serangoon road s01 e06: tracks of my tears

In Episode 6 of Serangoon Road “Tracks of My Tears”, it’s time for the Hungry Ghost Festival! Kay Song’s sister goes missing, a mysterious adorable baby is left on the doorstep of the detective agency, and boring ang moh things happen. Also I get more grumpy about colonialist attitudes in Singapore. And who comes up with these episode titles? 

The episode opens with prayers and performers during Hungry Ghost Festival, and Kay Song doing some praying! I love that he has Tong Goons to place his incense on the altar for him.

Sam is back in his white shirt watching performers, and he and Kay Song exchange mysterious nods as he leaves and wanders out onto the street. There are a lot of gratuitous lingering shots of people praying and burning hell money and joss sticks. A little kid flips out, calls him e’gui and there’s sinister music and I cry laughing.

饿鬼
饿鬼

We cut from calls of e’gui to blue coloured scenes and the sound of air raid sirens, so I guess we’re in a memory! Two men walk on the grass to a house. Cut to house. It’s Claire’s house! Is Claire living in Don’s childhood house? Surely not because that’s creepy. I don’t understand why Claire is still here she’s so booooring. Claire gets out of bed; Don creepily watches the window like a creeper.

sr6-memories

Sinister music plays over this entire section, which is great. Cut to Joan in the street finding A BABY. The baby has a water-stained note with it to which Don says “it’s definitely written in Mandarin but I can’t make it out” to which I say: a) lol; b) dude you are talking to two Singaporeans. You think maybe they might know that?

More importantly, Pamelyn asks who abandons a male baby; and starts sassing (Mr Callaghan, where were you nine months ago?). Don gets a totally hilarious look on his face.

sr6-money

CHINESE HISTORY NOTE: Or Chinese current note, I guess. Similarly to Europeans, historically girls are for marrying off and boys are for bringing in a new girl to the house. So you never give a boy away because he’s an asset, and also in our patriarchal society he is the one with the family stuff going on, the one in charge of looking after the ancestral tablets, etc etc. This is in part what’s led to the huge disparity in male vs female children and young adults in China since the promulgation of the One Child Policy.

We have a little side adventure with Don that goes nowhere, where he tries to locate a woman named Shuang because maybe he impregnated her? It’s pretty weird, but it comes to nothing because he tracks her down and she’s married and has a baby in the house with her and dead end adventure.

CIA dude drops by on Pamelyn, finds her looking after the baby. “It suits you,” he says; “Conrad if you upset this baby I will shoot you,” is her reply. Go Pamelyn, sass him, he’s not good enough for you!

baby isn't gonna take your shit, CIA dude
baby isn’t gonna take your shit, CIA dude

Back in Serangoon Rd, Uncle Owner is very superstitious, spending the whole episode burning hell money, waving joss sticks and admonishing Don that it’s a bad time to be helping strangers. Song Ge threatens Alaric, asking where his (Song Ge’s) sister Weilin is. Alaric might know because he’s been selling black market LP’s to her. But before the threats get far, a dude comes in and whispers to Song Ge, who runs out. Alaric and Don chase him down, and find him by the water’s edge, where there’s a body floating; it is Kay Weilin.

“Man, don’t go in the water,” Alaric comments from the distance of a bridge far above the water. “Spirits of the drowned are everywhere this time of the year.” A) I hear you, bro; B) pipe for the non-Chinese?

i hope the kay family are into this
i hope the kay family is into this (too soon?)

Down in the police station Ario, as always our token speaking-part Malay, tells us that she died of blood poisoning from complications of giving birth. He reveals that there’s no sign of the baby and that the family didn’t know she was pregnant. Should Ario be giving this much info to Don? Are there gonna be favours owed? I don’t understand their professional relationship. Don realises that the baby is a member of the Kay family and they desperately need to get him out of Chinatown because, Don decides, they can’t leave the baby with Song Ge and his Dragon family.

ario our token malay
ario our token malay

So he takes the baby to Claire, sneaking past Song Ge and Song Ge’s Tong Goons, who are ripping through Chinatown trying to find the baby. Because that’s his only solution? How is she gonna explain this to Frank? They’re only supposed to be acquaintances as far as he knows. Claire at least protests that he can’t just do this, but she takes the baby anyway because she’s a lady.

Investigation reveals that Kay Weilin had an angmoh friend so Don meets up with Pamelyn who coaches him on turning up to an event where they might be able to identify and discover the friend. She tells him he needs to look stern, but that he actually looks like he needs a digestive tea. I laugh because I love Pamelyn most when she’s being sassy. That’s all I want. Sass. Don tells her to do better than CIA dude. “You sound like my father,” she says, which, there’s nothing wrong with that in this instance, you ARE too good for him, Pamelyn!

moar grumpy!
moar grumpy!

Pamelyn discovers the ang moh bestie and attempts to charm her but is literally the worst, and I can’t tell if this is language issues, acting issues or script issues. It’s like with Violin Daughter from ep 2 all over again. Ang moh bestie isn’t buying it and sashays off.

Back in Chinatown they discover that Auntie Fortune Teller, who knows all the Amahs in town (historically quite possible), actually knows who Kay Weilin’s Amah is and they wheedle it out of her by suggesting that if the Kay family finds the Amah first they’ll kill her! Auntie Fortune Teller gets him to promise on his ancestors to keep her safe, which is an interesting thing to get an ang moh you don’t fully trust to swear.

auntie not impressed with you, little ang moh
auntie not impressed with you, little ang moh

In the kampungs, Don gets beaten up until he reveals he knows about the baby; Amah actress not so good, reveals that she left Weilin by herself to go cover up with the family and when she came back Weilin was feverish and then she died, so she gave the baby to the ang moh bestie and consigned Weilin to the water and now Weilin is doomed to come back and seek revenge. We are a superstitious bunch, aren’t we? (I would probably be scared too, ngl). As Amah is tearfully confessing to it all being her fault, Don says, “so [ang moh bestie] took the baby,” which, thanks Don, have some sympathy you’ve only been dealing with us your whole life, I mean seriously.

Back in the office, Team Detective are trying to come up with a new way to get in contact with ang moh bff and get her to spill what she knows. “What about that ang moh party tonight?” Pamelyn asks, as if all ang mohs know each other which given Singapore in the 60s, they probably do hahah. After Claire calls the office for “help” from Don re: the baby (what would Don know?!), we cut to another party which I swear they’re all held in the same place (also possible), and Pamelyn is wearing the same dress she wore on her date with CIA dude! PAMELYN YOU ARE PERANAKAN HAVE SOME RESPECT. Don is wearing a suit. CIA looks like he could use a digestive biscuit.

pamelyn no
pamelyn no

They convince ang moh bff to separate from her parents and she reveals that Weilin thought the boy she was sexing thought he was going to marry her. Awwww! And he’s here tonight! Dude (Chinese Singaporean with an Australian accent which is funny because he’s supposed to be English-Educated Singaporean doing uni in England) is in denial; he never received any letters though ang moh bff swears Weilin wrote them. His father storms into the room and admits he stole the letters! The boy wants to take the baby on but his father won’t let him, making it clear that he should never have gotten involved with someone from a Tong family and now he’s just gonna have to deal with how the father is choosing to fix it. Boy storms off, making it clear he’s not emotionally mature enough to have an infant anyway.

Back in the office, the phone rings. “Guess who,” Joan says, holding the phone out to Don. The looks on her and Pamelyn’s faces are priceless. Don turns up at Claire’s house and I’d like to know where Frank is in all of this? Claire comments that Don is a natural with kids arhghg help. He says he was around kids a lot growing up – in Changi? Claire asks. Claire you don’t just ask someone! Frustrated by not being able to give the kid a home that isn’t in the Kay clan, Don asks Claire, “You know any expat kids who wanna adopt a Chinese baby?” Claire, continuing to show some basic common decency as a human baby, replies “He’s a baby, not a puppy. Given expat circles I think a dog would have a better chance.” Thank you, Claire. DON YOU ARE THE PROBLEM WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM YOU CANNOT JUST PALM OFF A CHINESE BABY TO A RANDOM EXPAT FAMILY ALDKAJFADF.

this is how we all feel right now
this is how we all feel right now

Sorry. Hi. We cut quickly to the detective agency and Serangoon Road. There is a mysterious woman walking the streets holding a package, which she drops on the steps of the Cheng Agency, which is becoming a bit of a pattern. She knocks and runs off, and Joan comes out to discover the locket from episode 3, with the picture of Joan and Winston in it. DUN DUN DUNNN.

Meanwhile, trying to hit an emotional note, Claire advocates for giving the baby to the Kay family and asks “did your life turn out the way you thought it would?” Don has some more misty flashbacks, and we transition to the truck that appears to have replaced the Kombi. “This is gonna get you killed, man,” says Alaric.

I’m so pissed off that it’s up to the white people to decide to give the baby to the Kay family. I get why they spent all this time investigating – if Weilin went to so much effort, given she was living at home, to hide her pregnancy from her family, clearly she maybe didn’t want them to know and maybe she didn’t want the baby to be a part of the Kay family, for whatever reason. But Weilin died without leaving written instructions, her ang moh bestie knew she wasn’t keen on it but didn’t know what else to do, the father can’t take the baby and Kay Song is tearing Chinatown apart for the baby. What does that tell you, you judgemental ang moh?

In what is probably Don’s longest monologue so far, Don gives the baby to Grandfather Kay, and shows honour and respect in returning the baby, and asks that in return he grants a favour: not seeking vengeance. Grandfather Kay is clearly feeling magnanimous and/or wants Don to do him more favours in the future; he grants the favour for the boy and the girl, but he says, a member of my household – “she cannot go unpunished.” Don asks him to reconsider, but Grandfather Kay doesn’t even look at him, he just keeps playing with the baby as he says “It is already too late.” The music over this whole scene is amazing.

Don races off to the kampung to find Kay Amah, leaving behind Alaric who went to get drinks or something (for reals). In the kampung, Kay Amah is cooking and turns to find Song Ge staring at her. He floats into the room, Amah serves him some food and he kneels down beside her at the table. He is quiet and kind of menacing. “I’ve been having these dreams, Amah,” he says. “I would have you sing.” It’s kind of menacing and kind of not, and I honestly can’t tell whether he’s gonna kill her or not, so excellent work my friend. Amah sings and Song Ge lies his head on the table and looks up at her.

Don swings to a stop at the kampung and leaps out of not the Kombi. Song Ge walks into sight, pulling his sleeves down. They face off, Don all puffed and Song Ge all quietly sinister. “I slit her throat and fed her to the crabs” he says, and Don believes him until Amah comes into sight. He’s sending her off to hid! “If my Grandfather finds out, it is you who I shall be giving to the crabs” Song Ge threatens as Amah sails off; doesn’t look back.

In the boat house, Alaric agrees to something with two Chinese guys, without their ang moh partners present. “Don’t worry about him, just keep this between us,” they all agree. ALARIC NO. Why sometimes such good decisions, other times clearly such bad decisions!

Joan plays with the locket and talks out loud. We pull back and discover she is sitting talking to Winston at his tablet. She is puzzled and unsure and I love you Joan. Uncle Owner is still burning money, and this was so superficially about ghosts, I really did expect more instead of this sledgehammer of meaning and just bam bam bam! It really could have been about ghosts, or about the Chinese fear of ghosts (especially in SEA), instead of whatever this mess was.

We end with Claire hiding out in Don’s house, telling him she’s gonna leave Frank. But if she leaves Frank won’t she have to go back to Australia? I find it hard to believe she has her own funds. Then the ang mohs make out and I yell at the screen.

This was a weird episode, with real attempts to make sure that the A plot was basically the entirety of the focus, with only little hints of other things, but it still felt like it lacked whatever was needed to bind it together. The moments with the ghosts and babies and traditions felt forced, not artificially added on but as if they were uncomfortable being there; but at the same time it gave some excellent moments of colonialism and attitudes in Singapore in 1964. I feel very mixed about this episode: I definitely can’t say it was a good one because there were some notes I loved; but at the same time it was terrible.

A, Miscellany:

  • The writing and the acting has definitely dropped again in this episode. WHY MY ABC WHY.
  • Don and CIA dude get into fights over the Singaporeans in their lives. Don threatens CIA dude re: Pamelyn (I don’t care how you treat me but “you upset her, that’s another story”); CIA dude threatens Alaric (he’s on a communist watchlist ?!!? “if we do not stand up against communism it will destroy us.” Americans.)
  • I wish they’d stop trying to make fetch happen with Pamelyn and the CIA dude. It’s so contrived and awful, AND he just keeps pushing for a yes past every one of her nos until she just gently drops into not a no. “I’m repulsed by every single thing you stand for,” Pamelyn says, and I wish they’d stick with that!
  • Alaric: “you know I can’t read white guys.” I hear you, 哥哥.
  • I’m always glad when we get more background on characters, but Song Ge was super upset only this was the only time we’ve ever seen Kay Weilin. Dead lady only in a Singaporean setting for the gangster baddie is still a lady in the fridge. Expansion only with dead ladies is it?
  • Fortune Teller Auntie! So the best. She tells Don to stay out because it’s Chinatown business and I love it, because no matter how much he wants to be a part of it he still always holds himself a little separate, like all ang moh in SEA at the time. Perfect characterisation. Also yes, he should go give sacrifice instead. Baby Grandaddy tells Don “you’re an outsider, you don’t understand;” I would really love it if they keep exploring this aspect through the show, how Don wants to be considered wholly Singaporean but he never will be because he won’t let himself be.
  • Every instance of Joan making fun of Don makes me happy.
  • Why ‘Tracks of My Tears’? Why not something to do with it being 中元节? Something to do with ghosts or…something.
  • Speaking of all ang mohs knowing each other, did I mention that time I was trailing behind my parents at 10:00 in some random shopping centre in Penang and my dad literally bumped into another ang moh he knew when he was stationed at Butterworth 25 years earlier? All ang mohs really DO know each other in SEA in the 60s-70s.
  • No Rachael Blake, no Tony Martin. Boooooo.
  • Hokkien watch: lots of use of ang moh.

Next week: Alaric is caught smuggling explosives and Pamelyn refuses to help clear him. DUN DUN DUNNNNN

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