Saturday 30 April 2016

Uncle Ringo, old but gold: Travelling funfair offers old-world charm

Travelling funfair offers old-world charm with carousel and ghost-train rides, and game stalls
By Pang Xue Qiang, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2016

While theme parks typically offer fast and furious rides that send one's pulse racing to an adrenaline high, the rides at this amusement park are more likely to send one waltzing down memory lane.

At Uncle Ringo funfair, things do not look like they have moved on from 1984, the year when Mr Lee Woon Chiang - or Uncle Ringo - started the amusement park.

There are 1980s attractions such as a carousel, a ghost train and bumper cars, as well as stalls offering games like tossing a ring onto a bottle, bursting balloons with darts and tikam tikam, where one makes guesses to win prizes.

"There is no such place like this left in Singapore. You cannot find the same ambience at modern theme parks like Universal Studios. It's different," said the 64-year-old who started the fair in the same year his only child was born.

While amusement parks like Great World and Kallang Wonderland have come and gone, Uncle Ringo funfair is believed to be one of the rare old-school amusement parks remaining today.

But it does not stay at one place for long - the travelling funfair pops up in large open fields in different parts of the island and packs up after two weeks to a month.

It appears at different places about six times a year and is found usually during public holidays such as National Day as well as the June school holidays.

"I wanted to create something that can bring joy to children. It's a playground for people of all ages, because all of us have a child inside us," said Mr Lee, who used to sell recycled chemicals before starting the travelling fair.

Today, more than 30 years on, Mr Lee is still selling fun and games, but with the help of his daughter Joyce, who is now 32 and the company's sales and marketing manager.

A crew of about 30 is needed to run the funfair, Mr Lee said. About 20 of them are students working part-time, and 10 are retirees.

"Our ticketing staff are all retirees above 60. Games and rides are tended by the youngsters who are working part-time," he said.

Uncle Ringo, which takes about 10 days to set up, installs between five and eight rides each time, depending on the size of the space.

During Singapore's 50th birthday last year, Mr Lee had many requests from government agencies to set up his carnival at SG50 events.

For instance, Uncle Ringo last concluded its funfair at the Bayfront event space a month ago on March 27, as part of the iLight Marina Bay festival organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He said it attracted about 5,000 people a day.

But not all things remain in a time warp at the funfair. Customers now pay for rides and games, which cost $5 to $10 each, with a stored value card instead of paper tickets. This year, Mr Lee also upgraded some of the rides, which were imported from Italy and England.

Incidentally, the name of the funfair is also linked to England - Mr Lee got the nickname of Uncle Ringo as he shared the same hairstyle as Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and was a fan of the 1960s pop band which started in Liverpool, England.

Spotted at the funfair one night last month were teenagers, families with toddlers, and couples cuddling plush toys they had just won.

Technician M. Farid Jaffar, 32, was there with his wife and three children. "The last time I was at a funfair like this was when I was a young boy. I was seven. At that time, it was beside Tampines MRT station," he said. "I am now passing the experience to my son."

Madam Low Kailing was at the fair with her husband and their one-year-old toddler. "It's more for my child, to let him experience the sights and sounds. We just want to let him watch for now, since he's still young. Next year, he'll be asking to play," said the 34-year-old, who is self-employed.

In June, the carnival will travel to Punggol.

The fun has not gone out of the funfair business for Mr Lee and he does not intend to quit any time soon. He said: "I want to preserve these games for the young generation. We enjoyed them when we were young. And I want my children to continue enjoying them."

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