The world of jumpy castles, merry-go-rounds and choo-choo trains might be a faint and distant memory for most of us. But now that I have unlocked this piece of your past, let me ask you – what was your favourite carnival ride as a kid? Would it be the carousel, riding in a sea of ponies? Or the version of the Singapore Flyer we were first familiar with — the Mini Ferris Wheel?
If I were asked this question, it would take me a good minute to travel back in time and mentally hop on each of the rides to give an answer. But Mr Lee Woon Chiang, all of 69 years, instantly chirps to me his favourite – the Bumper Car.
“You can drive the Bumper Car so freely! I always tell my friends, you don’t even need a driving licence for it. And if you don’t like someone, you can just bump into them!”, he says with a chuckle.
Indeed, Mr Lee’s pick holds some reverence; he is, after all, the man behind the popular Uncle Ringo carnival rides. And he is just like one would imagine – jovial, easy-going and perpetually ready to greet you with a smile. He combs his hair before each interview and confirms if each take is good to go, just like the true showman he is.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr Lee over a cup of kopi, to find out what is beyond the fun of fun fairs and how the businessman cracked the code to truly selling a quintessential Singaporean family experience.
From Chemicals to Carnivals
Before selling the promise of bubbly smiles, Mr Lee was in the trade of selling chemicals and raw materials. However, his 4-year stint in the chemical trade industry revealed to be boring, and he found himself seeking more. Still an entrepreneur at heart, Mr Lee was in search of another business opportunity.
The idea for his new venture was birthed amidst the economic recession and his wife’s pregnancy. “I wanted to find a business that could bring happiness to my baby. I then started to notice how innocent and happy children were, so I wanted to start a business that could bring them joy”, he said.
Since then, Mr Lee set his eyes on the amusement industry and has not looked back. Taking a leap of faith, he plunged headfirst into his new roles as a father and the founder of Uncle Ringo.
The business sprang to life with coin-operated kiddy rides in shopping malls. After a few years, with more capital, they expanded into organising carnivals in neighbourhood spaces which started to gain traction and led to enquiries pouring in.
Soon, the company was roped in to set up carnivals in Pasar Malams, school fairs, fund-raising events and government initiatives – which continues to be the lifestream that sustains Uncle Ringo’s business.
An Evergreen Business
Beyond the pomp and splendour of attractive carnival rides lies the nuts and bolts of running a sustainable business. To keep a company alive for 38 years is a herculean feat, especially in the face of ever-changing technology and the quick shifts in tastes of consumers. Moreover, with the onset of arcade spaces and personal gaming devices, one might question the relevance of fun fairs and carnivals as a form of entertainment for children.
Mr Lee however, knows his purpose crystal clear. “People come to these carnivals for nostalgia. You simply don’t get this kind of ambience in shopping malls,” he states. Furthermore, it’s not merely the children whom the carnivals are for; it’s also for those who grew up with such carnivals and wish to pass on that experience.
“Parents also want their children to experience what they experienced. And it brings back good memories for them as well. Now, when children use devices like laptops and phones, there’s no time to bond with the family. But when they come to Uncle Ringo, everyone has a good time together,” beams Mr Lee.
What Mr Lee sells is not merely a ticket to a ride; it’s an experience that later morphs into a cherished memory. This perhaps explains the line Mr Lee repeats ever so often, almost like a mantra – “we want to sell happiness to the families.”
A New Lease of Life
While the bedrock of Uncle Ringo’s business seems almost infallible, the pandemic pulled the rug under many businesses, and Uncle Ringo was no exception.
The last event the company hosted was one of their biggest yet – a circus at Marina Bay Sands in 2019. Their trajectory seemed to only go up from then, with Uncle Ringo seeking to expand into larger circus shows. But unfortunately, the pandemic forced a curtain call even before their grandest act could start.
With the closure of Pasar Malams and outdoor events for nearly 2 years, the business bore a huge brunt. Bills began to pile up, and savings were running out. This ultimately took a toll on Mr Lee physically as well, as he had to undergo coronary bypass surgery at the end of 2020.
Recalling a conversation with his surgeon, Mr Lee said, “my surgeon asked me what I do for a living and why I was under so much stress. I told him I’m in the business of selling happiness to children, and bills have been piling up. He then said, a lot of families still need happiness!”
That’s when Mr Lee knew that the successful surgery meant a second chance for himself and his business.
The Show Must Go On
With that, both Mr Lee and the business he fronts have bounced back with a new lease of life, as have many other businesses who braved through the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.
Despite the losses that the pandemic has caused, Mr Lee finds the silver lining by reflecting on the lessons he has learnt. This includes having a larger focus on saving for rainy days and recruiting more young blood in the team to better publicise Uncle Ringo events.
The priority for the company now is to expand into larger-scale circus acts. According to Mr Lee, Uncle Ringo will be picking up their plans from 2019 and have another circus event at Marina Bay Sands at the end of the year. There are also plans for a Christmas carnival along Orchard Road throughout the whole month of December that families can keep an eye out for.
“A lot of families miss these kinds of outings and carnivals, and we are excited to bring it back in an even bigger way”, shares Mr Lee.
When asked what his proudest moment running Uncle Ringo was, Mr Lee mentioned it would be when parents would come up to him to share how joyful they felt being able to share an experience with their child, which they enjoyed so much in the past.
“Parents come up to me and say, how after 20 years, they are happy their kids get to have fun just the way they did, and I’m proud that Uncle Ringo can provide that experience,” said Mr Lee.
Cover Photo and Carnival Overview Photo by Uncle Ringo. Additional Photos by Ellysha Halil and Srinidhi Ragavendran of the DANAMIC Team.