Being raised in a poor family, along with a stint of volunteering at a hospice and a desire to promote Peranakan culture, has made Alvin Yapp the philanthropist he is today.
He feels that Singaporeans are generous when it comes to donating to charity. However, they’re extremely practical.
“They want to know exactly where the money they’re donating goes to,” says Peranakan home museum The Intan’s owner, Alvin Yapp.
The 47-year-old philanthropist runs Project Intan, an annual event which raises funds for charities as it celebrates Peranakan music, food and culture. Project Intan does not charge the charity for raising money. And the cost of the setup is borne by Alvin and his supporters, while performers participate on a voluntary basis. The representatives of the charity simply show up to collect the money raised.
“What I realised about charities is that they are busy enough. So I felt that if I wanted to do something for a charity, they shouldn’t have to do any work. So all they do is come and collect money. That’s what I insist,” said Alvin, who has been involved with charities “for as long as I can remember”.
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He also commits 100 per cent of the takings to the charity, so donors know where every cent of their donation goes, he added.
“This is my home. I have been collecting Peranakan antiques in the past 30-over years. I moved into this house 10 years ago,” he explained when The Pride met him at The Intan just two days before this year’s Project Intan event. “I collected these antiques because I am a Peranakan, and this was my way of learning about my culture. There was no Peranakan museum, there was no Internet, so I collected these antiques in order to know what it means to be a Peranakan.”
So how did Project Intan come about?
Upon moving into the house in Joo Chiat Terrace, Alvin thought of doing something that would promote Peranakan culture and raise money for a charity.
“We came up with the idea of having a concert,” he said. So he and several volunteers borrowed chairs and fans from the neighbours and they went out raising money for the Assisi Hospice.
“We managed to raise $40,000 for charity, and someone suggested, why don’t you do it again next year?”
And so Project Intan went on, and they had air-conditioning by the second instalment.
“The formula has remained the same. We will pick a charity. We will have a concert. The people who come don’t pay: it is an open house. If you like Peranakan culture, you like music, you like doing charity, please come,” said Alvin.
This year, Project Intan’s 10th edition, Alvin hopes to raise $500,000 for charity. So apart from the one-day event on Sept 23, donors who give $10,000 or above would get the opportunity to have an event at The Intan for 30 of their friends and business associates.
“We will have some music, some kueh-kueh, makan, and sometimes it can be a dinner. Hopefully, through that we get more people who feel compelled to know more about the charity and want to donate. That’s what Project Intan is about, it’s the kampung spirit, people coming together to make a difference,” explained Alvin.
“It has been a beautiful journey – we have had friends, businesses, we have had SMEs, we have had ministers and parliamentary figures, celebrities, all coming together with one purpose: to make a difference,” said Alvin.
There is no red carpet, no paparazzi for the event. The donations are not an attempt to attract media attention of any sort.
“Project Intan attracts a certain kind of donor, and that’s what I am quite proud of,” said Alvin.
This year’s charity, Beyond Social Services, is dedicated to helping children and youths from less privileged backgrounds break the poverty cycle. In a way, it resonates with Alvin’s own childhood.
“We were very poor when we were young. We had to save money for better things. Chicken rice was a treat for birthdays,” he said.
Despite not being rich, he remembers being positive and happy. The turning point came about 30 years ago when his father started BusAds, a company that produces and pastes stickers on buses, trains and taxis.
“My parents have been an amazing support to me,” said Alvin, who now runs the company. It is this humble yet happy background that has made him the philanthropist he is today.
And, perhaps, what he learned from people who were dying.
“When I was an undergrad, I walked into the Assisi Hospice thinking it was a hospital and hoping to do some volunteer work,” said Alvin. The administrator explained what a hospice was and allowed him to talk to the patients.
“It was an eye-opener: I thought it would be serene, sombre even, but they were playing mahjong, painting, massage, therapy…” he said. In other words, doing things that people who were very much alive were doing. And he received an important life lesson from his friendship with the patients.
“They would say, if you want to do something, go ahead and do it. Don’t hold back. If you want to say sorry, say sorry. Don’t regret.”
Being active in the area of charity and volunteering, Alvin has had friends criticising the charities he has picked.
“They would say things like, did you know the CEO is earning how many thousands of dollars? It got me upset. I thought, if you don’t like the charity, don’t donate, la! If you don’t like their CEO to get paid so much, you go and work there, la!’ he said in mock anger.
“But then I thought about it again, and here’s my friend telling me this, maybe there’s something to it.”
What he did was to present the accusations to the charities concerned. Some of these responded with an invitation to meet the critics.
“I have friends who were critical of some of the charities I chose but who are now supporters after such meetings. It is quite humbling,” said Alvin.
Last year, Project Intan won the President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award for the Kampung Spirit category. Alvin feels ready to call time on the project.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years. I feel it best to quit when we’re on a high. The programme, the formula is the same, and rather than have the the volunteers and supporters not tell me they want to get out of this because they ‘paiseh’, I’ve decided we should end it, at least in its current form.”
And Alvin said the amount of money raised was never his main target.
“My own KPIs for Project Intan are: people knowing about the charity, people touched and moved by the work that my friends and I are doing, young children remembering they got to play in this crazy place and maybe they do some good when they grow up, people tapping their feet, remembering the old days, and leaving the place with thoughts and questions on what this event was about so they remain conscious about being charitable – these are what drive me,” he said.
“We may come back next year as a street event or work with a bank on another organisation, I don’t know now, but something will happen,” he added.
If you are inclined towards Peranakan culture and feel you’d like to contribute to charity, you can reach them here.