Brian Thomas Burrell Was a Mormon Missionary. Now, He’s a Hong Kong Celebrity
The Cantonese-speaking actor has starred in TVB dramas and comedies for the past 20 years. His role in the 2007 sitcom “Best Selling Secrets” gave him his nickname, "Brother One."
I grew up in a Mormon family in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was totally a nerd. I wore glasses and braces for six years. At age 16, I took off the braces, put on contact lenses, and suddenly turned handsome. Then I got popular with the girls. But I have always been a shy boy. While with the girls I liked, I could barely say anything.
Mormon boys normally become missionaries when they’re around 19 to 21 years old. I preached in Boston. One day, someone asked me if I wanted to learn a second language. I started learning Russian and Cambodian. I became a volunteer in Cambodia for two years. I knew enough to communicate with locals after the first half-year. When I got back to the U.S. I became a court interpreter.
I met my ex-wife, who is from Hong Kong and was studying in Utah. We got married the third month after we met. After she graduated in 1995, we decided to move to Hong Kong. I taught in a kindergarten for a year and a half, studying computer science at night. Then I helped an IT company to answer phone calls from mainland customers.
By that time I could already speak fluent Cantonese, so I started to take a Putonghua course in my free time. I had a double major in Asian Studies and Chinese Literature after three years. I changed jobs every two years. Every time I changed my job, my salary doubled. I saw [western Hong Kong actor] Gregory Charles Rivers on TV. I said to myself: If he can be an actor here, why can’t I?
I started doing some part-time acting in 2001. My wife didn’t like it, and we sometimes fought about it. 2003 was a hard time for all Hongkongers. Everyone was suffering under SARS. My wife and I divorced and she took our two kids with her. But I became a full-time actor the same year. Later I joined TVB as a contract artist. I did a lot of work in advertisements, dramas… I was even the “Mad Doctor” in Ocean Park’s Halloween.
I also did some part-time jobs—teaching English, and I was a bodyguard at media events. Once I escorted Jackie Chan. To work at TVB, the first thing to do is to maintain a good relationship with the directors and producers. In 2007, [TVB drama boss] Catherine “Sister” Tsang asked me to take part in [soap opera] “Best Selling Secrets” as “Brother One.” She said I was the first choice—so I immediately said yes.
The character fixed me into the hearts of Hong Kong audiences. Most people who see me on street call me “Brother One”—or, sometimes “Mr. Ho,” as they think I am Ho Kwok-king [Gregory Charles Rivers]. I host a talk show with Gregory, and recently I found out that he was Sister Tsang’s first choice, not me. He was busy with a musical so he turned it down and she found me.
I really care about the accuracy of my Cantonese accent. The difference between me and Gregory is in the accent: He thinks gweilos should keep their accents, but I don’t. There’s a quote, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
I have lived here for more than 20 years. As a Hongkonger, I prefer using Cantonese to communicate. I haven’t spoken English for a long while. Even now it would feel so weird to speak it. Everyone in the world I’m living in speaks Cantonese.