Memory Makers: The secret behind Singapore's Ronald McDonald

From 1981-2000, Andrew Kong, 64, was Singapore's Ronald McDonald (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)
From 1979-2000, Andrew Kong, 64, was Singapore's Ronald McDonald (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

Are you nostalgic for the old days? In Memory Makers, Yahoo News Singapore takes a trip down memory lane with people and places, and revisits oft-forgotten parts of Singapore’s history.

SINGAPORE — For many years during his younger days, Andrew Kong, 64, was committed to keep a secret known only to a select few.

The reason? Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kong played the role of Singapore's Ronald McDonald, the ubiquitous mascot of global fast food franchise McDonald's. Keeping his identity behind the paint mask a secret was key to him conjuring the magic of the Golden Arches.

Only top McDonald's executives, alongside his family, knew his identity. For a time, he even had the privilege of being driven to events by managing director Robert Kwan, the man who brought the franchise to Singapore.

"If everybody knows who Santa Claus is, Santa Claus loses his magic. But the mystery - 'Who is he? Where is he from?' - helps to keep the magic of Ronald," said Kong.

From 1979 to 2000, bar the occasional stand in and some part-time stints, Kong was Singapore's full-time Ronald, gracing store openings, children's events, hospital visits, and even had his own television programme.

Kong vividly remembers the first time he turned up at a store opening as Ronald McDonald. It was November 1979, and McDonald's was opening only its second-ever store in the country, located at People's Park Complex.

Like all grand openings of McDonald's stores back then, it was a big occasion with a lion dance and a school band playing, alongside Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Ronald was always accompanied by chaperones, one of whom would carry a mobile cassette player playing lively marching band music.

Kong was treated like a rock star, with his fans getting a little out of hand.

"The kids were crazy. They were chasing after Ronald and we had to run with the crew and all that. (We hid in a) store room, and the kids were out there banging the door. I think they cracked the door," recalled Kong. "So that was quite scary."

Kong would always introduce himself with his catch phase, "Hello kids, I'm Ronald McDonald, the world famous magical clown."

And what was the children's response like? "Magical," declared Kong. "When a child sees a clown, they smile. Even old people will smile. They always say, in the first five minutes, you have already won their hearts."

It all began when an acquaintance asked Kong, who was studying for his second degree and moonlighting as a magician, if he might be interested in the job. Intrigued, the then 22-year-old went for an audition where he put on the full make up and costume, and sufficiently wowed the McDonald's management to land the gig.

But it was not simply a matter of putting on the outfit and getting dolled up: there was an entire philosophy to the character, which was part of a carefully mapped out marketing strategy. "If the kids love Ronald, they will also love McDonald’s," explained Kong, who noted that there was a "very thick manual" and training videos on how to be Ronald.

"His status is the ringmaster. He's supposed to be on top of everything and bring cheer and laughter to kids." Above all else, it was expressly forbidden for Ronald to sell burgers or to mention product names, as it was considered distasteful.

Senior director of operations for McDonald's Singapore, Jeffrey Tan, who spoke to Yahoo News Singapore in March about its first outlet in the country at Liat Towers, recalled being one of Kong's escorts. "The action, the movement, what to say, what not to say, how to deal with kids: he has to follow protocol.

"When you see Ronald in functions, dinners, he eats nuggets. His plate is very different. The rest can eat whatever, he must eat nuggets, he must eat McDonald's."

Ronald McDonald University

Andrew Kong as Ronald McDonald at the ECP McDonald's grand opening in 1982 (PHOTO: Andrew Kong)
Andrew Kong as Ronald McDonald at the ECP McDonald's grand opening in 1982 (PHOTO: Andrew Kong)

The character of Ronald was taken very seriously by the corporation. From 1981, Kong was sent to Ronald McDonald training conventions in Chicago, where the company is based, every few years.

Up to a hundred Ronalds from all over the world would sit in a hotel ballroom in costume for three to four days, taking lessons from the top-ranking Ronald in the US and one another. And it was all kept very hush-hush. "As far as the hotel is concerned, there's no poster saying anywhere this is a Ronald McDonald convention. We have a code word: TOM, or top of mind," said Kong, who fondly recalled the "super, superb experience".

He added that his peers were "very talented people": ventriloquists, magicians, jugglers, dancers and singers who would bring their talent into their act. Kong even attended Ronald McDonald University – he has the graduation certificates to prove it – with professional magicians and clowns giving lectures.

"There's a magic in clowning in itself. It's a really nice feeling that you brought a smile to somebody's face," said Kong.

"Sometimes, you're traveling in (a car) and then you're all in your full make up at the traffic light, and you look at somebody else across the road or another driver. They look at you, they would smile. They become childlike themselves and it brings out the children in them."

The magic of Ronald McDonald

Friends gathered for Cynthia Tang's 9th birthday party in 1990 (PHOTO: Cynthia Tang)
Friends gathered for Cynthia Tang's 9th birthday party in 1990 (PHOTO: Cynthia Tang)

Cynthia Tang, a partner at Tang Thomas LLC, can still remember her McDonald's birthday party at United Square at the age of nine. It was a reward from her parents for doing well in school. "It was a big thing for kids back then, as big birthday parties for kids were not common," recalled the mother of two.

There were games with party hats decorated with different McDonald's characters such as the Hamburglar and Grimace, and a Ronald McDonald birthday cake: sponge cake with chocolate, white icing and rainbow colour sprinkles.

And then the star of the show appeared, out of the blue. "Everyone screamed when Ronald came," said Tang, 40.

Ronald was usually not allowed to do birthday party appearances, so it was likely that Kong or one of his stand-ins happened to pass by during Tang's bash. But for Kong, hospital visits were "particularly moving" because it was an opportunity to cheer up the sick especially younger patients. Ronald would often entertain "rainbow kids", or children with cancer.

"Once you put on the make up, you become anonymous, we become less inhibited. It brings the goodness out of you."

All things must end

(PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)
A Ronald McDonald 'boot' presented to Andrew Kong as a 20 year service award, and a solid gold ring given for 10 years of service. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

In 2000, Kong decided to hang up his yellow, red and white outfit for good. Then, McDonald's asked Kong to go full-time again, with expansion plans and a possible role for him as a sort of supervisor to other Ronalds. But he was doing another degree – Kong holds a Bachelor of Science, an external law degree and a licentiate in canon law.

He was also doing sexuality education and pro-life talks in schools and wanted to use his degrees in meaningful ways. So he bowed out.

One of Kong's treasured mementoes: a Ronald 'boot' on a plaque that was presented to him upon 20 years of service, bestowing the title of Master Clown upon him. The engraving on the plaque says, "You have fulfilled a dream and we salute you, Master Clown, for 20 years of being a Merchant of Mirth."

Even long after Kong had stopped playing the role of Ronald, he still believes in the mascot's core values. "I bought into the philosophy that people enjoyed Ronald, they didn’t enjoy Andrew Kong."

Having lived through what he considers a privileged experience, Kong is particularly proud of McDonald's being a pioneer in corporate social responsibility, long before the term was invented. For example, aside from store openings, Ronald would only attend events organised for charities, and there was no fee involved.

Kong acknowledged, however, that consumer trends have changed considerably over the decades. He said, "During our time, it's a big craze. But kids of today, they wouldn't know who Ronald is."

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