Gill Paul Mohindepaul Singh may not be a familiar name to most Hongkongers but how about Qbobo (literally cute baby in Cantonese)?
We got to know him through TVB.
Many Hongkongers were amazed by this hunky Indian’s versatile, hilarious dance and juggling and most importantly, his almost irreproachable Cantonese. He shot to fame shortly after his maiden appearance in the reality TV show Minutes To Fame in 2005. That was how he earned his affectionate stage name “Qbobo”.
Qbobo was born to a Hong Kong Indian family in 1969. Before making his first splash into the entertainment industry, he worked as an assistant officer at the Correctional Services Department for more than 16 years.
In the next decade, as one of TVB’s most beloved actors, he appeared in more than 40 TV dramas, in particular sitcoms, and in a dozen comedy and action movies as well.
But his growing cult following among locals, including South Asians, didn’t help when his wife, who had been living in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, was denied a Hong Kong passport in 2012.
His wife originally planned to apply for the travel document for easier trips to Scotland where her younger son was attending school and receiving treatment for spine problems.
The Immigration Department didn’t bother with any explanation for the flat refusal, citing “confidentiality”.
Qbobo told media it was a big letdown and he couldn’t understand why since many of their fellow Indians in Hong Kong who couldn’t speak fluent Cantonese could get their Hong Kong passports.
That, ultimately, forced the couple to decide to emigrate to Scotland for the sake of their children. Like all the new arrivals there, Qbobo had to be physically in Scotland for the most part of the initial years so as to qualify for residency. That forced him, very reluctantly, to bid farewell to his fans in Hong Kong.
Qbobo started a new chapter in his performing career a year later when he returned to Hong Kong. In July, with the help of stenographers, he published a book in Chinese, Made In Hong Kong, a memoir of his own life and that of other South Asians. It’s a first-person account of the living history of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities.
“Hong Kong is my home. I’m always proud of my Hong Kong identity,” he wrote on the cover of the book.
“We also love fish balls and steamed rice rolls. We also grew up watching Bruce Lee and Stephen Chow movies. We South Asians are all made in Hong Kong. Can society count us as Hongkongers?” he asked at the end of the book.
I recently had a casual chat with Qbobo, in Cantonese of course.
Shen: Many of your fans are still curious about your family. Tell us how you grew up in Hong Kong.
Qbobo: My grandfather went from India to Shanghai alone in the 1930s and worked in the British Settlement. Later, he raised his own family there. They all fled to Hong Kong after China fell to the communists in 1949.
I went to Matteo Ricci Primary School, where most of the students were locals, and very quickly learned to speak Cantonese and how to use chopsticks.
My father was rather worried that I might become too “Chinese” and decided to send me to Sir Ellis Kadoorie Secondary School (Sookunpoo), a government school for ethnic minorities, so as to mingle more with my compatriots and other South Asians.
I joined the Hong Kong Correctional Services and I started to pick up my Cantonese with the help of local colleagues. I ended up spending 16 years there.
I don’t think my childhood was anything different from other Chinese kids back then. We all played in street parks, adored Cantopop singers like Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam and Samuel Hui, watched TVB’s children show 430 Space Shuttle every afternoon, and of course went to movies for Bruce Lee, Chow Yun-fat and Stephen Chow.
Shen: But still you live in two cultures — the local one and the Indian one. How did that influence your childhood?
Qbobo: I usually ate a lot of fishballs after school and I also used chopsticks like my classmates. But at home my father always wanted us not to forget our own culture and where we were from. We spoke Punjabi, went to Sikh temples and all family members would put on traditional clothing (long loose trousers and a long-sleeved jacket for men, long trousers over dress known as Salwar Kameez and Chuni (scarf) to cover the head for women every Sunday.
Shen: What made you give up your job to become an actor?
Qbobo: Perhaps I was born with a penchant for acting. I liked to sing Alan Tam songs so my colleagues signed me up for a TVB reality show in 2005. At the beginning, I just wanted to let people know that South Asians could also sing in Cantonese.
I entered the finals and got many show invitations and so I resigned from the Correctional Services.
I wanted to project a positive image for Indians and other South Asians in the city.
Throughout history people from India contributed greatly to Hong Kong — most of the officers were Indians in the earliest days of the disciplined services, the University of Hong Kong was established with large donations from Sir Mody and other Indian businessmen, the Star Ferry was founded by an Indian Parsee merchant and we all know that CLP is owned by the Kadoorie family from Mumbai.
But the government is now under fire for taking in refugees from South Asia and granting them non-refoulement permissions. This has somehow affected how Hong Kong society sees the entire South Asian community.
Shen: Why did you want to publish the book?
Qbobo: I had the idea for years. I have always been wondering what makes a person a genuine Hongkonger. Are Hongkongers ethnic Chinese only? As a metropolis Hong Kong has residents of all races and color. Since I was born and raised here, I consider myself a Hongkonger, even though some may not agree.
Racial discrimination is everywhere in this world and the problem in Hong Kong is not that serious by comparison. I have the luck to be an actor and I hope I can do something to raise people’s awareness of the life and rights of South Asians who also live here.
Shen: Since you’ve also lived in Scotland as well, tell me which place you like more, Hong Kong or Scotland?
Qbobo: I still love Hong Kong more, it’s my home.
We emigrated because we had to plan for our kids after my wife was denied a Hong Kong passport. We tried our best to settle into society but sadly there are still some hurdles, some arise from government policies or the system itself.
One more thing, Hong Kong’s political status is worrying, with all the dissension among people getting deeper rather than healing up. The housing problem has shown no sign of improvement either… Homes are getting ever smaller and more expensive.
All parents want a better future for their kids, so do we.
Shen: What are the problems and difficulties South Asians face in Hong Kong?
Qbobo: It’s not easy for Indians, Pakistanis or Nepalese to find a job. If you don’t speak Cantonese or can’t write or read Chinese, you just can’t get hired even if you have a college diploma.
Say if there is also a Westerner candidate who doesn’t know Chinese either, the chances are that the white guy is more likely to land the job.
Chinese language capabilities are vital for South Asians if they seek to move up the ladder and thus the government has been allocating more resources to training programs and vocational Chinese language courses.
Shen: How do you plan for your future career? Are we going to see more of your TV dramas and movies?
Qbobo: My wife wants me to go back to Scotland to spend more time with her and our kids and I think I may call it a day for my career in three to four years’ time, perhaps in 2020.
But I will always carry my Hong Kong identity even if I leave and don’t come back one day. Hong Kong is always my home.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 17
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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