For all that it boasts an impressive ensemble cast and intricate storyline, SBS’s new historical drama pivots on the choices of one character: Chinese mining camp headman Leung Wei Shing. Acting as a liaison between white interests and immigrant Chinese miners in the Victorian Goldfields of the 1850s, Shing finds himself in the hot-seat when a white woman with links to the Chinese community is murdered. He’s forced to balance his own desires with the needs of his community and the whites’ demands for retribution – and if he can find some justice for the victim, that’s a distant third or fourth.
Thrust into this role is Yoson An, familiar to viewers of SBS’s Dead Lucky and Disney’s live action Mulan. Born in Zhuhai, China, but raised in Auckland, New Zealand, An has done his share of period dramas, but knew when he read the role that he was looking at something special.
Speaking to us from Puerto Rico where he’s currently filming the Gerard Butler vehicle (literally) The Plane, An explains. “There's something different about New Gold Mountain, and it’s that it’s predominantly told from a Chinese perspective. Now, I’ve never seen that before in any show from Australia and New Zealand, so I thought that was something very special.”
Indeed. Created by another New Zealander, Peter Cox, New Gold Mountain is firmly rooted in the shared experiences of Chinese miners who fled strife in the home country and the played-out booms of the American West to try and strike it rich in the Australian colonies, finding racism, distrust and persecution along with the usual hardships of the prospecting life.
It’s an ambitious series, and its lead character is a complex one. An’s character, Shing, is based in part on the historical figure Fook Shing, who was a headman, or community leader, on the Goldfields before making his mark as the first Chinese detective in Melbourne. But Shing is no virtuous, white-hatted frontier hero; he’s his own man with his own goals, and he’s not afraid to put them ahead of tradition or duty. An nails it; it’s a charismatic turn, as befits a series lead, but he excels at revealing Shing’s complexities and contradictions in subtle and compelling ways.
“I mean, morally ambiguous is definitely the right word!” he laughs. “Shing, he’s not the typical model minority that you would see; he’s very human in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways a lot of his actions are driven by greed and fear. His fear of becoming like his parents: broke, poor nobodies who died in the war. So, he believes that power and fortune are the only way forward to survive in this new world. He doesn’t really care whether you're Chinese or European, he’s really just there for himself.”
That moral complexity aligns Shing and New Gold Mountain as a whole with the more ambitious and ambiguous Westerns of recent years such as HBO’s Deadwood and Cinemax’s Warrior, that eschew the black and white morality play model of earlier works for grittier ethical fare. It also presented An with some enjoyable acting challenges.
“To me, it was quite fun! Yeah, it’s not often I get to explore that side of me because I’m not really like that as a person. So being able to tune into that mindset and that persona on a daily basis was quite the challenge, and also quite interesting for me to dive deep and bring that out of myself, for that to be truthful.”
However, his own immigrant experience is a far cry from Shing’s. “The stuff I draw on for Shing isn’t my life growing up in New Zealand,” he tells us. “I kind of acclimated to being in New Zealand at quite a young age; culturally I’d say I’m Kiwi, I’m quite westernised. But definitely my earliest life in China and having dipped my toes in that world helped me in marrying where I am to where Shing is.
“Shing kind of sees himself as someone who abandoned his moral values and traditional values just to serve himself,” he continues. “I don’t say I’m like that – I’m not! But there are definitely life experiences, not really my personal experiences, but people I’ve come across in life that I draw from, that I use for Shing.”
Ultimately, An sees Shing’s complex morality as being key in promoting better representation on screen.
“If we don’t represent a community accurately,” he muses, “the audience is going to walk out thinking you’ve portrayed that community as a model minority on screen, which is absolutely not true. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. We all have the whole full spectrum of human emotions and that needs to be acknowledged and recognised.”
New Gold Mountain premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS and SBS On Demand. Meet the cast and crew, and find out more about life on the goldfields, at the New Gold Mountain program page. See the four-part series on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9.30pm over two big weeks, screening 13 October, 14 October then 20 October and 21 October. Watch the trailer here or start watching episode one: