When Mabel Li was first handed the script for a new television drama exploring the Chinese presence on the Victorian goldfields, she had some misgivings.
For Li, a young Sydney actress and recent NIDA graduate who plays the role of Zhang Lei, a formidable Chinese entrepreneur in SBS’s four-part murder mystery New Gold Mountain, acting can be a potential minefield of typecasting and stereotypes.
“There are always going to be these doubts when you read a script - is this going to be just another dragon lady role – some token, exoticised or sexualised woman? But the role of Lei isn’t that. She’s so much more complicated.”
The fact this was surprising is a telling indictment of the portrayal of Asian women on screen, Li says – and points to scarcity of roles featuring fully developed, richly layered Asian characters that transcend race.
While diversity of representation is slowly increasing – she cites Masterchef’s Melissa Leong and Rudi Dharmalingam in Wakefield as inspiring role models – systematic change is needed across the industry, from colour conscious casting, to nurturing more non-white writers and directors, to examining the culture seeded in drama school: she didn’t feel that NIDA was particularly open or understanding about the experiences of non-white students.
“My director, Corrie Chen, said on Twitter when announcing the series was going to air that something like this moment shouldn’t feel so precious. For me, that kind of encapsulates where we are in Australia as an industry. New Gold Mountain feels like a first, and that is a wonderful thing but also a heartbreaking thing because you don’t want to be the only one and you don’t want to be the first.”
"New Gold Mountain feels like a first, and that is a wonderful thing but also a heartbreaking thing because you don’t want to be the only one and you don’t want to be the first."
Billed as revisionist Western which tells the story of the Victorian gold rush from the perspective of the Chinese miners of the time, New Gold Mountain certainly comes across as a bold and singular attempt to reimagine colonial Australian history “one Akubra at a time”, as director Corrie Chen puts it.
Li plays Zhang Lei, an ambitious young woman sent on a mission to the goldfields by her powerful father back in China. It was an irresistible role, she says.
Chinese women on the goldfields were true historical oddities, vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts. According to Victorian census data from that time, for example, there were three Chinese women and 24,524 Chinese men in the colony in 1857.
Lei is a ruthless, wily strategist who well understands the politics and power games of the goldfields, yet is a highly vulnerable figure as she seeks to carve out a space for herself within two patriarchal cultures: that of her own Chinese homeland with its traditional devaluation of daughters, and that of the Victorian goldfields where goldmining is very much a man’s game.
“l really felt for her because at the core of everything, she is trying to preserve the freedom that has been granted by her father, and it is a freedom that feels fragile and can be taken away at any time.”
Li herself knows well the tightrope walk between cultures. Her parents immigrated from Guangzhou, China to New Zealand where she was born; at age two, the family moved to Sydney but she was sent back to live with her grandmother in Auckland for a year while her parents worked to save money and build a new life in Sydney.
It was the classic immigrant story of hard work and sacrifice, she says.
“I have always been really aware of why my parents came to Australia, and it was definitely for freedom and no censorship, and just a better life than what they experienced.
“In a sense, acting for me kind of embodies the spirit of why they immigrated, to be free to voice things and to take up space. I was a really shy kid and my friends convinced me to do drama. It helped me come out of my shell. I didn’t think I’m going to be an actor in high school because I didn’t think it was a possibility, but it sort of unlocked me and made me feel I can take up space.”
Li says her parents, especially her mother, supported her decision to pursue acting. “She said to me, 'I sacrificed so many of my dreams to come here, for you to do what you want, for you to be happy', and I feel so grateful for that.”
Playing a young teacher in the Tasmanian murder mystery The Tailings was her first big role after graduating from NIDA in 2019. “It was in the year of COVID so I felt so lucky and grateful. It was such a different character to Lei, a different story, different time. I think it educated me and steadied me for the arrival of New Gold Mountain which is a really big show.”
"I think it’s so important for shows like this to be made, and to keep examining our history through a different lens."
For Li, it is critical that we examine how history is written and who it benefits.
Academic history, it is said, has a fault line of its own, relying on archives and written records created by the “winners” of history. The story of the frontier violence in colonial Australia comes with a whitewashed filter as a result, and “so that’s why I think it’s so important for shows like this to be made, and to keep examining our history through a different lens.”
New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Subtitles in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean are available to stream on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Teachers: head to GOLD, an SBS Learn website unearthing diverse experiences of the gold rush.
Join the conversation #NewGoldMountain