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My Life My Way Straits Times Series

Embracing philanthropy after cancer took his wife

When Mr Vince Yip's wife died at the age of 49 in January 2010 after a five-year battle with cancer, he berated God.

"What sort of life plan do you have for me? You took away my father, and my mother when I was a child," said the 60-year-old, whose father left the family when he was born and whose mother died when he was 10. "And in my adult life, you took away my wife. What's my next big tragedy?"

He struggled before surrendering to acceptance.

"I now look at my life as though it's a stage. I've been given a role and I have to play it out. It's time now for the next act. I choose to anticipate it with optimism," he says.

A former banking executive turned businessman, he now spends his time travelling and doing philanthropic work in different parts of Asia. The man who brought award-winning Australian gelato franchise Gelatissimo here is also planning to start a chocolate business.

Looking like an Asian clone of Hollywood celebrity dog whisperer Cesar Millan, the sartorially spiffy Mr Yip cuts an arresting figure with his nerdy glasses, hipster goatee and trendily coiffed salt-and-pepper hair.

His well-heeled appearance belies a tragically deprived and traumatic childhood. His Lothario father was a master hairdresser from Hong Kong who went to different small towns in Malaysia to train hairdressers.

"My mother was his second wife. His first wife actually signed a letter allowing him to take a second one," says Mr Yip, the youngest of four children and the only son.

When he was born, his father left the family. To make ends meet, his mother became a seamstress in Penang and gave away her second daughter to a couple in Ipoh.

Believing that he was bad luck, she sent her son to join his sister in Ipoh when he was two. "The intention was to give me away," he says. "But I was naughty. I would light fires and burn curtains. So when I was about five, the couple sent me back to my mother in Penang."

Life was harsh. There were days when the family had no money and food. A sickly woman, his mother died when he was 10.

"The night before she died, she told me to study hard and buy myself a bowl of fishball kway teow soup. She knew I loved fishballs."

One of his maternal uncles, a dispensary clerk with six children, took him and his sisters in.

One day, his father appeared out of the blue and took Mr Yip and his third sister to live with his third wife, who ran a hairdressing salon in Sitiawan, Perak. His eldest sister went to live with one of her teachers, doing domestic chores in return for food and board.

"Each day after school, we had to wash and dry the perming sheets and sweep hair off the floor. It was slavery," he recalls.

They were rescued a couple of years later by his eldest sister, who gave up further studies to become a nurse in England. She had to pay their father - who later died in the 1990s - a sum of money before he would let her younger siblings go.

Mr Yip next lived with a relative of their half-brother, the son of his father's first wife. His bed for the next couple of years was the floor.

In 1974, he left for Guildford in Surrey, where his sister was, to do his A levels. "In those days, if you were below 18 and a citizen in the Commonwealth, you could get free education in the UK," he says.

His results were good enough to get him into the prestigious London School of Economics, but he opted for the University of Bath because London was too expensive.

"I applied for a hardship grant for overseas students and didn't have to pay any fees for the three years," says the economics major, who put himself through university by taking on several part-time jobs.

Back home in Penang, he worked briefly as an executive assistant before he became a management trainee with an international bank in Kuala Lumpur.

The bank's management quickly noticed his potential and gave him several plum roles in information management, credit card marketing and electronic banking.

By the time he was 29, he was drawing an extremely handsome tax-free salary and given a housing allowance.

By then, he had also met the love of his life, Ms Tan Siew Chin, a marketing executive, whom he married in 1990. They worked and lived in Sydney for three years before settling in Singapore in 1991.

Their careers went well and life was good for the next decade and more. But in 2004, back in Singapore after another four-year stint in Sydney, his wife, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Mr Yip then left the banking industry to spend more time with her. He inked a deal with Australia's famous Gelatissimo chain to start a franchise in Singapore.

"I wanted a business in which everybody could be my customer, and which was portable and quantifiable," he says, adding that he also wanted a business that could be run by a good team.

He opened his first outlet outside Shaw House in Scotts Road in 2005. It chalked up $1 million in sales in 11 months and was named Singapore's best gelato by Tatler magazine for six consecutive years. Another outlet and two Malaysian franchises followed.

Although his wife responded well initially to treatment, her condition deteriorated in the fifth year when the cancer spread to her brain.

Mr Yip took it upon himself to be her sole caregiver. He tended to her every need, lugging along packets of traditional Chinese medicine herbs and Chinese clay brewing pots when they travelled, and holding her when she screamed in agony at night.

When asked if he felt resentful during those six months, he replies: "When you love someone, you don't question. You just do what you have to do. It's not that hard."

The tragic episode changed him in more ways than one.

"Even though I was earning a lot of money before, I was very insecure and had this fear that I didn't have enough. But I realised that money doesn't matter when you're sick," he says.

A couple of years after his wife died, he sold off Gelatissimo to start anew. He did as she had suggested: travel and do charity, especially involving children. Although they did not have any of their own, he and his wife loved children.

While working on a project on micro-financing for poor farmers in Hanoi, he learnt about Sight To Sky, a Singapore non-governmental organisation (NGO) which does annual mobile clinics in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The outfit focuses on vision problems that plague communities exposed to strong ultraviolet rays at high altitudes and in places with extreme weather conditions.

There is a reason behind Sight To Sky's mission resonating with Mr Yip. On the day his wife died, he was approached by healthcare professionals and asked if he would donate her corneas.

A grieving Mr Yip sent them away, shouting: "God made her whole and she would go home whole."

Guilt, however, set in.

"I had a lot of time to reflect on what Chin would have done. She would have given away her corneas. That was who she was."

Since then, he has raised funds and gone on the last two trips organised by Sight To Sky to Ladakh in India. "They help about 1,000 people every trip. Because I didn't give away Chin's corneas, I'm now helping more people," says Mr Yip, who is helping to raise funds for a solar school that the NGO is building in Ladakh.

His entrepreneurial juices kicked in again while visiting Porto in Portugal earlier this year. He chanced upon a chocolaterie, hit it off with the owner and is now finalising arrangements to distribute a range of artisanal chocolate in Singapore.

"I still want to sell joy. Chocolate is even easier and simpler than gelato. There's no need for equipment. I can also do it online," he says.

After what he has been through, he now has a simple approach to life. "I want to see more of and be more engaged with the world; there are still things I don't understand and which I want to learn.

"And if I'm blessed enough to be able to help other people, I should."

This is the third of a six-part series on individuals, aged 55 and above, who lead active and meaningful lives. For more information on the MyWay Programme, click here.

Photo credits to Seah Kwang Peng