of previous interviews Tay has done with the media.
Clearly, Tay has invested much time and effort into decorating the space.
During the house-hunting process, one important criterion was having an extra room to display his collection.
He confesses that what I've seen isn't even the entirety of his collection — a large number of other collectibles are stored at his parents' house.
An enduring passion
If I ever thought I was a McDonald's fanatic before this interview, Tay blows my obsession out of the water.
The 46-year-old shared that he has been eating McDonald's weekly for the past 24 years or so.
A Happy Meal is his go-to order for lunch every Thursday with his colleagues, typically paired with extra nuggets on the side.
"Still not too bad, still can fill my stomach," he elaborated when I expressed surprise at the small portion.
The meal, however, is simply a means for him to get his hands on the McDonald's toy that is released that day every week.
So far, he hasn't missed a meal in the past two decades. If he happens to be on a holiday, he ensures that a trusted friend will help to buy the Happy Meal (toy included) on his behalf.
When it comes to limited edition McDonald's merchandise, you can be sure that Tay will be waiting in line.
The recent launch of the McGriddles Patty Puffer Bag on Mar. 8 saw Tay getting out of bed at the godforsaken hour of 5am.
“I couldn't even sleep that whole night. I'm very serious, I [was] very excited,” he gushes.
He admits that typically, he is a "lazy person" and late riser, and that McDonald's is the only thing that can get him leaping out of bed at such an early hour.
On the day of the puffy bag launch, Tay arrived at McDonald's' Canberra outlet at 6am after his commute from his Hougang home, in order to start queuing early.
Fortunately, he was number 11 or 12 in the queue, and once the bags started being distributed at 7am, Tay headed straight for work after.
"Not a lot of things can make me wake up at 5am," he laughed.
He recalled the frenzy over the Hello Kitty toys: "That one [was] the most jialat, that one I queued overnight."
For him, it isn't solely the product that compels him to go to these lengths. He ambiguously described "enjoy[ing]" a certain "atmosphere" that is present while queueing.
Perhaps it is the anticipation of obtaining a limited-edition item, or a fever that grips only a collector as passionate as him.
More than trash
Tay confessed that he spent somewhere in the five figures on procuring his collection.
The most Tay has forked out is over S$600 for a limited-edition G-Shock watch which was a collaboration between McDonald’s and G-Shock for the fast food chain's 50th anniversary. Only a thousand pieces were released, and Tay estimates its current value to be around S$1,000.
Perhaps what piques my interest the most though, and sets Tay far apart from others who collect McDonald's items, is that his collection doesn't simply stop at toys and limited-edition collectibles.
The full panoply of items he has amassed include every iteration of McDonald's' tray papers, the cardboard boxes to hold fries and burgers, promotional flyers and posters, drink cups, cardboard standees, and sitting in one corner of his display room, a fire-engine red high chair.
Tay assured that all items are obtained through "legal means ah".
As the best and (likely) the most regular customer at certain McDonald's outlets, staff no longer bat an eye when he asks for an extra piece of new tray paper or box.
Most might consider these by-products they wouldn't hesitate to stain with their food, but in Tay's eyes, they are gems worthy enough to add to his collection.
Meanwhile, the high chair and standees, Tay sheepishly tells me, were saved from the trash piles.
He spouts the age-old adage when asked about this: "To them is trash but to me is treasure."
Not just your typical collector
Tay wholeheartedly believes that he is, in a way, documenting the "history" of the fast food chain through its ever-changing designs.
He chattered on in a manner that I became familiar with throughout the course of the interview:
"To see how it evolve along the way right. Like 20 years ago, the packaging, how is it like, then recently, how is the packaging like, and the tray paper right, last time how was the tray paper, then now right, how is the tray paper (sic)"
Simply getting his hands on McDonald's items isn't enough for Tay either.
For him, immersing himself in the environment was the next step.
Around 10 years back, Tay held the part-time position as a floor manager.
Take note that this was on top of his full-time job as an SMRT engineer. Dedication, truly.
"I really wanted to know how [a] burger is being made and how they function as a restaurant," he shared effusively.
The toll of working two jobs eventually caught up to him and he quit several months later, but not without leaving with his fervour intensified and with a greater appreciation of the fast food giant.
A part of his life
I had intended to enquire about why McDonald's has had such a hold over Tay for the majority of his life.
After all, there are plenty of other things Tay could have obsessed over — cars, watches or even Barbie dolls, like this one Singaporean man.
Tay beat me to the punch by declaring that McDonald's is "the only thing that can really attract me".
He himself, however, seems unable to clearly articulate the reason for his fixation on this singular brand.
Delving into his past and how his hobby started, does shed some light though.
In 1988, 12-year-old Tay was gifted his first few McDonald's toys by his father.
Tay candidly shared that at the time, his family was not well-off financially. The set of small yellow plastic figurines in the likeness of McDonald's comedic mascot, touting Chinese New Year decorations, were greatly treasured by the young boy.
McDonald's continued to remain close to Tay's heart.
Completing National Service and starting a job meant financial independence, and he thus had the means to continue growing his tiny collection.
During university, he would spend his days studying and completing assignments at a nearby McDonald's outlet. When Tay met his wife, they would go on dates at the fast food chain, and now with three young kids, the whole family would enjoy meals there.
Tay might have seen the evolution of McDonald's products and designs, but McDonald's has also seen the man through the years.
“[It's] like collecting a part of my memories," Tay reminisced, and one can imagine that every time Tay looks upon his collectibles, he's brought back to the first time his father spent money he could barely spare on a McDonald's meal for him and his brothers.
"Don't ask me to stop"
McDonald's might have been Tay's first love, but the man assures that his wife is his true love. Bar some nagging, Tay says that she has been nothing but supportive of him.
He displays a level of self-awareness, enough for him to know that not just anyone would tolerate a partner dedicating a substantial amount of time and money to such a niche interest.
While the couple was still dating, he had given her fair warning — “I won't stop, please don't ask me to stop. I won't stop for anybody," he had declared.
It is this attitude that Tay wears when facing naysayers — as there are bound to be when it comes to anything remotely out of the norm.
While he is unable to recall any specific incident or comments from the haters, Tay shares that he will simply explain that this is something he likes and is a part of him.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it."
He informed me that after the interview, he will be heading out to meet a fellow collector to trade for a vintage Mattel McDonald's snack maker.
Perhaps there's something everyone, even myself, can learn from Tay.
In an age when others' perceptions matter some, and mean the world to others, to remain unabashedly oneself like Tay does.
Spreading his hands, he tells me, unflinching:
"This is part of me, collecting [McDonald's toys and merchandise]. It's part of me. I mean, can't change that right?"
Top photo by Ashley Tan