New Gold Mountain

SBS successfully revives the Aussie colonial drama with all the trappings, via the Chinese experience in the Victorian goldrush.

There’s a scene in the opening episode of New Gold Mountain when a big grey kangaroo watches the ‘headman’ boss of the Chinese camp as he secretly disposes of evidence in a billabong.

As their eyes both meet across the bush it’s as if the roo is looking into the soul of Wei Shing (Yoson An).

It’s a poetic moment in the new SBS drama New Gold Mountain which portrays the Chinese experience during the Victorian gold rush of the 1850’s.

Worlds collide in this ambitious period drama from Goalpost Pictures. Wei Shing manages the Chinese camp of men seeking their fortune in this most inhospitable setting… the heat, the bush, the animals, and the locals who largely resent their presence.

When the 4 part series opens there’s also a dead body, a new gold discovery and pressure from the white colonials. Wei Shing has his work cut out to appease the European authorities and manage his own community.

There’s also young Chinese woman Cheung Lei (Mabel Li), daughter of Master Cheung of the Brotherhood who has arrived to investigate the camp’s finances.

Meanwhile Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland) who has inherited the local Ballarat newspaper from her dead husband, has ambitions to establish a local newspaper for the Chinese and wants Wei Shing to buy advertising. She commandeers Ballarat Commissioner (Rhys Muldoon) and his society wife (Alison Bell) to visit their local Mid-Autumn Festival to curry favour.

Irish digger Patrick Thomas (Christopher James Baker), who has arrived from Bendigo, is harbouring a secret, while young Indigenous woman Hattie (Leonie Whyman) has streetmarts and bush medicine which give her considerable advantage.

The cast also features Dan Spielman, Sam Wang, Chris Masters Mah, and supporting roles / cameos from Richard Davies, Mark Mitchell and John Orcsik. Naturally there are also leagues of Asian / Australian actors in minor and extra roles, which is but one of this drama’s achievements.

It’s been some time since Aussie drama has attempted a colonial saga -once all the rage with dramas like Cash & Company, Tandarra, Against the Wind, All the Rivers Run, The Man from Snowy River, The Dirtwater Dynasty, Eureka Stockade, The Last Outlaw, Jessica, Sara Dane (was Wild Boys our last in 2011?).

But none have attempted to offer the perspective from the Chinese experience… and few have touched much on the Indigenous viewpoint.

New Gold Mountain (which takes its name as the successor of the Californian gold rush as ‘Gold Mountain’) does both. It is also bilingual with English / Cantonese language. If viewers are happy to sit thought Squid Game in Korean, might they watch this on SBS?

While it may be Deadwood-inspired (without the explicit language), the remarkable feat here is what has been achieved on a limited SBS budget. Yes touristy Sovereign Hill may double as Ballarat town, but it works. The series is bursting with period costumes and props. Director Corrie Chen has expertly put it all on the screen. Points also to cinematographer Matthew Temple for evocatively bringing Peter Cox’s script to life.

I would have welcomed a bit more momentum in the plot, but the performances are top notch, especially Yoson An as the handsome, complex and duplicitous Wei Shing. Part hero, part dark figure this all rests on his shoulders, which he carries off with aplomb.

There are also big strides in bringing a female perspective to a male-dominated genre with resolute storylines and performances for Alyssa Sutherland, Mabel Li and Leonie Whyman -they all cut through a man’s domain.

At a time when we are constantly reminded of Chinese-Australian relations being at some sort of political low, it’s worth noting that this buried chapter of Australian history is given an insightful and sympathetic showcase by a public broadcaster.

New Gold Mountain screens 9:30pm Wednesday & Thursday on SBS and SBS on Demand.

4 Responses

  1. No mention of ‘Rush’, ABC’s landmark goldrush series? And ABC did ‘Secret River’ relatively recently-the cost of doing a period project, with sets. props, animals; fake beards etc etc makes it prohibitively expensive as opposed to a suburban street or office building type shoot.
    And does anyone else remember ‘Whiplash’ with Peter “Mission Impossible” Graves running a Cobb and Co line in a 1960/61 made series, the grand daddy of all TV series set in colonial Australia!

    1. On SBS1, both SD and HD channels on Wed and Thur nights at 9.30pm. If you wish to extend the life of your SD digital TV, you can get a set top box unit for $50 or so that will allow you to see HD only channels (although they will be in SD quality).

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