MR Pang was near the end of his tether. He had decided to divorce his wife because she couldn't, or wouldn't, shake her gambling habit. But it wouldn't end there, he sighed, because she still owed a pile of money that would have to come from him. About 10 minutes later, it was an anonymous housewife doing the sighing. She missed the early days of sweetness and light when she fell in love with her husband, and was desperate to rekindle the flames of romance. She sounded as lost and lonely as a young girl. A bit like the nine-year-old schoolgirl who said all she wanted to do was stay at home and listen to sad songs because her parents either left her home alone while they went out at night to study, or cold-shouldered her when they were back. The one thing they had in common was that all three will have gone to bed that night if not happier, then at least closer to understanding their problems. And all three had a straight-faced, pony-tailed young man to thank for their peace of mind. That young man is Gary Ngan, the host of Impulse Strikes Again - one of Commercial Radio and Hong Kong's most popular shows - and probably the closest thing the territory has to an agony uncle. From Monday to Saturday, between 7 pm and 11 pm on the Chinese channel, Ngan takes his place behind a microphone in a basement studio and works his magic. Impulse Strikes Again is an unusual blend of phone-in show and easy listening, bound together by the smoothest, most listener-friendly voice in Hong Kong radio (an American friend, who didn't speak a word of Cantonese, made a point of tuning in because she maintained one 'uh huh' from Ngan made her knees tremble). Its stars, however, are Mr and Mrs Public, who call in night after night with their problems, showing a candour and even vulnerability rare in Hong Kong. Troubled students, lovelorn casualties of office romance, 1997 worriers - they are all there. Even, onoccasion, Sleepless in San Po Kong. Although he may be the equivalent of the troubled, insomniac widower played by Tom Hanks in the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, Ngan has little in common with radio psychologist Marcia Fieldstone whose on-air counselling of Hanks sparks a romance with Meg Ryan. To start with, Ngan has no professional counselling qualifications. 'I just try to project myself as a friend to the public,' he said, in purring English tones. 'I used to worry that I wasn't qualified to do this. And I thought of inviting psychologists onto the show to deal with the problems, but the public won't accept them. Chinese people are conservative. If they face a psychologist it means they are sick, but they will always deny it. 'I just put myself in the position of being a friend. Even if they tell me how great I am, I remind myself I'm just being a friend. I never make decisions for them, if they have a problem or just feel lost, I simply get them to bring the problem out. 'After the conversation I never say you should do this or that. I say: 'So what are you going to do or what do you think?' Normally they give a positive answer.' In business terms, the answers have been highly positive since Ngan took over the show three years ago and transformed it from a phone-in request show to a compelling way of spending an evening. Impulse Strikes Again has the most dramatic effect on people:taxi drivers veer dangerously from lane to lane as they talk back at the radio, office workers chat over morning congee about the previous night's problems, and Sleepless in San Po Kong tells himself that tonight's the night. 'The most distressing call I've ever had came from a guy of about 24 who was obviously very depressed and wanted to talk, but just couldn't speak about the problem,' Ngan said. 'He was crying and said he had a disease but wouldn't name it. I encouraged him and, after a long time, he said he had contracted AIDS and he hadn't told anyone - parents, friends, anyone. He said it had been his first ever sexual contact. He was gay but had refused to accept he was gay, but experimented one time. He felt ashamed and didn't know how to face his life.' That night Ngan spoke to the young man once he had finished his shift. The caller said he was angry and confused, and felt cheated, and wanted to pass the disease on to someone else. Ngan did all he could to calm him, and asked him to leave his number so he could pass it on to a special counselling service. It wasn't the first time Ngan had hung up his headphones then carried on being 'a friend' late into the night and without pay. 'Sometimes you can't finish some kind of topics on the show if the caller is in a very bad situation or emotional condition, and often they really want to talk to me after the show,' he said. 'Then I will talk to them and transfer them to a professional. 'And sometimes the callers affect me. I spoke to Mr Pang after the show and I asked if I could speak to his wife. She said she felt ashamed of her gambling and wanted to quit but didn't think he helped her enough.' As anyone who knows the show will admit, there are times when the callers are pathetically dependent on Ngan. And he admits that being friendly can have its disadvantages. 'Normally, if I talk to them after the show, by the end of the conversation they askme to be their friend,' he said. 'I refuse. I remind them that their lives are theirs, that they have to depend on themselves, make friends and begin with their day-to-day life. 'I tell them I am too far away. And if someone really feels lonely, I say just write to me.' Ngan is intensely secretive about his personal life - even in interviews. Callers ask how old he is, where he studied, whether he is married, but all questions meet with a subtle refusal. He doesn't take his problems home either. 'When I'm in the studio I throw myself totally into the show, but it doesn't freak me out, because it's just life,' he said. 'Thank God I have a show like this. Every time I feel bad, I just walk into the studio and I feel free. I get this strong feeling that people mostly are unhappier than me - sometimes I give them ideas to help them but in a way I am also learning myself.' Nevertheless, Ngan's aptitude for juggling people's emotional baggage has seen his career take off after eight years handling regular music shows. His second book of short stories was published a month ago, he released a CD last year, and will be releasinganother after a promotional trip to Taiwan this month. He also hopes to start painting again. 'It's a job,' he insisted. 'You have to respect it and you have to do the best you can. In my private life I don't usually talk much, but this show encourages me to talk. I would also like to be able to put something back into society, maybe with proceeds from my paintings.' When asked to pinpoint the secret of his show's success, Ngan shrugged and fired the question back. Maybe it is his voice, maybe the music. Some people find him very reasonable, others think he is learned. 'I just try to keep the mood up and be positive,' he smiled. 'Life is too hard already. I don't want to make it harder.'