• Leonie Whyman as 'Hattie' in a scene from New Gold Mountain. (SBS)Source: SBS
The First Nations actress stars in a new series that takes an unflinching look at early colonial Australia.
Dan Butler

13 Oct 2021 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2021 - 10:02 AM

CW: This article discusses themes which may be distressing to some readers. 

Leonie Whyman has found gold.

As an actress and musician, her industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. But she’s one of the lucky ones.

She’s on the phone from Perth, where she’s filming a new project. But the buzz is all around tonight’s premiere of the hotly anticipated gold rush-era drama, “New Gold Mountain”.

Filmed in October last year, Whyman says the gig came at the right time.

“Oh it was a savior! I was going mad,” she laughs.

“And then I got the call that I got the job and I was like, ‘Yep, work.’”

The new four-part series has garnered plenty of attention ahead of its release. It takes place during the gold rush, a time of great significance to the mythology of modern Australia, but of which only a very narrow history has been told.

‘New Gold Mountain’ (so-named as Australia superseded the ‘gold mountain’ of San Francisco’s rush) centres the experience of Chinese migrants who came to make their fortune.

That an ethnically diverse population may have contributed to the economic prosperity of the country is a subject scarce mentioned in the accepted histories of the time.

Leonie Whyman says her education provided little information on the non-white experience of the era.

“Primary school, when you did the whole gold rush thing, that was about it,” she says.

“It was good to learn a bit more.”

That process of educating herself, however, was not without its challenges.

Whyman plays “Hattie”, the daughter of a palawa pakana woman raped by a sealer. When Hattie and her mother attempt to make their way to Ballarat, where they believe they have family, their party is ambushed and massacred by white settlers.

Hattie is the sole survivor.

While the character is not based on a particular historical figure, her story is nonetheless representative of the realities of early colonial Australia. Whyman says her research was “confronting”.

“It was definitely an experience,” she says.

“But it was also empowering in a way to learn… about our people's history.”

Filming was an intense process as well. In one scene, Whyman had a gun held to her head.

“I had to take ten mintues (break)... it was like, ‘Wow, this is what our people would have gone through.’

“It was almost like an ancestral memory,” she says.

“I feel like I have trauma in me, that hasn’t happened to me… I learnt a lot about myself.”

The story follows the difficulties faced by Chinese gold digger Wei Shing after a white woman is found murdered. Culpability is quickly apportioned to Shing, with predictably racist implications.

New Gold Mountain distinguishes itself in this way from so much of the country’s story telling, and myth creation: first in its depiction of non-white experiences of the colonial era, second in its unflinching look at the grostesqueries of the time.

“It's almost like the hidden parts of history are all coming through in the show,” says Whyman.

“The ones that aren't talked about a lot, and the ones that aren't glorified, like a lot of the stories that are always told.

“It's time for our stories as well. There's all these different cultures that are a part of this nation, and part of the history of the nation."

Creating the show had a profound personal impact, an experience Whyman says was shared by the cast members of Chinese heritage.

“There was a massive reflection… you're given this script, with all this information, and it's confronting information that you maybe didn't know.

“And you're like, ‘wow, yeah, this used to happen’... we all had different cultural backgrounds, but it's brought everyone on the same level.”

The significance of taking part in a project of truth-telling is not lost on Whyman. She’s proud to be retelling a difficult story.

“(It’s about) the importance of knowing where you come from. I know a bit about my family history.

“There’s people out there that definitely taught me the importance of passing on information, cultural information to the younger ones and keeping that alive.”

She doesn’t mince words when it comes to the status of truth-telling in this country.

“We’re getting to the point that people are finally starting to speak out about their experiences and their history,” she says.

“Go harder!”

New Gold Mountain is now streaming on SBS On Demand.