Actress Yu Mo-lin has built a career on plain looks. She's only had bit parts after more than three decades in television but cornered a niche playing grass-roots characters from uncouth rubbish collectors to gossipy office assistants. Viewers who meet Yu on the street typically greet her with comments such as, 'You don't look as ugly as you do on screen; why does TVB always make you look so bad?' The remarks are unflattering though meant to be kind, but Yu laughs when she recalls them. 'I'm pleased audiences pay so much attention,' says the former TVB actress, who retired this year after 37 years with the TV station. Her exaggerated screen personas owe much to makeup tricks; in person, Yu looks younger than 68. Ironically, retirement may bring Yu more interesting work. In recent months, directors have called offering more substantial roles (as a wise nanny, for instance), and she's delighted. Yu is committed to appearing in one TVB show annually and can't work for other TV stations, but that still leaves her with more options. 'Unlike the past when I was bound by contract to do whatever the company assigned, now I can choose jobs I like,' she says. 'I don't mind playing people like garbage collectors, maids or a crazy villager but they should have some character instead of simply delivering one silly line.' Home is a tiny flat in Mong Kok, but she's content. 'I never envy people who are more successful or earn more than I do,' she says. 'I can't afford anything luxurious, not even expensive skin care or an outfit from a top designer but I appreciate what I have - like good health, which is the most important asset.' Despite modest means, she's keen to help those less fortunate. When TVB presented her with advance long-service payments three years ago, she gave HK$80,000 to a Buddhist charity to help build a school in a poor Guizhou village. The sum is tiny compared to the million-dollar cheques tycoons write to worthy causes but it's a significant chunk of her payout. Admirers soon spread the news over the internet, frustrating her efforts to keep quiet about the donation. 'I was 65 when I received the money. I'm single and don't need to maintain as much savings so I thought of making monthly donations towards the living expenses of poor children on the mainland,' she says. 'But I don't know how long I'd be around for. Education will lead to a brighter future and help lift the children out of poverty; that's better than offering handouts.' During a visit to the village the following year, however, she was distressed to see how deprived the children were. The new school was solid enough but there was no water supply or electricity, and classrooms relied only on natural light. 'I was sad to see that,' she says. Guangzhou-born Yu came to Hong Kong in 1950 with her family when she was about 10. Her mother, a former actress, was divorced and had to raise two daughters on her own. There was no money for study so Yu got a job as a sales assistant after completing primary education. But she apparently inherited her mother's interest in performing and joined a drama club to learn basic acting. When she was 21, Yu won an amateur drama prize, catching the attention of executives at TVB. Set up just a few years earlier, the station was keen to establish a corps of actors and Yu became one of its targets. But she had doubts about a life in entertainment and for several years chose to remain a temporary performer. 'I still kept my sales job,' she says. 'Although I was working on a casual basis, the extra HK$200 a month was attractive side-income.' Yu became an increasingly recognisable face, and in 1976 signed on as a full-time TVB performer. Appearing in melodramas and other shows, she's had so many cameos they're a blur. Yu particularly enjoyed the skits on Enjoy Yourself Tonight, TVB's variety show that ran in the 70s and 80s. Turning up as Wonder Woman in an eye-catching costume was 'hilarious', she says. 'I don't mind being a jester to make the audience laugh. I had no competition as few actresses are willing to take these roles.' Generous with her time as well as money, Yu regularly volunteers for community programmes such as visiting elderly homes. Recent efforts included an appearance as the wicked witch in a stage production of the Wizard of Oz to raise funds for the Children's Cancer Foundation. That may seem like a walk in the park for a professional actress, but Yu spoke little English. Even so, director Alfred Cheung Kin-ting says she was the first person he thought of for the role. 'She's a fast learner, I know this from working with her for more than 20 years,' he says. Her first show in English was 'a challenge', Yu says. 'I taped the dialogue and practised for days. But it wasn't too bad; after leaving school, I'd enrolled in English classes to pick up the basics.' In recent years, she's also ventured on to a different stage - fashion catwalks - after collaborating with local designer William Tang Tat-chi in a charity show organised by the Hospital Authority. Since then, he's invited her to take part in several shows, including his annual showcase last January. Yu is clearly chuffed, recalling how she had to don four-inch heels. 'I like to joke that I'm one of Tang's fashion icons.' Tang says he is drawn by her eccentric individuality. 'I didn't tailor any outfit especially for her, and we distributed clothes to her as we did the other models. We only adjusted the shoulder straps to fit her height,' he says. 'Her appearance is more eye-catching than the professional models on stage and the audience was fixated on her.' To Cheung, her appeal derives from her ordinariness. 'Yu looks so common on the screen she's uncommon,' the director says. Yu says she never makes enemies because she won't vie for a lead role or steal the lime- light. But, just once, she'd like to draw venom. 'I want to play a malevolent character that would make the audience hate me rather than laugh.'