STROLLING DOWN Nathan Road, Gill Mohinderpaul Singh is greeted by dozens of pedestrians, young and old. Addressing him by his Chinese nickname, Q Bobo, or Henry, his character in a comedy series, several schoolchildren wielding camera phones ask to have their photos taken with him. Language barriers and cultural differences can make it difficult for non-Chinese residents to fit in locally, even if they're born here. But thanks to his flawless Cantonese, Gill is now a familiar face to millions as an actor with TVB. Life has taken a big turn for the 36-year-old ethnic Indian, who first came to public attention two years ago when he won the talent show A Minute to Fame, a local version of American Idol. Audiences loved Gill's humour, Indian dance and rendition of Canto-pop hits, and he started getting invitations to perform at private functions, paving the way for his move into entertainment last year. Gill had been an officer with the Correctional Services Department (CSD) for almost 16 years. 'Show business and the disciplinary forces have turned me into totally different persons,' he says. 'But no matter what job I've done, Hong Kong has been very good to me. The city has given me many wonderful experiences, and opportunities.' As the recent gazetting of the Race Discrimination Bill indicates, Hong Kong has its share of bigots. Gill's experiences, however, have generally been pleasant, due partly perhaps to his cheerful, outgoing personality. 'All over the world there's always discrimination in some way. But most people in Hong Kong have been very good to ethnic minorities and the door is always open,' says Gill, whose family came from Punjab. 'As long as we show our hard work, the local community will accept us eventually.' There was little bias even two decades ago when he was working part-time in a fast food restaurant while at secondary school, Gill says. 'I worked very hard so my team leaders, who were Chinese, liked me very much.' For the first five years of his career with the CSD, Gill was stationed at the Green Island Reception Centre where he helped deal with the flood of Vietnamese boat people, and wound up his service there as part of the beefed-up security during the World Trade Organisation conference last year. Gill's colleagues helped him improve his Cantonese, which allowed him to take the plunge into show business. 'At first I was worried that the local artists might be unfriendly because I'm Indian and new to the industry,' he says. 'But they're all very nice to me and appreciate that I can speak Cantonese.' Now Hong Kong people meet him over dinner most week nights through the TVB series Welcome to the House, in which he plays a yoga instructor named Henry. His entertainment career has opened another channel between the local and Indian communities, and Gill is delighted. 'Many South Asians who used to watch only Indian movies and listen to Indian music have started watching the Chinese soap opera because I'm in there,' he says. His wife, Gurinder Kaur, is in that category. 'She doesn't know Cantonese, but she watches anyway, just for me.' The attention contrasts with his Indian friends' mockery when he asked them to be the back-up dancers for his talent show bid. 'They said I was crazy,' Gill says. 'I told them singing Cantonese songs and doing Indian dance would be a great mix of cultures - a selling point. But they refused to give me a hand. They said it was a talent show targeting locals and all judges were Chinese, so my chance of winning would be very slim. 'Nobody supported me when I decided to quit the CSD either; they think show business is short-lived. But I want to make history, and I believe I can achieve something. 'Some in the Indian community think my performance is just a clown show. But what I do brings happiness and laughter to Hong Kong people, who need to relax.' Gill's perseverance has since proved them wrong. Not only is he the only full-time Indian actor at TVB, he's appeared in drama and movies, including Jackie Chan's Rob-B-Hood. Gill is also often invited to perform at Chinese weddings, annual dinners and retirement homes, where his rendition of singer Alan Tam Wing-lun's Canto-pop hit, Love Trap, is a frequent request. But there haven't been any invitations to sing at Indian weddings. 'I guess my performance is closer to local tastes. Though I'm Indian, I consider myself a Hongkonger, too,' he says. Tracing his family history, Gill says their connection with China dates back to the late 1930s. A talent for languages seems to run in the family - his grandfather, who had dealt with Chinese traders in India, was recruited to work as a translator for an Englishman in Shanghai. He did well enough to buy a house and farm. But the Japanese invasion changed all that. 'My family survived the Japanese occupation in Shanghai, but the communists confiscated all my grandfather's properties when they took over. My family lost everything overnight. That was why my family moved to Hong Kong,' Gill says. His father placed him in a school for South Asians, fearing that he might be bullied by local kids, but he later transferred to a local school in Primary Four. 'I felt very happy because I could buy fish balls from the canteen and make more Chinese friends and learn Chinese.' He also bought a pair of chopsticks and got his schoolmates to teach him how to use them. 'My mother wasn't happy that I was interested in local culture because she worried I might forget my own.' But her unease didn't discourage him. At 13, he secretly bought cassette of Alan Tam's songs to learn how to sing Love Trap. 'I've been singing it for 20 years,' he says. It's just one way of blending in. 'In Hong Kong, I think we Indians should be more approachable. Locals might want to talk to us, but they're scared because of the way we look, or because they might have to speak in English to us.' In his late teens, Gill cut off the top knot he wore as a Sikh. 'Followers of the religion traditionally don't cut their hair, tying it in a knot instead. My family was enraged when I cut it off. My mother couldn't stop crying and my father didn't talk to me for months,' he says. That's not to say Gill doesn't value his heritage and for all his cultural adaptations, he agreed to an arranged marriage. 'I got married when I was 18, in India. I trusted my parents' choice, and it's turned out to be for the best,' he says. 'My wife is like a little lamb; she's very kind-hearted and cares for us. Although we didn't have a romance, I'm touched by everything she does for me and my family. What more can I ask for?' Now Gill sends his sons, aged three and 16, to local schools to make sure they're proficient in Chinese. 'I hope more Indians in Hong Kong can do more to reach out to the local community so they can enjoy more opportunities,' he says. 'Learning the language is the key. I speak Cantonese to my elder son. There are about 6.5 billion people in the world, and 1.3 billion are in China, and around 1 billion in India. 'Is it important to learn Chinese? You do the maths.'