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THE YEAR OF THE POGCHINESE ELDER CASHES IN--AND PRESERVES HIS CULTURE--WITH LUNAR CALENDAR COLLECTIBLES

James "Rocky" Tang grew up in a South Phoenix neighborhood where nearby dairies provided fodder for the games he and his childhood friends used to play with cardboard milk caps.

But the retired restaurateur was just as surprised as anyone else when the game made a comeback in the form of Pogs, a kiddy craze that has pretty much worn out its flipping welcome. That has been particularly true at many elementary schools, where the cardboard disks, now oozing with characters like Barney the Dinosaur, the Simpsons and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, have been banned for creating too many distractions.

"Pogs is kind of going out a little bit," says Tang, who now serves as advertising director for the Asian American Sun, a Phoenix newspaper published by the Asian Chamber of Commerce. "But to me, the collectibles will stay."

At least, that's what he and his grandsons are banking on, now that they've given the phenomenon a cultural twist.

Tang retrieves a weathered, tan leather briefcase. He flips the latches. Inside is a world in which it is not 1995 but the year 4693, an arena of childhood fancy not with talking dinosaurs or teenage miscreants but with monkeys and dragons and rabbits.

Tang calls them LunarCaps, a set of a dozen cardboard disks featuring the symbols of the Chinese zodiac calendar, a 12-year lunar cycle. There are the rat, the ox, the tiger and the rabbit, all the way up through 2007, which, like this year, is the year of the pig, or boar. The disks are printed on foil in red and green and purple and gold, and have the symbol's name both in English and Chinese.

The Tangs introduced their venture February 3 at this year's Chinese Week Celebration at Patriots Square in downtown Phoenix. "About 75 percent of the kids knew what they were," says Tang, whose own grandsons, like most American kids, learned about the lunar-year tradition in school, with the teachers bringing out fortune cookies and everything. Tradition states that the animal corresponding to a person's birth year gives him or her specific personality traits and determines a lifetime's degree of success and happiness.

"We set it up as classic collectibles, like baseball cards are collectibles," Tang says. "Grandfathers are kind of buying it for their grandsons, as a gift. Passing on the culture. That's mainly the idea. To reach the grandpa so they can give it back to the kids."

The project was prompted by Tang's grandsons, 11-year-old Steven and 7-year-old Jarrett Wong, who like millions of other kids their ages got caught up in Pog fever. "They have the tube and all that," Tang says, meaning the plastic canisters used to cart hundreds of the little things around.

According to Pog lore, it was a Hawaiian guidance counselor who four years ago told students about a game using milk caps she used to play as a kid. Word spread, and before long, the kids had revived the game using caps taken from bottles of pineapple/orange/guava juice, hence the Pog acronym. To play, opponents stack equal numbers of Pogs and then, using a heavier disk called a slammer, spank the pile with a well-positioned, high-powered throw, claiming whatever lands face down as their own and continuing until all the disks are won.

It is a ridiculous game--but no more ridiculous than, say, golf--and yet it managed to spread nationwide. Now there are whole lines of designer Pogs, Pogs with pictures of Speed Racer, professional football players or scenes from Jurassic Park, even religious Pogs. But Tang's LunarCaps are among the first with a cultural theme.

"The grandsons came up with the idea of the Pogs," Tang says, "but the design, more or less, the grown-ups came up with that. It seemed like a wanting thing. During the Chinese New Year, people are always talking about what the animal is."

After researching the trade and briefly considering having the disks produced in Thailand, the family opted to have the work done in Phoenix. So far Tang estimates sales of several hundred sets of the trademarked items at $7.50 a sheet, with some buyers snapping up five to ten sets at a time for their kids. "Something of this quality would sell for $10 on the market," he says, and judging from the myriad Pog displays set up at a Phoenix swap meet, where Beavis and Butt-head sets, for example, go for 75 cents a disk, he's probably right. The Tangs plan to snag booths in April at both the Kid's Expo at Phoenix Civic Plaza and at the county fair, which this year will feature an Asian marketplace.

There is a California-based line of disks called LocoCaps that honors a Chicano theme--lowriders, religious symbols and more--sold as a sheet of 35 glossy foil collectibles, and that, in a sense, is the sort of thing Tang and his family are trying to pull off in Phoenix, taking a theme usually reserved for placemats and calendars and melding it with Nineties pop culture.

"I think it's a craze that will go over well with the rest of the country," Tang says.

That is a bold prediction, but maybe Tang knows something, having been born in the year of the dragon.