Carnival firm back in the game after year of sorrow

Mr Lee Woon Chiang, founder of Uncle Ringo, with his daughter Joyce at their fun fair at the Social Innovation Park in Punggol on Friday. Their plans last year to take a travelling circus to the heartland and to hold large-scale carnivals in China ha
Mr Lee Woon Chiang, founder of Uncle Ringo, with his daughter, Ms Joyce Lee, at their fun fair at the Social Innovation Park in Punggol, on Jan 22, 2021.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

For the showman behind the rides at pasar malam fun fairs, 2020 was a big test of his jovial nature.

In fact, he calls it a year of sorrow, and it was experienced all the more keenly, coming right after Mr Lee Woon Chiang felt on top of the world, having staged a circus show in Marina Bay with about 50 artistes from abroad.

It had been a major coup for carnival firm Uncle Ringo, which Mr Lee, 68, started in 1984.

"We lost money staging the circus in Marina Bay, but it was good; it was the first time we had brought in the circus and proven we could do it," he said.

For the year ahead, Mr Lee and his daughter and successor Joyce had grand plans: To take the travelling circus through the heartland.

Then came the spanner in the works and the cause of his sorrows - the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their other big plans for the year, which included large-scale carnivals in China, were scrapped.

The firm also had 30 staff, storage rental for its equipment, and maintenance and licensing fees to pay, as well as loan instalments to service.

After halving its headcount to about 15 and selling some equipment, the firm still racked up a five-figure sum in expenses in each of the past few months.

The high expenditure is despite Uncle Ringo having tapped some government handouts to pay its workers, as rental costs form the bulk of its recurring expenses.

Ms Lee, 37, who has been working with her father for a decade, said she felt Uncle Ringo had fallen through the cracks when it came to government support, as the business did not fall neatly under a larger sector like retail or tourism, both of which are receiving help such as higher-tier Jobs Support Scheme payouts.

During that stressful period, Mr Lee suffered a heart attack. The day after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery last month, he was gripped by a sudden shortness of breath on his hospital bed.

"I thought I was going to die, but I didn't; the nurse came in time. Maybe that was a sign that my work isn't done," he said.

Despite not knowing when roving carnivals will resume, Mr Lee, who was in his 30s when he founded Uncle Ringo, looks forward to the time when he can bring happiness to the heartland again.

"I never die is good lah. At least got a fresh heart can start over again," he quipped.

For now, starting over means taking small steps. Last month, Uncle Ringo reopened in a small space at the Social Innovation Park in Punggol that it has occupied since 2018.

It is now looking for other open spaces to run small-scale fairs that the Lees hope will set their carnival business on the road to recovery.

Ng Keng Gene

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2021, with the headline 'Carnival firm back in the game after year of sorrow'. Subscribe