The dark skin and curly hair Xiao Jiguo inherited from his parents rarely gave the former migrant worker from rural Sichuan (四川) much pause for thought – and he certainly never thought they would put him on the road to stardom.
Until one day in 2008, when Xiao, working as a security guard in Guangzhou for 1,000 yuan (HK$1,150) a month, was told by a colleague of his resemblance to a rather famous president who had just been elected in the United States – Barack Obama.
“I realised I did look like him,” Xiao said. “My facial features and my head shape were similar to his.”
Suddenly Xiao, who had dreamt of becoming a singer, saw his opening to the entertainment industry.
He began spending time at internet cafes watching videos of Obama, training himself to smile, frown and gesture like the 44th president of the United States of America.
He also brushed up his best fake English, learning nonsense words with intonation similar to the real thing.
Learning actual English was a bridge too far for Xiao, who dropped out of junior high school at the age of 16 because his peasant family could not afford the tuition for him and his two younger brothers.
He started to perform at local entertainment shows and even had a taste of the big time when his performance on the popular television talent contest Chinese Dream Show went viral online.
But fame on this occasion was fleeting, and by the time his American inspiration was looking towards a second term in office, Xiao was down on his luck once more.
He would spend his days searching mostly in vain for acting jobs, either in Beijing or at the Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang (浙江), where many of China’s movies and television series are filmed.
In the capital, he would wait in front of the Beijing Film Academy at 7am daily, hoping to be cast as an extra. Once or twice a week he would play a nameless role for about 40 yuan a turn – if he was lucky. Often he would wait all day.
Xiao stayed in a basement flat far from the city centre and worked part-time as a restaurant waiter to keep himself afloat, but still he struggled to feed himself. The day before Lunar New Year in 2012, Xiao could not afford his dinner.
He spent two years like this before returning to his hometown in 2014, with a train ticket his younger brother had paid for.
“I felt I wasn’t getting any closer to my dream,” Xiao said. “As an adult I could not even make my own living, so I kind of gave up.”
Xiao took work as a construction worker in Neijiang, southeast Sichuan, though he kept his Obama haircut, always telling his barber to shave his hair to 3mm.
It was another year before Xiao decided to give his Obama act another try, after spotting an online post by an Andy Lau impersonator.
He began marketing himself as “The first Chinese Obama” on social media, claiming he was being “hotly booked”, a phrase he picked up from the Andy Lau advertisement.
A bar in Fujian (福建) province was the first to take the bait and sign him up.
Two songs into his act, Xiao took off his wig to show his short, speckled grey hair and his audience burst into cheers.
“I gave a speech in fake English,” Xiao recalled. “I do not speak any of the language except simple phrases like ‘hello everybody’ and ‘thank you very much’.”
It was the break he needed to launch his career. Commercial invitations soon came flooding in and within months, Xiao was travelling across the country to perform at parties and company galas.
He was paid to endorse housing estates, a stereo brand, a company making construction adhesives and a plastic surgery hospital – though Xiao says he has never had any work done himself.
He was even invited to act in films. Often this would be to play the US president in low-budget flicks, but sometimes the roles would be unrelated, with Xiao also playing a witch and a Tang-dynasty politician during this period.
“I’m lucky that I no longer need to play the extras,” Xiao said. “The Obama look helped me to break into the entertainment industry.”
In late 2015, Xiao hired Hong Kong-based movie producer Billie Chan as his agent, after playing the lead in one of her productions.
By the end of the year, Xiao’s monthly salary had risen from four to six digits. Xiao began renting a 3,000-yuan-a-month studio flat in downtown Beijing and paid off his family’s 80,000 yuan debt which had been keeping his mother awake at night.
Xiao is now a superstar in his home city and the only worry left for his proud parents is when their eldest son will get married.
“They are really concerned,” Xiao said. “In our village, it is too late for a man to get married after 30.”
Compared to the pressure of finding a girlfriend, Xiao is less worried about his career as Obama approaches the end of his term. Indeed, Xiao wonders whether his prospects may improve.
“Because Obama is the president, some advertisers and film producers have concerns making fun of him,” he said. “Maybe I will have more freedom playing him after he leaves office.”
But, just as the real president may need to readjust to life after the Oval Office, so too may Xiao.
His agent doubts whether people will still be interested in the Chinese Obama when the 45th president of the US takes office.
With this in mind, Chan has been branding Xiao as a professional actor rather than impersonator.
In November, Xiao will play the lead – the head of a Cantonese opera group – in a thriller produced by Chan.
“Many people have labelled him the Chinese Obama, but Xiao is more than that,” Chan said. “He has talent in acting. He can play a variety of roles if there are opportunities.”
Xiao returned to the Beijing Film Academy this year, not as an extra but a student. He is now taking acting classes at the top film school where director Zhang Yimou and actress Zhao Wei once studied.
Recently, he moved a step closer to his singing dream by releasing his first song – I am oppa. (Oppa, which means brother in Korean, has become a popular way in China to address young men).
“I am not Obama, Oba-obama, I am an Oppa, Oppa-oppa-ma,” the lyrics go.
“I’m happy to play Obama, but I hope my role is not limited to that,” Xiao said. “I’m a real actor now, and I should play whatever I want.”