Wondered who the fluent Cantonese-speaking Indian prisoner is in the latest Hong Kong film “Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal”?
Well, he is Singh Hartihan Bitto, a Hong Kong Indian who has featured in more than thirty local films.
Don’t be mistaken by his appearance. Bitto was born and raised in Hong Kong and considers himself to be a Hongkonger.
Nevertheless, Bitto has been aware, right from childhood, that he was different.
His father wanted to get Bitto enrolled in local schools. However, Bitto’s applications were rejected because the schools were doubtful if he could speak Cantonese. In addition, they were worried about potential conflicts between students of different ethnic background.
“As of today, education for the ethnic minority in Hong Kong is still unsatisfactory,” Bitto says.
Concern over Chinese language proficiency is the major reason for setbacks suffered by many Hong Kong Indians in the workplace, even though most of them can speak fluent Cantonese, he points out.
In the early years after Hong Kong handover to China, Hong Kong Indians still had a little competitive edge over the locals given the similar educational background. After all, English was the prominent language of business.
“Many companies were short of people with good English,” Bitto noted.
“Since we speak Cantonese so well without any noticeable accent, we often excel during the phone interview. However, it is a different story when we have the face-to-face meeting.”
Bitto recalls his first-hand experiences where he was made to “await further notification” from companies following interviews. Faced with the problem countless times, he ended up trying out all kinds of blue-collar jobs.
The most promising job was referred to by his father. It was at an air cargo company owned by an Indian. “The boss understood what we suffered,” Bitto says.
As a keen basketball player, Bitto simply could not stay still in the office. So, his boss sent him to the field facilities. Bitto says he has learnt much more at the terminal than his colleagues who sat all day working in the office.
“My first order was signed by an Indian airline!” Bitto exclaims.
He soon mastered the workflow as he has moved from entry-level to high-end positions at the company. Nevertheless, Bitto did not continue his career in the air cargo industry.
When his boss retired, the company was handed over to the management team which was made up of Hong Kong locals. Bitto left because of differences of opinion on some issues.
Bitto did regret that he had not listened to his Indian boss who had advised him to pursue further studies.
As for the film industry, Bitto entered it by chance. At first he was just helping Keith Chan Cheuk-kei, an assistant director, with research for the film “Tactical Unit: Partners”. During the audition, the director could not pick a suitable South Asian for a role and decided to give Bitto a shot instead.
To Bitto, Johnnie To’s “Mad Detective” is the most memorable film he has ever participated in. “In the film, I was chased by an armed police officer. I had to be scared, but I just couldn’t come up with the emotion.”
“Mr. To was nice. He didn’t scold me, but instead asked me if I really didn’t know what it meant to be scared.”
Bitto was lucky that he could receive some tips from his idol Sean Lau Ching-wan on how to control his breathing for acting that scene.
Along his acting career, Bitto received important support from his wife Donna.
Donna helped her husband with the scripts of the drama “A Bollywood … in HK!” and Bitto’s latest film “Imprisoned”.
“Donna reads aloud the scripts word by word for me on the recorder. I need not read the scripts myself after a few rehearsals.”
Compared to other industries, Hong Kong film industry is comparatively fair as it is possible for people to enter the industry when opportunities are given.
However, Bitto feels the local media should portray a better picture of South Asians, and shed the stereotypes.
“Regardless of TV dramas or films, South Asians are always perceived as ‘thieves’. There are strong common stereotypes about us in Hong Kong.”
He believes that Hong Kong as a multi-ethnic society can produce more diverse films with people of different ethnicity.
“The era of black and white films has long gone. It’s time to have different colored people appearing on the screen to reflect the reality.”
Bitto is currently writing a screenplay which he hopes can lead to a movie one day, with the lead role to be played by himself.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 5.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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