Set in the rough and tumble Victorian Goldfields of the 1850s, SBS’s new four-part drama series New Gold Mountain takes a familiar slice of history and views it from an unusual angle: the perspective of the Chinese immigrants who worked their claims alongside European miners, dealing with prejudice and suspicion as well as the hardships of frontier life. The title comes from their name for the Goldfields; they called the Californian Goldfields ‘Gold Mountain’ for the richness of the strikes, and when that rush was played out, Victoria became ‘New Gold Mountain’.
Yoson An stars as Leung Wei Shing, a community leader or “headman” among the Chinese miners who must balance his own ambitions against both the needs of his people and the demands of the European majority. When a white woman with covert connections to the Chinese community is found murdered, Shing finds himself in the hotseat, trying to solve the killing and prevent racial tensions on the Goldfields from boiling over.
Leung Wei Shing is a fictional character, but he and his milieu are based on real people and actual historical occurrences; in Shing’s specific case, he’s derived from Fook Shing, a man who came to the Goldfields to find his fortune like so many others, but wound up becoming Australia’s first Chinese detective.
As series creator Peter Cox explains, the historical Fook Shing offered a unique position from which to tell his story. “What was interesting about him is he definitely rode this kind of morally ambiguous line in the way that he operated,” he tells us. “He just felt very human straight away; he wasn’t a mythologised character that was symbolic of something. He reacted the way a human being would react in a position that’s really difficult, where he’s kind of trying to survive. On one hand he’s employed by his European bosses, and he needs the money to live, but on the other hand he’s arresting Chinese people, so he’s kind of riding a line.”
Cox is an acclaimed television writer who has previously created The Cult and The Pretender for broadcast in his native New Zealand, but New Gold Mountain is his most ambitious project yet: a complex historical mystery drama that encompasses themes of race, class and colonialism, set against a backdrop of rapid social and cultural change. This sort of fare is more common on American screens – HBO’s Deadwood is the obvious point of comparison – but locally a project of this scope is a relatively rare bird.
“We really wanted to make a Western,” Cox says. “There’s guns and murder and it’s chaotic and life or death and right there in your face, you know? It’s this moment where people are getting rich or they’re getting poor, it feels like it’s one of the big turning points in history, where people can get gold and working class people suddenly can become rich.
“The basic premise was to hook the audience with this murder and not to tell a generic kind of murder/detective story, but instead have the murder be this event that sends these ripples out into the community and gets people active. So it’s partly about finding out who the killer is, but at least as much is about who’s to blame and who’s a scapegoat and who’s not.”
However, in telling a story about the Chinese diaspora Cox, who is a white man, recognised that he would need help. “I actually come from a position where I do a lot of my writing pretty much myself. Previous series I’ve written largely on my own, but this one really required a higher level of collaboration.”
To that end, Cox and his team assembled a creative team that includes director Corrie Chen and writer Benjamin Law, to ensure authenticity in their approach. “It’s really important to have really strong collaborators in the show like Corrie and Ben. Partly it’s on me to do a lot of reading and understand what’s going on, and just listen and try to understand that there are things that I actually don’t know about and to kind of just listen and go, ‘Oh, okay. All right. Let’s do that.’”
Additional help came from historian Sophie Couchman, who advised on the series, and Benjamin Wilson Mountford, who has extensively researched the real Fook Shing. But as Cox explains, for real authenticity his research had to include not just the immediate events and personalities of the time and place, but everything that fed into them – a gargantuan task.
“It’s really important to not just purely focus on what’s happening in Australia at the time. You really need to delve into how the Chinese in Australia are not just being affected by the moment that they’re in, but also where they came from, the kind of cultural and political stuff that’s going on in China at the time, like the Taiping Rebellion. And you have to understand what the British crown wanted, which was something different to what the diggers wanted. So they are in conflict too, and all these conflicts are part of this large web. It took me a long time to really feel like I understood what the characters were thinking.”
All the work paid off; New Gold Mountain is a riveting drama and a fascinating window on a forgotten corner of Australian history. And with the historical Shing’s exploits continuing well into the 1880s, there’s plenty of room for a follow-up series, if audiences prove keen.
“From my point of view as a writer, when we finished up on the show, I just really missed the characters, you know?” Cox says. “I would like to see them keep going, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see.”
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: