serangoon road s01 e05: heatwave

In Heatwave, Episode Five of Serangoon Road, white people try to save brown babies, the MI6 dude tries and fails to be menacing, and CIA dude takes the Secretary of My Heart on a date and is super embarrassing and rewarded for pushing and pushing after she kept turning him down. Also the text explains ang moh, and Tony Martin is drunk. 

The episode opens at the boat shed, where Alaric talks about how with a few more good jobs of easy money, he can buy a new boat. Don is a downer but he is wearing a new shirt!; Alaric takes money very seriously.

Frank, Claire, Black and Macca turn up at the boat shed to go on an excursion; Macca is drunk and declares that Don should “shoot me now.” Alaric is super unhappy that Claire has come along on their first security job. I do enjoy the continuity of Alaric being suspicious of Claire, and I’m hoping that it goes somewhere in the show. It turns out the company for which Black and Frank work is doing aid work in Malaysia, funding and supplying a hospital. Black goes on and on and on about the good work they’re doing here, and I have a lot of issues. Because while aid work and funding is all well and good, the history of especially Europeans of parachuting in and doing a thing and then buggering off is hugely problematic, and this situation highlights all of that.

Alaric speaks for us all
Alaric speaks for us all

I think I can’t roll my eyes any further, but then Claire sits beside a child dying of malaria and the child looks on in wonderment and touches her hair. He’s super ill, and Claire interrogates the nurse, who hints that maybe something is wrong when Claire is all “you can tell me, you won’t get into trouble,” which, Claire, you’re the Australian wife of a businessman in Singapore, you’re hanging out in some Malaysian village and you seriously think you have any power? Let me tell you a thing, my friend, and that thing is that you are wrong.

Claire tries to convince Black and Frank to investigate and Black is having none of it and when she threatens the image of the company Frank gets annoyed and insists that she leave it alone.

There are too many white people in this episode, where are all my hilarious and great Singaporeans? This show is set in Singapore, I don’t need white saviours we got enough of those already!

On Victoria Street, Pamelyn is getting a cup of tea and CIA dude taps her on the shoulder. “You ang moh have the most terrible manners,” she says, and then actually explains ang moh which sure, I guess. Also it’s true, ang moh do have the worst manners. CIA dude talks her into a date; Joan tells her off and makes fun of her. I am pissed off that the text is rewarding CIA dude for ignoring her repeated nos, and that Pamelyn says he saved me from a problem, I can let him take me to dinner, there won’t be a second. Just another boundary that the show is going to erode, I bet, and I’ll be disappointed in you all.

Don bribes a lab to run tests on the medicine that has been given to the malaria kids; it’s been watered down! “Who would do such a thing and why?” Claire asks. Even Don rolls his eyes.

This is the second job that the detective agency has taken from the company; first the investigation to bribes last episode, and now investigating who is watering down the medicine that the company is paying for at the hospital. I’m hoping that this is a developing plot point, and not just lazy writing.

Pamelyn notes “patronising ang moh woman; only she can save the children” at Claire coming along to deliver the new supplies; Alaric asks why is she even here, the question we are all asking. I like that the text is interrogating and questioning the idea of the white saviour and the short term aid work done especially by Western interests; but it’s such a simplistic, obvious questioning. It’s so formulaic, so basic, that it almost begs a question: what even is the point of this? This storyline, this episode, this work and this show?

"patronising ang moh woman; only she can save the children" preach it pamelyn
“patronising ang moh woman; only she can save the children” preach it pamelyn

On the boat to Malaysia, Don asks if Claire and Frank will ever have kids. I seriously don’t care. I know this is supposed to add depth but, especially when Claire mentions that when she thinks of being a mother she thinks of a boy about the age of Amir in the hospital, it simply serves to highlight that any aid work, any investigation and assistance, is only being done to assuage the guilt of white interests, rather than in the interests of real local change and capacity building.

Surprise! At the hospital, Amir is already dead. Claire is sad, and I’m relieved that at least she’s not sobbing, because I was worried it would happen. Alaric continues to say what we’re all thinking: it’s not the first time someone went with the cheapest option, and “short-term do-gooders – now it’s all blown up in your face isn’t it?” Alaric I love you and your anger. You’re beautiful. He points out that Amir died because the other kids had parents who could afford to buy the real stuff on the black market.

Back in not the Raffles, Frank tells Claire to drop the issue, and not to get people mad. So Claire gives an interview to Macca, who doesn’t mention her name but makes no attempt to hide her identity. Don goes to the Duke bar and chokes Macca, making him spill his drink. Macca gets all sassy about Don protecting Claire; “And if it was her, she’s over eighteen,” he snaps, and ends with “and you’re a bloody prince charming yourself, aren’t you?” It’s interesting, actually, that the only people who ever really question Don are Macca, Joan and Alaric. Everyone else just accepts his image. I hope this goes somewhere.

Claire continues to be incredibly naive; she also says that she doesn’t want to stop, and gazes meaningfully at Don.

sometimes the cinematography is really good
sometimes the cinematography is really good

Macca, drunk and in the dark, gets picked up by some bully boys in suits and escorted to see the dude from MI6. I seriously don’t care about the MI6 storyline, but I suppose I should because of the history of the British in Singapore/Malaya/etc. “Is that a threat?” Macca asks. “Of course not, we’re MI6.” I laugh.

Frank is taken off a big project as a punishment for Claire going to the newspapers; Frank gets annoyed, and wants Don to find out what’s going on. In a warehouse in the dark, Don and Alaric watch some guys come to pick up some boxes, put them in a boat, and unload deported unionists who have been smuggled back in. I don’t understand what Alaric is doing here, given he’s only in the Import Export, but I’m glad he’s here!

On the date, Pamelyn wears an awful debutante dress. They are surrounded by white people. Because Pamelyn wants to move to the USA to study, CIA dude has American food served to Pamelyn, including a hotdog on a plate and wine from his father’s vineyard. He says “music is also a part of [her] education,” and a guy comes out playing violin and CIA dude sings Yankee Doodle Dandy in the middle of the restaurant and I’m so embarrassed by how awkward this is that I press the mute button until it’s done, I just can’t deal with it. Is this supposed to be charming? There’s no way she’s gonna consider that charming, I speak as an arrogant, embarrassing to my parents, Gen Y SEAzn and I find that behaviour frankly embarrassing, and I’m not even Peranakan. I call bullshit. Unless she’s rebelling against her parents. Then I buy it.

Back at the Detective Agency, Alaric suspects something and everyone suspects it’s one of the secret societies, because a boat captain on his own wouldn’t be able to pull off something like this. Alaric dashes off into the jungle, discovers the secret lab where dilution is taking place, and there’s lots of Malays smoking and siphoning. Somebody spots him because of course, he runs and is chased and I am worried for him, why didn’t he say where he was going? He does the worst hiding job ever but somehow he isn’t found.

When Don is surprised at Alaric going off to find the lab, he reminds Don – “I said I didn’t pretend to care.” TAKE THAT WHITE PEOPLE. With Ario and the police in tow, they discover the lab has been cleared out, and when they surveil the warehouse Ario lets the boat captain go, but captures the men he’s with. This scene moves fast and frankly could do with better exposition but, we learn that MI6 swooped in to bust the union leaders being smuggled in earlier in the day, and the captain is being let go because he’s their informant. The meds is just whatever.

throwing shade from shade
throwing shade from shade

Joan gives a smile when she reports back to Claire. Nobody is being punished; “Welcome to Asia.” I cry laughing.

There’s a lot of romance in this episode, and it’s bugging me. CIA dude comes to tell Pamelyn that he’s being sent to Saigon, and the implication is that it’s because of what he said to Black in the previous episode. But CIA dude is secretly CIA! How can Black have this much control over CIA dude’s postings? Pamelyn gets sad because despite telling him there will be no second date, they haven’t kissed yet so they do, and then she’s all “oh my god we’re in trouble,” and Pamelyn is working it but I’d find it more moving if it were at all believable, see rant three paragraphs previous.

NO STOP DO NOT WANT
NO STOP DO NOT WANT

Because white people in Singapore in the 60s all knew each other, Claire knows exactly who to talk to despite never having interacted on screen before. She confronts MI6 dude, threatening to expose him, and MI6 dude threatens right back, implying he knows about her and Don getting it on. She backs down, and in a completely excruciating scene Don and Claire officially break up and there’s lots of moody music and they awkwardly hold hands and I’m crying laughing and I just don’t understand why we’re supposed to care.

This scene goes on and on and on and frankly highlights how this episode was just too much white people. I want more Singaporeans!

singaporeans! as background
singaporeans! as background

Next week: SINGAPOREANS. And my Tong Boyf Chin Han.

We’re halfway through the season, and I still don’t know where we’re going with this. There are some amazing beats, some excellent cinematography, and some excellent threads. Joan Chen is basically phoning in her performance, but every now and then she’s given a great bit of dialogue and someone excellent to work off, like in episode two with Xiang Yun, and you see what could have been. Even if it’s often clunky, I’m grateful that the series does present some realities of the era and the setting and attempts to interrogate them, not just being all “wow it was a great time!” – which it was, if you were white.

Serangoon Road has a lot of potential in its themes, in the stories it’s telling, and in the way it’s trying to widen the audience for shows heavily featuring stories and faces that aren’t white. And I do feel like all of those things have been improving from episode to episode. I just wish I could trust it to keep on improving. At some points, only my love of the setting and my familiarity with the Singaporeans is what keeps me going.

A Miscellany

  • Rachael Blake I love you so much, when are you going to actually have a role in this show? “Darling it sounds too hideous for words” yes you’re the best.
  • At Claire’s house, Don takes off his shoes before entering. YES GOOD. However this is ruined by Claire wearing her shoes in a BEDROOM later in the episode. WHITE PEOPLE. YOU ANG MOH HAVE THE MOST TERRIBLE MANNERS.
  • I didn’t want to include all of Alaric’s amazing lines, also including “This is a bad idea. Sorry, this is another bad idea. You never have any good idea.”
  • Macca is so drunk through the whole of this. I love him.
  • MI6 dude on why he doesn’t care about dying brown babies: “there’s a greater good in ensuring the successful transition of the region.” a) oh god, the british in SEA in the 60s ugh; b) UGH
  • Anachronisms of the week: Claire wearing short dresses. Like, I know we’re nearly up to mini skirts here but maybe still too short? Please hold while I ask my mum.
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One thought on “serangoon road s01 e05: heatwave

  1. kejumonyet

    Cheers for doing up these reviews/recaps! Even though there is some dodgy plots and dialogue, I’m really enjoying the setting. It’s something that is lacking in Aussie TV. I’m just hoping that the poor ratings won’t stop the ABC doing from doing another collaboration…

    Anyway, it’s great hearing some of your perspectives on the setting details and explaining some of the history. I have a bit of familiarity already, but all my experiences with the place and all my Singapuran mates are Malay, which doesn’t seem to come up too often yet in the series…

    The dinner date scene made me cringe too, ugh :S

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