serangoon road: s01 e02 reach out

In this week’s Serangoon Road, Macca the Journalist convinces Don and Joan to take on the case of a woman’s missing husband, I fall in love with Xiang Yun, Alaric Tay is devastatingly absent and I have some feelings about the attitudes of Australians in SEA in 1964 and even now. So many spoilers, for history and for this episode.

We open to some Singaporean cops searching two small boats, shining lights in faces, and asking to see identity papers (this is the English translation, which distracted me so I can’t remember what the Mandarin was but it wasn’t identity papers). A lady looks stern and silent (it is Xiang Yun and you should love her); she jumps over board without moving a facial muscle and I flip my shit.

Look at that stone cold acting from Xiang Yun
Look at that stone cold acting from Xiang Yun

We move to the boring white lady hanging out with Don Hany, where he warns her that Bugis Street is “not Sydney or Paris Claire, it’s dangerous” and please, I don’t even need to bet you $10 that she goes to Bugis Street in the next ten minutes.

bikes in singapore: quaint thing of the pastThis cap comes to you courtesy of the credits, which I actually quite like. Reminds me of being at home, with the Chinese calendars all my family always has hanging on some random hook in the house or apartment.

The next scene in Bugis Street had me crying with laughter which I am almost certainly sure was not its intention. Don Hany glimpses his white lady chatting and smiling to a local Malay vendor (NOT EVEN TWO MINUTES) and as Don gets distracted by his white lady, Alaric Tay gets distracted by porridge and this is basically the last we see of him all episode, bye Alaric I love your delivery of “I’m going to get porridge.”

Claire who adds nothing of interest and fun to this show follows the Malay trader down an alley where he gets aggressive and tries to sell her some sex and then his buddies come to steal her purse and Don comes to rescue her, which a) racist and b) oh what a surprise, thanks everybody.

Today’s A-Plot mystery of the week is about Xiang Yun, who moved from China to Singapore when she was 18, and whose husband sent her away during the war and then OH NO NO MORE HUSBAND and Xiang Yun has just smuggled herself back in to Singapore to see if she can find him. I actually quite enjoyed many elements of this week’s A-Plot (most especially Xiang Yun) but I have some questions: 1) if she was living in Singapore for several years, now that she’s back, why is she considered an illegal immigrant? Would like to know her status at that time. 2) it is hinted that it took her a long time to get the money together to smuggle herself back into Singapore and out of China and I can attest to that on a personal level but twenty years? with no risk of indenture at the Singapore end? hmm. not sure.

Don and Joan take on the case, and start by trying to locate where Xiang Yun used to live. Now, this show has some bad acting at times, but usually the Singaporeans can be relied upon to be excellent actors. Except apparently not in this scene, featuring some terrible acting by Singaporeans and I retract the ‘adequate angmoh’ I granted Don Hany’s Mandarin last episode.

Singaporean terrace houses! Love them
Singaporean terrace houses! Love them

This episode’s random incursion to the lives of white expats introduces us to Nicholas Bell playing Maxwell Black, who tells us “it’s all very civilised once you get used to the heat” and that it’s key to marry “keepers” because they’ll stay with you and not fly away; I expect next episode we’ll be meeting another expat who is going to tell us to marry a local woman and I’m going to raze everything to the ground. The thing is this scene is not wrong. It’s averagely acted and poorly scripted but the thing this show is doing right is the condescension to the environment and the situation and the locals, as if nobody matters but themselves and their opinions. It’s perfect, I am a product of this time and it is so perfectly written I want to kill everyone.

The one thing that jars in this characterisation of every Australian in SEA in this period is when Claire tells Don that their taxi driver pointed out the ‘Tiger Dragon,’ leader of the Red Dragons and grandfather to my boyf Song 哥, eating in a noodle house. Unless their taxi driver is their regular driver and it’s just a dialogue issue, local driver isn’t going to tell two whities that info.

Upon arrival at the makanan, Don gets beaten up and Song blows him off before Song’s grandfather delivers a deadpan “等一下” and Song covers, inviting Don in. I cry with laughter. Grandfather passes on apologies to Joan, and I wonder what is going on. We cut to Joan buying vegetables in the wet market, who is definitely a much better actor in this episode than in the previous one.

BLOOD
really broke the costuming budget on that one

Don and Xiang Yun visit a house she is sure she used to live in; she yells “this is my teapot” and “this is my hair piece” while pulling out a hair piece from a woman’s hair and it’s great. I never catch this woman’s name and you know I’m just going to spoil it for you so I’m telling you now that she’s Second Wife, and she’s pretty great. She later confesses to Xiang Yun that she met Xiang Yun’s husband because she was dressed like a man to avoid being taken as a comfort woman, they were all taken in a truck to be executed (this is the Sook Ching massacre, if you want to learn more) and Xiang Yun’s husband shielded her and she was saved and he died. I start making notes about how unlikely this is since the bodies were always checked so there’s no way she got away with it, and I’m glad to know this was a hole in Second Wife’s story and not the plot. Joan, Second Wife and Xiang Yun act the fuck out of this scene, which makes me happy, and Second Wife puts the hair pin into Xiang Yun’s hair and it BLEEDS and NOBODY SAYS ANYTHING and I’m like WHAT EVEN. I remain confused for the next twenty minutes. Meanwhile, Joan and Xiang Yun share a quiet moment about sadness and loss and I really love them, it’s an understated scene between two seasoned, wonderful Chinese actresses and it’s the best scene of the whole series so far. Joan’s quiet little “sorry” underscores this really sad, lovely scene, and I wish more of the series was like this, but I’m not optimistic. I love you, Joan.

love you, Joan

Working out why Xiang Yun collapsed and how she was poisoned was super obvious. When Second Wife put the clip in Xiang Yun’s hair there was the trickle of blood and nobody mentioned it on the show so I thought I’d imagined it, which is not a feeling I appreciate when watching a show. However when she collapsed I may have started flapping my hands at the television in disgust over how plodding and predictable it was, of course it was the clip and of course it was Second wife. There are procedurals and then there are procedurals, 我的朋友, and this one is not that clever.

I was frustrated by Second Wife and by Violin Girl. Second Wife as an actor was great, I loved her, but was frustrated by the script she was offered, because she’s all “I did it for you” and also is an unfortunate Indonesian stereotype and I hope, along with the Malay thieves and lack of Malays and Indians in the script, that we’re not going to have to be all stereotypes and racism (though I would like us to deal with racism in the text, it being a very critical component of Singaporean politics of the decade). I was glad when Daughter turned out to be Violin Girl, it explained her non acting, and her ridiculous slapping of the Secretary of my Heart, in the scene where the Secretary of my Heart was code switching like a champion and non-sequitering like the best of SEAzns.

Xiang Yun wakes up to find her husband staring at her, and it’s all very sappy. I like the cinematography in this scene, which I think borders on ‘too sappy’ but actually ends up okay. I hope desperately that Don doesn’t let this send him back to his white girl because he deserves better. This is all so sappy lah that maybe I should just accept that but I expected better than this from my ABC.

creepy grandfather (alive and dead, seriously, guan gong)
creepy grandfather (alive and dead, seriously, guan gong)

Don and Joan go to see my boyf Song 哥 and his grandfather and they have found the criminals bothering Joan (and beating Don up in the last episode). It was an accident, he says, but “if you like you can watch” because “my grandfather can have them killed.” Joan is horrified; I can’t work out why this conversation is in English when it should be conducted in Mandarin. Joan is given a statue of Guan Gong in compensation; Don thinks it’s a warning; the Secretary of my Heart thinks it’s bad feng shui; I think it’s probably got drugs inside it CHECK THE BOTTOM. Joan’s face as she says “the bad forces gave it to us” is priceless.

Joan tells us that she needs justice, and I ask aloud what kind of Singaporean she is.

The episode closes out with ‘Love Hurts’, the original version by the Everly Brothers, over Macca the journalist typing and looking at a picture of Xiang Yun and her husband (a photo in which two Chinese people are smiling? I think not!), Don and his white lady staring soulfully out of (separate) windows across the streets of Singapore, and Joan Chen doing some paperwork before smelling her pen (??!!) and tearing up. As she strokes a photo of her husband there is lightening and thunder. Because we are supposed to feel sad, everyone. NOBODY MOVE, EVERYBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THAT LOVE IS HARD. Maybe I just need to accept that this is a sappy kind of show?

I’m super happy that Don and Claire broke up. Yay!

Anachronisms of the week: Don’s hair continues to be long. I overlooked it last week but this week he went into a super exxy formal event with long scruffy hair and a blowing white shirt over a singlet; Singapore used to deny men entry to the country if they weren’t tidy enough, there’s no way he got into that building looking like that, even if he was waving his Aussie passport around. And also “partners” instead of “wives.” I know I prefer the term partner to the term wife but it’s awfully out of place in 1964 Singapore.

This script is much better than the previous episode’s script, but still not amazing. I continue to be disappointed by my ABC in this regard, especially as everyone on twitter kept talking about Wildside because Tony Martin and Rachael Blake and I’d just like to remind everyone that Wildside is the greatest Australian drama ever. Thank you for your attention in this regard.

wtf dialect

Some odd Mandarin/language issues this week – the Secretary of my Heart comments that she can’t read the book about poisons because she doesn’t “even know what dialect this is” but it is Chinese, how hard was it to read in 1964 it was all traditional so it should all be good okay?

I love all the shade that the Singaporeans constantly throw onto the Americans. This week the Secretary of my Heart shut down the CIA dude (who was talking during the violin recital!) and she’s all “or are you just not one of the brighter ones” and basically the best. I also enjoyed learning her backstory this week, that she breaks up with boys when her parents approve of them and she’s Peranakan and can trace her family back 500 years; usually in these things it’s the whiteys with the background and the Asians who are considered second, and I’m glad to see this subversion here.

I’d really like to know how they got so many great actors into a show that’s this bad; I’d also like to know why so many of them are acting so badly. I know how well they can do! Tony Martin here as Macca the journalist; Rachael Blake makes an appearance (I hope to be repeated) as Lady Penelope, looking all suave and lovely; JOAN CHEN who is usually so amazing and yet not that great in this (though much better this week than last).

A Miscellany

  • Ugh so much awkward white person sex. Must we?
  • Rachael Blake as Lady Penelope looks like she has vampire teeth. I keep hoping she’s secretly a vampire.
  • Xiang Yun’s accent was very Singaporean for someone who was only supposed to have lived there for sixish years.
  • The scene where Don and the Secretary of my Heart talk to the poisons experts was so terrible, it was weirdly scripted and very poorly acted and I’m disappointed in everyone in that scene. Nice to see got some uncle speak Hokkien though.
  • Clothes somewhat anachronistic in this episode, how hard is it to get clothes from the sixties I have clothes from 60s SEA and I wasn’t even born for another two decades. (谢谢妈妈)
  • Don Hany’s pufferfish face was so ridiculous but I loved it.
  • Minus two Singaporean ladies – where were Malina and adorable headband girl?
  • Why did the Secretary of my Heart sit down at the front of the recital when she was only going to have to get up and leave at some point? Along with this and talking to herself and non-sequitering, I’m not sure she’s a great detective.
  • Rachael Blake and Tony Martin have been married since 2003. a) how did I never know this? b) I LOVE THEM SO MUCH ARGH OMG. For non-Australians this is what happens when two actors you loved and whose characters you shipped on a show they filmed when you were a kid, get together. You die of glee.

Next week: Disrespect of Chinese and Singaporean customs; lots of explosions.

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5 thoughts on “serangoon road: s01 e02 reach out

  1. Don Hany’s hair REALLY BUGGED ME last week! I didn’t know about Singapore’s restrictions on long hair, but I’ve watched enough Mad Men (and read enough detailed analyses of Mad Men’s costuming) to spot an anachronism when it runs across the screen in its singlet.

    (Although I do appreciate SR’s dedication to providing us with Don Hany fanservice. Here he is without a shirt! Here he is in a singlet! Here he is in a tux! Here he is … kind of not acting to the best of his ability! BUT THEN, WHO HERE IS?)

    1. Yes, I feel like it’s a particularly obvious anachronism, too, one that’s not place specific!

      (I do also love the dedication to Joan Chen in qipaos. I’m totally into it)

  2. Ifan Ismail

    Yay. It gets better. The villain was an Indonesian woman. (Her name was Artik by the way) The Malays were petty thugs. Wait…

    Alright. Oversensitivity aside, I wonder if this show had gone through some script-development hell at some point?

    – Characters and events are hinted without ever being used, such as the Javanese uncle. I thought he would at least be a significant mook or whatever. So it confirmed your remarks about “procedurals”
    – For a lie, Artik’s story about the husband being shot was intricately shot and dramatized.
    – Really have no idea about Mrs. Simpson character, and I stopped caring for her. Not a good sign for a supposedly continuous romance subplot.

    1. I am very concerned about the potential badness re: Indonesians and Malays, especially as I know that the polis presence becomes a bigger issue in later episodes. I hope that they don’t resort to more stereotyping of Malays and Indonesians as baddies. Script development hell could definitely be part of its problem, though.

      I know I’m using very terrible language around Mrs Simpson but I agree, it’s not a good sign that we care so little for what is supposed to be a significant romance. It just feels very awkward.

      I had hoped similarly re: Javanese uncle. And then no lines even.

  3. Jane

    Why oh why can’t Don wear a buttoned shirt, or no bloody shirt at all?! I can’t see him again in the singlet/open shirt combo, its driving me crazy! Did a costume designer get paid to dress the lead actor or what?

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