Colonial Singapore serves as a backdrop to political and detective tales in ABC1's new drama.
As the British pull out, the Asian lion is at the crossroads. Western presence remains influential via the CIA, US and Australian army and commercial business interests.
In ABC1’s new drama Serangoon Road, Aussie Sam Callaghan (Don Hany) works in imports and exports but harbours an affair with Claire Simpson (Maeve Darmody), the wife of his Australian neighbour, businessman Frank Simpson (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor).
Sam spends much of his time helping friend Patricia Cheng (Joan Chen) with the private detective agency she now runs after she runs her husband was killed while working on a case.
In the first episode Sam is drawn into the case of an American soldier killed during a terrorist bombing, but discovers there is more to this than meets the eye. He works with dashing young CIA man Conrad (Michael Dorman with a faux US accent) assigned to unravel, and potentially suppress, the truth. Aussie journalist ‘Macca’ (Tony Martin) lurks on the fringes trying to nab a good story, but nobody will go on the record for him.
In this exotic, period setting, this saga unfolds as a mystery series but there are greater political overtones about the emergence of a culture from old to new. Singapore can’t shake off its Chinese traditions with fortune-telling and superstitions, the women are still subservient and gangs still rule underground gambling. It’s a long way from the booming metropolis and order that reigns today.
While Sam plays the heroic role in this mystery, he’s also deeply flawed because of his secret affair with Claire. Don Hany juggles both of these with ease, sweating in a white singlet in heated romantic scenes and stepping up as action man for fight scenes.
Joan Chen brings a cool, authoritative presence as Patricia Cheng, in a role that drives the show’s detective cases.
The production values of this ABC-HBO Asia production are excellent. There are markets, nightclubs, street scenes, society parties, and villa-style bedrooms. Pristinely-buffed vehicles notwithstanding, the production has gone to great lengths to capture colonial Singapore to great effect.
The series from creator Paul Barron juggles longer series arcs for the central characters with episodic detective cases that are resolved each week. In episode two Sam tries to help refugee woman Chan Feng (Xiang Yun) find her long lost husband, presumed killed by the Japanese in WWII. It’s not quite as engaging as episode one, but it allows more of the Asian cast to move to the foreground.
It’s been quite some time since the ABC has dramatised expats and diplomats in the region (Embassy anyone?) but for all its impressive ambitions, Serangoon Road, hasn’t quite answered the question of relevance. There’s an obvious distance in its location and characters, which might be more relatable were it contemporary, based around actual incidents or bringing to life a popular novel.
While the backdrop has its basis in history, the work is fundamentally one of fiction. On that front, Serangoon Road will arguably have to maintain plenty of compelling stories or the exotic setting may not be sufficient to draw a broad audience back each week.
Thanks to Don Hany and director Peter Andrikidis, it’s certainly off to a good start.
Serangoon Road airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC1.