Deadwood-inspired New Gold Mountain gets down and dirty in the gold rush
By Karl Quinn
Alyssa Sutherland as Belle and Yoson An as Shing in the SBS series New Gold Mountain.Credit:SBS
Canvas tents billow in the hot wind as the mercury nudges 35 degrees and eddies of brown dust rise and fall. A trio of white men waltz through the crackling dry bush as if they own it, firing gunshots into the air and threatening the local blacks. Down the ridge, a Chinese settlement buzzes with activity.
It’s the gold rush, Jim, but not as we know it – it’s the set of New Gold Mountain, SBS’ first foray into home-grown historical drama, and Yellow Gum Park, a patch of native bushland on the Plenty River in the outer-north of Melbourne, is doubling for the Victorian goldfields circa 1857.
Here, the Chinese camp – all timber poles, canvas sheets and commerce – has been beautifully crafted by production designer Paddy Reardon and his team. But for booming Ballarat, the show has made use of a tourist attraction 130 kilometres away, just outside the town itself.
“We actually wrote the series based around the locations at Sovereign Hill,” says executive producer Kylie Du Fresne of Goalpost Pictures (who also produced The Invisible Man, the sci-fi thriller starring Elisabeth Moss). “How else are you going to get a Ballarat-in-the-1850s ready-made town?”
Shing (Yoson An) is a man with one foot in the Chinese world and the other in that of the whites.Credit:SBS
Du Fresne happily confesses to having an “obsession with Deadwood”, the mud-blood-and-lots-of-swearing American gold rush epic created by David Milch for HBO, and wondered why we didn’t have a comparable tale here. “Probably the last time the story was told was the ABC’s Rush in the 1970s,” she says.
One answer, of course, is money. While Du Fresne found in SBS a like-minded broadcaster with a pile of research on the era to show it was serious, its drama budgets are a fraction of HBO’s. In fact, just building the set of an 1850s town would have cost more than the entire series did. Which is where Sovereign Hill, the so-called “living museum” of the goldfields, entered the picture – and riding right beside it was the pandemic.
“One of the very small silver linings of the COVID world is that they were closed, so we basically had our own back lot, which was amazing,” says Du Fresne. “If we were shooting this outside of COVID, we would have been working around their opening hours, a couple of hours a day after 5pm. It would have been very challenging.”
One other benefit was that the inevitable delays – production was meant to start in February 2020, but was pushed to November – meant more time to develop the scripts, with Du Fresne and director Corrie Chen able to work with writer Peter Cox for an additional six months, finessing characters and storylines.
“And that was just an absolute gift,” says Du Fresne. “So often we’re rushing into production, we’re still writing as we go, we’re trying to work out logistical impacts at the same time as you’re trying to bed down the story. And we didn’t have any of that. We had it completely unencumbered, just the writers, Corrie and myself, for six months, going ‘what’s the vision’, and actually looking at it like a big film.”
It was such a gift, in fact, that she says Goalpost is looking at ways it can factor in a similarly extended development phase for all future projects.
What sets New Gold Mountain apart, though, isn’t the Deadwood-size aspiration, or the shutdown-gifted development period. It’s that it tells the story of the gold rush – which is arguably one of this resource-dependent nation’s great foundational tales – through the eyes of Chinese and, to a lesser degree, Indigenous and female participants as well as the white men typically at its centre.
“In many ways, I feel like I’ve been preparing for this show my entire life and career,” says Taiwanese-Australian director Chen. “The gold rush has always been something that’s had a special place and obsession in my heart because it’s simply the Chinese-Australian story that’s been waiting to be told. And in many ways, it’s the origin story in all its complicated ways, the birth of multiculturalism. Opportunities like these only come around once a career really.”
The story opens with the murder of a white woman, and while the evidence seems to point to the involvement of the Chinese, headman Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An) is determined to find an alternative explanation in a bid to avoid the racial violence he fears will erupt if he can’t.
“It’s so raw,” says An of the dynamics that exist between the various ethnic groups – Irish, English, Chinese, Indigenous – in the show. “There’s not a whole lot of room for wanting to understand one another, not a lot of room for compassion or acceptance, because everyone is in survival mode.”
Shing strolls through the Chinese camp with Zhang Lei (Mabel Li), who represents the interests of the shadowy and powerful Brotherhood.Credit:SBS
That includes Shing, a character loosely based upon the real Fook Shing, a Chinese immigrant to the goldfields in the 1850s who was headman in a camp near Bendigo before becoming the first Chinese detective in the Victorian police force (a position he held until the 1880s, despite his prodigious opium habit). And it includes Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland, from Vikings), a widow who has inherited a goldfields newspaper and teams with Shing to produce a Chinese-language version.
“She’s a concoction, and sort of representative of a white female at the time,” says Sutherland. “Belle is recently widowed, she was in an abusive marriage, there’s a lot of mixed feelings about the husband passing away. I think it’s pretty scary to begin with for her to have to make a go of it.”
For Mulan star An – who was born in China, moved to Australia as a child, but largely grew up and lives in Auckland – an Asian actor taking the lead in SBS’s first historical drama is a fact worth celebrating. And the fact Shing is far from a clear-cut hero makes it doubly so.
“I think it’s great that I play such a morally ambiguous and complex character. It’s important for any actor to play a character that’s three-dimensional, that’s outside of the model minority type of characters, because at the end of the day it’s all about the human experience. And Shing being morally ambiguous at times, it’s a very human trait, regardless of whether I’m Asian, white or black.”
In the ongoing discussion around diversity and representation, it’s not just the stories that matter. It’s also who gets to tell them. And for Chen, having someone from a Chinese cultural background directing New Gold Mountain wasn’t just a nice aspiration, it was critical.
“When I first heard about this project, the overwhelming emotion I felt was desperation,” she says. “I was desperate to see a Chinese-Australian direct this story, it didn’t even have to be me, I just wanted someone who could bring a level of personal authenticity that this era deserves.
“I know what it feels like to be Chinese in this country, I know what it feels like when you step down the street and start speaking with an accent and the way people look at you. It’s not an intellectualised experience or aesthetic to me, and for this story, on this show, I really wanted that to happen.
And, she adds, “I think the desperate energy I put out into the universe allowed it to be so”.
New Gold Mountain, SBS October 13, 9.30pm.
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