Carnival firm Uncle Ringo stepping back into 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
Mr Lee Woon Chiang, founder of Uncle Ringo, with his daughter Ms Joyce Lee, Director of Uncle Ringo, inside their Mythic And Claws park, on Jan 22, 2021.
Mr Lee Woon Chiang, founder of Uncle Ringo, with his daughter Ms Joyce Lee, Director of Uncle Ringo, inside their Mythic And Claws park, on Jan 22, 2021.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - For the showman behind the rides of 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 the 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 bring the travelling circus through the heartland, to neighbourhoods like Yishun and Woodlands.

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

One of their first cost-cutting measures was to send the troupe home, one month into a year-long stint they had planned for them to be in Singapore.

That decision cost the firm a $300,000 penalty, but is one that Mr Lee does not regret.

"I'm lucky they left. If we had to cover their living expenses for an entire year, we would not have survived," he said.

But without any fun fairs since last January, scrapping the circus plans was not the Lees' only body blow.

Other big projects they had lined up for the year included a Great World Amusement Park-themed fair at HarbourFront and a three-month-long roving carnival in China's Fujian province. Both were cancelled.

Even as most of their engagements were called off, they also had 30 staff, rental for two warehouse spaces to store carnival booths and about 40 rides, and maintenance and licensing fees to pay, as well as loan instalments to service.

After halving their 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 has fallen through the cracks when it comes to government support, as the business does 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.

On being forced to resort to retrenchments, Mr Lee said: "Most of my staff are in their 60s, and many have been with me for about 30 years, I can't just let them go, I worry for them."

"Some friends asked me to close down the business, but after running it for 36 years, there are many things I was worried about, like my staff and my daughter, who is now directing the company," he said.


Uncle Ringo founder Lee Woon Chiang (centre, in colourful shirt) taking artistes from The Great Circus of Europe on a train ride at the Bayfront Event Space in Dec 2019. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEE WOON CHIANG

Amid the stressful period, Mr Lee suffered a heart attack in December.

"Not many people can understand the stress. Yes, we can acknowledge and talk about it but, in the end, the body cannot take it," he said.

The day after a quadruple bypass surgery, he was gripped by a sudden shortness of breath on his hospital bed.

"I thought at that point 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 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.


Mr Lee Woon Chiang, founder of Uncle Ringo, showing a scar on his chest while sitting next to a Dog Swing at Social Innovation Park in Punggol on Jan 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

For now, starting over means small steps.

Last month, Uncle Ringo reopened in a small space at the Social Innovation Park in Punggol that it has occupied since 2018, running about five rides that it rotates every few months, as well as a walkthrough space that takes families through a display of life-sized dinosaur and mythical figurines.

The reopening was not without hiccups, owing to regulatory confusion on whether the Punggol space was considered an amusement centre by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which is allowed to reopen, or a leisure event, which is not permitted yet.

Like malls and amusement parks that have been allowed to reopen, Ms Lee hopes roving bazaars with the Uncle Ringo signature fun fair will be given the green light soon.


Ms Joyce Lee, director of Uncle Ringo, at Social Innovation Park in Punggol on Jan 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

She said: "We feel discriminated against... there's no reason we cannot be trusted with safe management measures."

While business has been thin, Ms Lee said it has been picking up slowly, with families looking for outdoor activities after a year of being encouraged to stay home.

She added that the firm is in the midst of looking for open spaces to run small-scale fairs, like their space in Punggol.

"After last year, running something is better than nothing at all," she said.