Sunday saw the premiere of Serangoon Road, a new collaboration between my ABC and HBO Asia. I’ve been pretty excited about Serangoon Road, because Joan Chen! And also because Don Hany, and a detective series! And Australians in Singapore (I am frequently an Australian in Singapore, occasional land of my misspent youth).
I was excited, especially after seeing the trailer! But this first episode failed to deliver, and it’s really only my loyalty to my ABC and my love of each of the Singaporean actors and the gambling B plot in this episode that is keeping me tuned in.
Please be warned this review contains extensive spoilers. Also contains a slur to refer to trans people (as used on the show). Also also hover over the caps for further commentary.
Serangoon Road is a detective series set in 1964 in Singapore. It stars Don Hany as Sam Callaghan, a man who was imprisoned in Changi as a child and though Australian has chosen to remain in Singapore, avoiding the expat community and running an import-export company with a local partner. It features Joan Chen as Patricia Cheng, left with a detective agency after the death of her husband, and an old friend of Sam’s. It seeks to explore the racial tensions running through Singapore as it moves through Independence, along with the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Colonialism and the whole thing going down with Malaysia.
It opens with a confusing flashback of two children, one ultimately being shot blank in the face. This leads to close ups of Don Hany’s face, in bed (a bed surrounded by a mosquito net! Oh stars my youth) with a lady. She stiltedly attempts to talk to him about his dream, he turns on the radio and they start dancing.
We cut to some American sailors in Bugis Street, eating hawker food, partying and having a good time. One of these sailors is a black man; it is clear this will be A Thing. There is a commotion, he is yelling, his friend is stabbed, he is holding the knife when the other Americans turn up, it is not looking good for him! Then the street explodes.
Don Hany runs out of the house to a brand new VW kombi, and drives off to save some friends in the explosion. How did he know his friends would be there? Later we learn his friends work in a club on Bugis Street, but it is this random, unexplained, slightly anachronistic tone that sets the stage for the episode.
In adequate angmo Mandarin (I could understand him) Don is informed that Joan Chen has come to visit him. An aside: I love that sometimes the use of Mandarin and Malay is subtitled; but sometimes it’s not! That’s cute! Less cute for you if you don’t speak English and Mandarin and Malay, but you lot can’t have it all, I suppose.
I love Joan Chen, but she is almost pointless in this episode. Her husband has died, leaving her with a detective agency that she can’t run but if Don Hany will do just this one tiny favour for her… it’s the Americans… It’s just a tiny favour… Don Hany guesses it’s the CIA. We meet Su Ling, Joan Chen’s secretary, and soon to be secretary of my heart. She starts throwing shade around and wanting to meet the Americans. She is a Chinese Singaporean with a curl in her hair and I love her.
I’m not sure what accent Joan Chen is going for here. It’s certainly not Singaporean, but it doesn’t feel like it’s American or Australian, either. I love all the other Singaporeans, Su Ling and Alaric Tay (who, when Don Hany abandons him on an Indonesian island later in the episode, declares “fuck you man I got no shoes” in classic pissed off Singapore accent) and Chin Han as bad guy Kay Song, looking so hot I would do him immediately. I love the Singaporean fortune teller Auntie who looks at Don Hany and tells him he’s not sleeping enough, swaps between Mandarin and English as it suits her (in particular around the CIA agent), and giggles delightedly as she sits in the air of Bugis Street.
I loved the character of Singapore in this, a Singapore well over before I was ever born but one with which I’m familiar, like a great grandparent one has never met but hear stories about. Singapore in 1964 was just coming into its independence, recovering from wars and keeping its distance from the Vietnam War and tiptoeing around the imminent racial issues about to explode out of Malaysia (and the way one of the police officers says Malaysia in that perfectly excellent SEA accent ugh I love you all). A special Bugis Street backdrop was created for this, because Singapore has changed so much over these almost 50 years that it’s so dissimilar now, and it was excellent to see. Singapore was also a major character in the b plot of evil mobster Kay Song and gambling addict Alaric Tay (who tries to wager his half of the boat he and Don own).
But the acting was average at times, and the script was poor. It was very tell not show, and I know in a Australian-Singaporean production for Asia and Australia and presumably the USA (given the HBO collaboration) there’s a lot of assumed lack of knowledge, but when the penguin (hilariously what one Singaporean refers to the American Seals as) shoots Don Hany and runs off, and it’s clear it’s a blank because Alaric Tay runs in and slaps Don in the face, he also says “just a blank, doesn’t hurt as much,” as if we’re completely ridiculous and wouldn’t be able to work that out ourselves. This scene also contains the most painful good cop bad cop I’ve ever seen, which feels intentional given the imminent fake shooting but at the same time it’s hard to tell in a script this patchy. Other eye-scratchingly awful scenes involved Don Hany’s ‘is he about to get high? is he not?’ lying down on the floor; Don asking the CIA ‘is this a racial thing?’ about the black sailor, and Don telling the black sailor “it’s 1964, it’s a brand new world out there sailor” when Don’s just smuggled him to Indonesia and told him to buy an illegal passport and work out if he’s going home. “There’s nothing there for me”, Crosby says. Nice work, everyone.
The script gives the audience no credit, and makes no attempt, and it shows. The Seals attempt to drown Crosby, our black American sailor, who they have handcuffed but not shackled – surely a sailor can at least eggbeater kick?
There’s a lot of shade thrown on Australians and a little bit of shade thrown by Australians to Americans, and a completely random black tie event that must have been hell in 1964 Singapore with no air conditioners that served to demonstrate how half-hearted it all was, but was also classic white Australian in SEA colonialist attitude (cf everyone my father was friends with in the 70s). I did enjoy the “untie me now and I’ll pretend this is an Australian idea of a joke” from a US Seal, and “they all look the same” about the Americans.
But this is all average complaints, right? Nothing major? AND YET: Malina is introduced as just another lady character and she’s flirting with the CIA dude and she’s cagey but it’s all good. It’s later revealed that she is trans, and she was paid off by some Navy friends to go flirt with the Seal until he could grope her and find out, as someone says, “She is in fact a he.” Don Hany is all yeah she is, matter of fact and calm, and then it turns out the Seal killed his friend and let the black sailor take the fall because how dare they let him hang out with a trans person. On the one hand, I like that there’s a trans character and it’s no big deal to her friends and coworkers (one coworker says ‘she’s a bitch’ because she stole her customers but makes no mention of anything else, and I think that’s acceptance), and she wears pretty clothes in poorly lit scenes and I can’t cap her for you, and it only becomes a big deal because others make it a big deal. Trans women were definitely an obvious part of the community in the area during this time period, and to have trans women entertainers on Bugis Street is correct. On the other hand, “he discovered she was a he” and ‘you wanted them to pay for making you “feel up a tr***ie”‘ WOAH WOAH WOAH nope. My cis friends, that word is a slur and I would ask you to never use it in any circumstance, not even to demonstrate who is naughty and who is not. Everybody is naughty here and I am super disappointed in my ABC.
Also: despite all the Malays meandering around in the background no actual Malay characters? (Polisi don’t count) Also no people obviously of Indian descent, I expected them at least as background. Disappoint.
The episode closes with three scenes: Joan Chen suggests keeping the agency open whilst the secretary of my heart cracks nuts and throws them in her mouth like she doesn’t care; Don Hany is having an affair with some bland white Australian chick and it’s super boring; Don gets beaten up in the most unconvincing beating up scene I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t understand how this script got approved by anyone.
In summary: loved the Singaporeans and the Singaporean Gambling B Plot featuring my new boyfriend Song 哥; disappointed in chronic underuse of Joan Chen and also her unexpected unenthusiastic acting; disappointed by overall script quality; very, very very disappointed in the transphobic slur and plot thread; very conflicted about tuning in for episode two. My ABC, I am so disappointed. Also we never learn why Bugis Street exploded.
Anachronism of the week: Malina describes an American sailor as stepping outside for a smoke. Really? In Singapore in 1964?