serangoon road s01 e03 Ball of Confusion

In episode three of Serangoon Road, the acting and the writing gets a bit better, Don speaks Malay (his Mandarin gets worse and he keeps wearing that damn singlet), an upper class Chinese-Singaporean man in 1964 opens his own front door, actual Malay people get actual speaking parts, and I talk about Colonialism. 

We open with riots on Victoria Street, white people with film cameras, and my excitement that we might be about to see actual Malaysians. A news recording is played over this scene, with the reporter mispronouncing Klang and Geylang which is always hilarious. The voice also confirms deaths of Chinese and Malays, and that a curfew will start at 1800.

We learn that the detective agency is not doing well; so not well, in fact, that Joan is going to brave the riots in order to deliver photos to a client in order to receive payment, risking getting hurt and getting caught in the curfew that is to be enforced as of noon (WHEN DOES THE CURFEW START COME ON GUYS). It was also Winston’s last case, aww! She speaks Singlish to emphasise her point and does kind of okay at it.

Joan gets as far as she can in a rickshaw before she has to get out and make it two blocks in high heels and carrying her parasol. Though this scene is intercut with shots of Alaric Tay griping adorably, and also shots of Malays rioting and getting beaten up, it is fairly obvious that Joan is going to get caught up in the protest and caught out by the curfew. A Chinese man storms towards her and rips the photos she is carrying out of her hands, and it seems probable this is intentional.

wah wah helo

Don and Alaric Tay and the Secretary of My Heart are talking about the curfew and stressing about Joan. Alaric bitches about his useless partner (Don). We get extensive shots of riots, and rioting, and police, and the dirtiness of the streets, before we cut to the lovely whiteness of the Raffles Hotel.

I can’t believe I didn’t realise it earlier, but all the scenes with the Expats swanning around is Raffles ETA NO WAIT I’M WRONG, as dc points out below but I still think my points stand because the bar scenes with Macca are from Raffles /ETA. OF COURSE IT IS. Let’s talk about Raffles, shall we: the Raffles Hotel was named after Stamford Raffles, the white man responsible for the Colonisation of Singapore, and a variety of other colonialist acts; and has for over a decade been a place where expensive foreign things happen (including foreigners). Foreign writers stayed there and named the Raffles Hotel the “Grand Lady of the Far East,” in case you needed a racist and patronising name for a hotel. In the now it’s still a hotel but also features a shopping arcade which includes Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, to give you some idea of its price range.

Anyway in the glaring whiteness of Raffles, Don is speaking in Malay and asking Claire to “keep the ladies busy with a game of bridge” and telling her not to go outside and how bad it’s gonna get. For once I sympathise with Claire, when she gives him her very best “are you shitting me” look.

Some random English dude whose name it takes me forever to work out because Don has gone to mumblestown warns Don to “stay off the streets” because “people are using the riots to settle old scores.” He waggles his eyebrows meaningfully and I consider giving him a moustache to twirl (ala Genevieve).

In blatant disregard of this warning, Don steals a USA embassy car so he can break curfew. He speaks some okay Malay and the show continues with no subtitles. There were several instances of Mandarin and Malay spoken with no subtitles in this episode, and I think I love it because it assumes the intelligence of the audience to work it out, and also I think indicates that this show acknowledges that despite being primarily an Australian production, it knows its audience is multilingual, that its audience knows the words already and if it doesn’t, it’s smart enough to work it out. Thanks for trusting us, My ABC. I had a momentary worry that the non-translation was because that stuff wasn’t vital and was therefore discarded but I don’t think that’s the case, as with the scene later in this episode where the Secretary of my Heart suggests that Don pose as her chauffeur as she poses as a diplomat, and he nods his head, opens the car door for her and says this adorable “boleh.” That’s adorable and totally adds something! Which is why I’m leaning towards textual intelligence.

Don continues his search for the missing Joan, stopping and discovering her bag with some blood on it. How did he know to stop there? Secretary of My Heart disappoints me by basically phoning in her phone conversation with Don, with the amazing line “I have a really bad feeling about this” which is never a line which should get past any sort of script development ever.

We cut back to the Raffles, where the Malay guards are preventing people coming in trying to escape the riots, and Claire pulls and tugs until they let a Tamil family in. I know this is supposed to be about the development of Claire’s story so this makes me pretty grumpy because yes of course the first actual Indians shown in this series need help from a white person, but also wow, a Tamil family is given refuge in the Raffles by a well-meaning white lady and Malays try to stop them and could this point be any more unsubtle? And also wrong, come on my friends. I hope no one actually thinks that the British colonising Malaysia and Singapore was in any way a good thing, like, yes we can’t change the past and the way both Malaysia and Singapore are now has a lot to do with the British colonisation and nobody get in a tardis or anything because you’re gonna be in so much trouble, but to have this lovely little message of COME SHELTER IN THE RAFFLES particularly when contrasted with all the other controlling white powers are doing in this episode, it’s enough to make me very angry.

So while I’m getting angry about white colonialism, Joan wakes up in some sort of complex and is helped by a photographer before the police storm it, and she escapes. Don runs into a police station and is told he is being silly looking for one single lady, so he yells in AWFUL Mandarin and then Joan just appears and I don’t understand? It is very funny though. I literally can’t work out what he says, he starts with 今天 and ends with 吗 and that’s all I can tell you.

Remaining with Joan’s bag is one last picture from the case she was couriering; the Secretary of My Heart recognises the one person in the photo whose face is fully visible as a wealthy Singaporean Chinese man. I love how she always knows the high flying Singaporeans; it is presumably because she is Peranakan and also awesome.

They find out that the person who ordered the surveillance is in fact the dead wife of the dude in the photos, a Chinese businessman named Lim.

The Secretary of My Heart functions as the pipe in this episode, and with her educated faux-British attempts makes me saaaaad. She’s all “this is real detective work, we’re peeling an onion” and “he lied, you know that?” I laugh.

Don continues to wear his white singlet with an open thin shirt on top of it. I know it’s warm but seriously, I cannot believe he’s still wearing it and also that’s just rude, can’t you dress up to meet any single person on the whole of Singapore HAVE SOME RESPECT MAN.

I claw my eyes out as Claire gives orders in the worst Mandarin I’ve ever heard, it’s pretty bad and I’ve watched Firefly is all I’m saying. I literally have no idea what she says, but Don asks her to help identify who’s in the photo based on the clothes.

Don goes to Macca who is a) drunk and b) helpful, and helps him work out who the Malay photographer is. At his newspaper, Malay photographer declares “you are part of Malaysia’s problem” which, he is not wrong, because expats who shun the other expats and pretend like they’re locals and aren’t contributing to the Colonialism, particularly in this critical period of the 60s, were totally an issue.

My favourite quote of the episode is probably “The Empire’s stuffed and noone’s seen the memo” and I loooove it, simply as an entry point to talk about all the ills of Colonialism and Imperialism and all the things that have been left behind. This is part of why I love the little nods here and there about how Westerners treat Singapore and SEA and how much they are unwanted. Macca is the best giving us this exposition, it’s obvious but he means it and I love it. Macca also reveals that MI6 is filming everything (and using 16mil).


We spend some more time in the police station, because Don has been arrested along with Malay photographer, who has been arrested for allegedly setting off some explosions, and Don feels compelled to get him cleared, and in the hopes that clearing him will help him work out who attacked Joan. In the police station we are hanging out with Ario Bayu, who EXCITING SPOILERS is going to be with us for a while as an actual named Malay, so that might be good? Or it might be terrible, only time will tell. (Though Ario is himself an actual Indonesian, which leads us to other problems)

Don and CIA dude walk and chat in the makanan, and CIA dude eats his bowl of noodles as they walk. I’ve never really seen this much walking and noodle eating in my life, is this seriously a thing? Anyone? He confirms the existence of secret MI6 movies that he really wants to get his hands on but isn’t allowed to, because MI6 are babies who don’t share.


We see Don staring into the fan at his house and considering the clues, and I laugh a lot because I thought this scene was going to be ominous and it’s actually not. Don ends up really sweaty and is all shirtless, and this show continues to fan service. Later, Alaric Tay confesses after a small fight with Don that maybe MI6 gets film deliveries once a week, and they wander off to steal it.

I am super sad that I used a cap from the credits in last week’s review because it turns out that cap I used is actually from this episode! It is Don doing crime! I’m totally into this scene, where Alaric Tay is ridiculous-ing for all he’s worth, stopping the van in the road and annoying everyone, and Don steals the film that MI6 has had processed.

The Secretary of My Heart meets up with the CIA dude and flirts with him, telling him she saved him some kacang putih hahaha and letting him think he has a chance for about thirty seconds by telling him she wants to see a film with him. She reveals it’s a film that Don stole from MI6, and his little heart falls though he gets to keep the footage, which he does. “You still owe me though, Sam,” CIA dude says as he crunches kacang putih like he’s watching a poorly edited movie (and the Secretary of My Heart whispers to him, “don’t dirty my floor.”) Someone on twitter points out this footage looks like it’s from WW2, not 1964, but now that I’ve just watched a season of The Hour I’m not so sure I agree anymore. Anyway this scene closes out on riot footage and Don’s smug face and slightly better acting from everyone all round, good work team.

Having saved their new Malay friend (who I hope turns up again in the future!), it’s time to get back to the mystery of the dead wife and who attacked Joan. Claire works out who the woman he’s having an affair with is, and warns Don away. This is all very sinister and then also comes to nothing? Joan sasses Don, and Don goes to visit Lim, the Chinese businessman, with a print out of the Chinese man who assaulted Joan taken from the MI6 footage. Lim, an upper-class Chinese-Singaporean in 1964 with a property so large it has a back yard, a front yard, a long driveway and two storeys, answers his own front door. I mean, I have Chinese-Singaporean friends in Singapore who don’t even answer their own doors now, let alone in 1964, I am just saying. Don confronts him and he brings out the man from the footage, who is all like “yeah tell the lady I’m sorry,” and is then dismissed with a 没事 which I think is interesting given the dude ANSWERED HIS OWN FRONT DOOR even though we have already SEEN HIS AYI. Don refuses to leave until they also resolve who ordered the work to be done, given the dead wife; Lim takes him out into the back lawn to meet the lady with whom he is dallying, who is just sitting around in the back patio waiting for Don? I’m not sure, but she fesses up to having him followed and Lim pays Don some money to keep it all quiet and then Susannah skips off into the distance and I have no idea why any of this happened.

As the two men watch her go, Lim gives words of warning and advice about having affairs with married women, and we cut to Don standing outside the police station watching Claire. I roll my eyes again, because sometimes I think this show is doing better and sometimes it tries to hit me over the head with a sledgehammer.


Joan basically floats into the office (an aside, I just discovered that Joan played Guan Yin in a 2010 tv adaptation of Journey to the West and she is adorable in it, and Guan Yin historically does a lot of floating, so we should draw some parallels between Patricia and Guan Yin, I’m just saying), and shows the Secretary of My Heart “our first dirty money.” They reminisce about the first time they were paid in chilli crab, and I was talking about how much I miss chilli crab just yesterday, but this is the sacrifice SEAzns make when they go all properly vegan and stuff. The Secretary of My Heart softly comforts her and Joan just nods sadly and and it’s all lovely. I stand by my claim of last week, the best scenes in this series are the quiet ones, especially the quiet ones that involve Joan.

We end the episode in the bar, where Joan does the Beijingren 八 with her hands to indicate 8 (for 80-20%), offering Alaric Tay that great deal so she gets to steal more of Don’s time for detective-ing, and Alaric gets more of the proceeds from their Import-Export business. I’d take it, Alaric! From behind a beaded curtain, a tiny Chinese girl says “that’s her, isn’t it?” and she’s told to say nothing; so she follows Joan out of the bar and fondles a fob watch, which when opened contains a photo of Joan and Winston. I’m taking bets on whether this girl is secret mistress or secret daughter.

A Miscellany

  • Don spends so much time making sure Joan is safe in this episode. Shipping it? I sure am.
  • I am not shipping CIA dude with Pamelyn, on the grounds that no.
  • Needs moar Alaric Tay, so far he’s really just comedic relief and extra helping hand
  • Good work with the continuity! Don attacked in episode one, resolved in this episode. Nice!
  • Was this episode confusing? I found it super confusing. I can’t believe it’s called ‘Ball of Confusion’ I mean really
  • Hokkien watch: use of ‘ang moh’

Next week: my boyf Song, something something something. Maybe I’ll talk some more about Australians perpetuating colonialism in SEA.

8 thoughts on “serangoon road s01 e03 Ball of Confusion

  1. Ifan Ismail

    CMIIW, but didn’t the riot was racial in nature? If so, how did Mrs Cheng and her Chinese attacker seem to be able to blend in? But I haven’t seen an actual riot first hand, so… well…

  2. Rohan

    Loving your reviews of these. Have to say as a single white aust. male who doesn’t know all this insider cultural/historical stuff, I’m even finding it a bit too superficial and sappy. I finding it very much like the Mrs. Fisher’s murder series. A series basically bred for the middle aged light fluff detective mystery loving australian ABC viewer.

    Like Mrs Fisher the setting/era/location is fundamental to the plot lines but at the same time irrelevant and explored very light heartedly. It’s all just there just there for the colour it gives to the detective formula rather than any real substance. A shame as was similarly hoping it would be meatier and darker like other HBO shows.

    I do see glistens of hope and enjoy enough elements to persist.

    Totally agree don hany has in his contract something about the length of his locks and shirtless scenes per episode.

    My fave is the secretary too. Also like the aussie actor CIA guy.

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