From the off, there’s a lot going on in the down and literally dirty streets, camps and gum-tree lined banks of hit SBS show New Gold Mountain. As written by Peter Cox and directed by Corrie Chen, it’s a multi-faceted gem that blends a pioneering Western spirit with a bloody murder mystery.
And yet it’s also so much more than that. Examining the oft-unspoken history of Chinese immigrants during Victoria’s infamous Gold Rush mayhem and the fraught relations between the community of have-a-go miners, the take-it-all British forces and the determination to survive of the First Nations peoples, it unwraps layer upon layer of personal and political upheaval. All that plus a brilliant showcase for women making their way in the world in spite of the barriers constantly thrown in their way.
But who are the main players and what do they have at stake?
Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An)
Wearing his cowboy hat, the dashing Shing – played by Chinese-New Zealander Yoson An – may hail from a peasant farm in Guangdong Province, but he’s essentially a Chinese analogue of Ned Kelly in many ways. An antihero with his own agenda who nevertheless has a warped moral compass that compels him to fight for the good of the under-represented. Unlike Ned, who attacked the British empire from well outside, he is a more mercurial figure who plays many sides.
As the nominal leader of the Chinese miners’ camp, Shing wants what’s best for his people and will schmooze with the odious British Commissioner to do so. But he’s also pocketing a skim off the top of the gold they uncover and, on the downlow, hunting for new sources he plans to keep secret. All of which will put his camp and his own skin at risk, unless he and loyal assistant Gok (Chris Masters Mah) can stave off war. And that’s before his double dealings see him at odds with another Chinese powerbroker newly arrived from the dried up gold fields in California.
Annie (Maria Angelico)
Shing may be our way into this literally cut-throat world, but he’s not the first person we lay eyes on. Sometimes a thrilling story is as much about who’s missing. The Newsreader star Maria Angelico’s Annie is our first glimpse of what's going on, wearing a bright yellow dress and wading into water with rocks in her pockets. Who is she? Why is she so set on ending it all? And how does she go from this seemingly tragic finale and then on to another one entirely, with a brief glimmer of hope between the two cruelly extinguished? This is the mystery that threatens to spark all-out war between the uneasy camps, with Shing determined to point the police away from his men.
Frederick Standish (Daniel Spielman)
Another of the show’s historical figures brought to life, he’s also a character who, like Patrick, has come to the Victorian Goldfields looking for a fresh start. An alcoholic with a gambling addiction and debts to escape, he’s attempting to remake himself, working his political connections to land a gig as the British force’s ‘Chinese protector’. It’s his job to oversee the unfair tax to be levied on the Chinese miners, but he has sympathy for Shing and his men. Not that their relationship is uncomplicated, as he's also pressing Shing to give up one of his camp in an unfurling murder investigation - a demand that will put Shing in an impossible situation.
Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland)
We don’t get to hear anywhere near enough about the remarkable women who bucked overwhelming adversity to make their own way in the world during these wild days of men carving up the globe for themselves. Which is why we love Vikings star Alyssa Sutherland’s newspaper proprietor. Freed from her abusive husband by a handy bout of typhoid, she has taken over the business instead of heading home to England.
In a canny move, Belle spins her own gold from lead by using the printing press to start up a Chinese-language offering, with a little help from Chinese local Chen (Sebastian Li), an apothecary’s assistant turned newspaperman. All of which leads her to Shing. She’ll use her high society connections to help him win more rights for his miners, if only he’ll fork out on advertising in her pages. Her investigative journalism nous finds her determined to find out what happened to Annie.
Cheung Lei (Mabel Li)
Belle isn’t the only entrepreneurial woman in town, as ruthless businesswoman Cheung Lei – played by newcomer Mabel Li – arrives from California. The lushly dressed only daughter of Master Cheung (of the gangster-like outfit, the Brotherhood) she’s here to rendezvous with a loyal surveyor who has found a new seam of gold. And also to inspect Shing’s brother’s handling of the family finances. She’s the sort of woman who, determined to consolidate her grip and prove her worth to her distant father, will destroy anything that stands in her way.
Leung Wei Sun (Sam Wang)
Life is anything but easy for Life is Easy actor Sam Wang in New Gold Mountain. He plays Shing’s younger brother Sun. The two were once tight, but have increasingly drifted apart. A romantic who doesn’t share Shing’s all or nothing attitude, he nevertheless helps Shing cook the books. When we meet him his light is dimming, drifting away in an opium den. But what is it that has so unmoored him, where do his allegiances lie, and is it too late to set himself straight?
Patrick Thomas (Christopher James Baker)
Speaking of lost men, Ozark star Christopher James Baker plays an Irish immigrant nursing deep emotional scars and some gnarly physical ones too, brooding in the mining camp populated by white folks. His wife is missing, something the men around him keep prodding him on. He left behind a country torn asunder by the British forces and an ill-fated dalliance with the Unionist and Independent movements, hoping to forge a better life for his family. Now it’s slipped through his fingers, he’s a haunted man. And haunted men whom some would call traitors are dangerous.
Hattie (Leonie Whyman)
First Nations woman Hattie – played by Black Comedy’s Leonie Whyman – has faced unimaginable tragedy. Her mother escaped the brutality of white settlers on Lutruwita (Tasmania) only to be murdered in a massacre near Ballarat. But unlike Patrick, she has refused to be crushed by her staggering losses and has carved her own way on the outskirts of town. But when the brutal murder is discovered, almost everyone is ready to pin it on either her people, or the Chinese miners. Which results in an uneasy alliance with Shing as they fight to protect their corner of sunbaked dirt. But even more unexpectedly, it also creates an unusual bond between her and surly Patrick.
William and Clara Wright (Rhys Muldoon and Alison Bell)
Rake actor Rhys Muldoon plays the pompous Commissioner and real-life British officer turned corrupt politician who is pushing a new tax onto the Chinese miners. It’s Belle who manages to smooth things over with him and Shing by going through Wright’s gossipy and baked goods-devouring wife Clara (Alison Bell, The Let Down). Belle deploys a good old-fashioned play of social strata chess, ensuring that Clara wants the snooty couple to be seen at Shing’s morale-boosting Chinese festival. But is it enough to see off William’s racism and forge peace?
Four-part series New Gold Mountain will air as a special feature-length movie on SBS World Movies at 8.30pm, Saturday 30 October. Meet the cast and crew, and find out more about life on the goldfields, at the New Gold Mountain program page. The series is also now streaming at SBS On Demand. Episodes are also available with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.
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