We love an Aussie YA TV series here at No Award, and we also love Indigenous media. So bring on Ready for This, an ABC3 series about five Indigenous teens from around Australia, who all excel in various fields — “various” here meaning “music” and “sport” — coming to live at a Sydney boarding house while they study.
It was crowdfunded, and is some hard SF without actually spending too much money. There’s an isolated space station, a drifting spaceship, a bunch of refugees, a dead crew, and some fun special effects that I enjoyed mostly because they came with an Australian accent and some brown Australians.
Airlock stars an ex-classmate of Housemate of No Award Bella, Mark Coles Smith, also known around these parts as a very attractive young Indigenous Australian man. I’m not saying that should be part of your reasoning but it should definitely be part of your reasoning.
(Liz fell in love with Mark Coles Smith when she watched The Gods of Wheat Street, which is another piece of Aussie spec TV that everyone should watch — it’s a ghost story and family drama, and all the main characters are Indigenous, also it’s bloody good — and No Award endorses his cheekbones.)
Our ABC has blessed us with Glitch, a series about zombies. No Award has not yet watched this series.
When Sergeant Hayes is called to the cemetery, he makes a startling discovery. Six people have inexplicably returned from the dead and are in perfect health. How is this possible? Who are they and why are they back?
Bless you, Our ABC. Glitch is available on iView and Steph will be watching this as soon as it’s all aired and she can mainline it.
The Kettering Incident
Not sure what this is about yet, but it’s a mystery series with “otherworldly overtones” and is “Tipped to be Australia’s Twin Peaks,” which sounds a) right up No Award’s alley and b) specifically relevant to Liz’s current interests, which include ‘mainlining the X-Files’ and ‘reading about murders.’ Also it’s set in Tasmania, which is the most traditionally gothic part of Australia.
(Sadly, this series will allegedly air on pay tv, which of course means it will subsequently be heavily illegally downloaded)
(Liz clarifies: reading about murders, not committing them. I just want to make that clear.)
Many years ago, the Phryne Fisher books were Steph’s travel reading. She’d pick them up in the airport and read them on the plane, back and forth across Australia. She’d end every flight with a book full of bookmarks and, sadly for you all, no No Award to vent her anger upon, until finally she gave up and refused to read any more.
Liz, meanwhile, spent several years hate-reading Kerry Greenwood’s books, both the Phryne Fisher series and the contemporary Corinna Chapman series set in a twee Melbourne bakery. Why? Well, when you work in bakeries and bookstores, you have a lot of time to read terrible novels about how gluten-free bread should be banned. Plus, she was under-employed and therefore broke, meaning that her main source of entertainment was (a) reading library books and (b) making fun of them on the internet.
Liz spent so much time ranting on LiveJournal about Greenwood’s terrible writing that one of Greenwood’s contemporary novels featured a villain … who used … LiveJournal.
Liz regrets nothing. If you are going to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader at length about how brilliant and competent your heroine is, she should at least be reasonably okay at being a detective.
Steph and Liz recently started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. They’re set in Melbourne, where all of No Award is based! We can play Spot the Australian! (Spoilers: They’re all Australians, except for Miriam Margolyes, and she became an Australian citizen a couple of years ago.) It’s pretty! Steph spends the credits charlestoning around the house! The clothes are fun and magnificent!
In the final episode of Serangoon Road, we suffer through flashbacks of Winston’s last night, solve Winston’s murder, and I am fooled so thoroughly by how the show ends that I clapped my hands in delight.
We open with Winston’s Last Night, weirdly energetic fight-kissing with Joan (who isn’t wearing a cheongsam!!) and Winston on the ground. In a series of flashbacks we establish that Don passed by Winston (they conversed briefly), and that after visiting Second Wife he ended up tracing a path towards the Unionists Headquarters. How they do some of this detectiving is a mystery to me as they leap from Dixon Road looking for his favourite kopitiam to some other road and the union headquarters located upon it. I wish Don wouldn’t mumble so.
The effort to solve the mystery of Winston’s murder steps up its pace, as the well-dressed murderer from the previous episode is let out on bail and disappears into the streets of Singapore. While combing the streets with Joan, Don meets Claire’s gaze across Dixon Street. I laugh because it’s so awkward and I don’t want them to get back together. Don visits Professor Union Leader (E07) in jail, who is ALIVE after being SHOT IN THE HEART and arrested for being a unionist which I thought was a treasonous act? Who admits that he had a meeting with Winston but Winston never turned up so he thought nothing of it. Then he heard he was killed, and he knew his brother had paid for someone to intercept Winston but never mentioned this before? And that they had a meeting because Union Professor had paid Winston to investigate his brother James Lim? And Don just accepts this. Apparently. I don’t even know.
Pamelyn lays it on thick with how if CIA dude doesn’t help them find out about James Lim (the businessman from E03, and Professor Unionist’s brother) then the detective agency will close and her family will make her marry a Peranakan boy and she’ll never get to go to America with the love of her life. I roll my eyes so hard they’d fall out of my head if they hadn’t already done so at CIA dude’s horrendous Mandarin. Fortunately, Don makes fun of him on my behalf.
CIA dude does some snooping and discovers the file for James Lin exists but is empty; Big CIA Dude comes in and admits he knows CIA dude is the leak to MI6. This leads CIA dude to sass MI6 dude, and tries to play him, asking MI6 dude for stuff in return for directly helping him to get a position in Washington. In more white boy news, Frank comes to find Don, and the cinematography is excellent; Don is in the Black Orchid, laughing as he shakes hands to seal a deal with some Chinese dudes. Frank is actually excellent here, as a character though not as an actor, telling Don that he and Claire are leaving Singapore, but he wants Don to make his case to Claire because he’s not gonna spend the rest of his life with Claire if a part of her never leaves “here.”
Back at the Agency, CIA dude tells Pamelyn there’s no file on James Lin, like a big lying liar, and Joan’s songbirds are dead! It’s a threat! (“I can get her some for cheap, maybe even throw in a duck,” says my loveheart Alaric). Don however decides this is enough, and storms over to James Lin’s office where they can hear fighting about a key and JAMES LIN AND THE MURDERER DUDE ARE FIGHTING and then the murderer dude CUTS OFF JAMES LIM’S HEAD. It goes rolling down the stairs!
There’s a safe in the office, and Alaric and Don decide to break into it by using explosives. Yes. Excellent. As they’re setting it up Don asks how Alaric knew his gf was the one; “There’s only one Ju-E and I like her. There’s nobody else.” NO DON DON’T GO TO CLAIRE NO. Don asks if they’re using too much explosives; “what else am I gonna use this for?” which as you may suspect goes super well, but works to break open the safe. Alaric, after his financial woes, delights in dancing around as money falls from the sky and he shoves the cash into his pockets; Don is more interested in the folder lying there, with negatives and documentation.
A flashback reveals James Lin having dinner with a white dude; as if there’s ever any doubt, the white dude turns out to be Big CIA Dude. Don confronts Big CIA Dude (his name is Wild Bill, by the way), who is playing card games with other white dudes in some bar populated solely by non-Asians. Don threatens to take it to Ario, the murder of a chinese citizen, if Wild Bill doesn’t fess up; he fesses that James Lim had a silent partner, and Wild Bill didn’t care if James Lin dealing with the CIA went public so he’s not the one who had Winston killed but James Lim had political aspirations so probably didn’t; and maybe the silent partner cared…? IS IT THE TONGS I BET IT’S THE TONGS.
Back in the Agency, Joan makes a discovery and hears a sound, assumes it’s Don but obviously it’s not; it’s murderer dude. Joan cowers, is afraid, gets thrown around a lot but then she brains him with the giant rotary phone before stabbing him in the hand with a letter opener and then Don comes storming through and beats him like fuck.
After tying him to the couch and…leaving him there…Joan and Don decide to tell the Tiger General that Kay Song has been in partnership with James Lim to sell land to the CIA, on the grounds that the Tiger General would kill him for it.
In the Dragon House, the Tiger General is watching his coffin being made, as is a tradition. They ask for an audience (in English?!) and explain what’s been going on (IN ENGLISH?!) and when Kay Song gets his men to beat up Sam, Joan starts calling out for help IN ENGLISH out IN FRONT OF THE TONG HOUSE like that would ever help. Joan. Geeze.
The Tiger General gets mad at Kay Song: they come and they go and finally we have Singapore for ourselves, and you help the Americans take it. This is obviously a completely open and explicit discussion of colonialism and the possibility of being complicit in that; and perhaps a discussion of older Singaporean values versus more modern Singaporean values. He says “do not let me see the body,” of Song Ge; and then Song Ge suffocates Grandfather Dragon as they all just watch. He speaks softly; My grandfather had a heart attack, he says. We have witnesses. I’m sorry you had to be here for this sad day, Mrs Cheng, Sam. You may now leave me to my grief. It’s such a quiet, compelling, amazing scene of a psychopath and a community in the middle of a whole bunch of stuff that makes no sense.
In the CIA compound, or wherever these guys hang out, we find out that Wild Bill is being sent away and CIA dude gets to stay. MI6 dude is going to Washington, and hands over Pamelyn’s file to CIA dude. CIA dude makes him promise it’s the only copy. I kept my word, MI6 dude says. I hope she’s worth it. CIA dude basically chews the scenery through this entire section, as he always does.
We wrap up in a series of scenes across the Agency. Joan is looking at a photo of Winston; Don is looking pensive. Uncle Owner is dancing hilariously. Alaric and Ju-E are cuddling, CIA dude turns up to talk to Pamelyn, and Don is having memories of Claire. I bet he goes back to her, and I’m so boooreeedddd.
I realise that it’s Moon Festival, which is nice! There’s lanterns like I had as a kid (like I still have now), and family and moon cake and Joan gazing into her wine and she’s all “go to her” and I’m all NO JOAN WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT.
So Don is running and Claire and Frank are getting into the car Frank steps away. Don says he loves her; she slaps him. Don talks about how great they are and what they’ll do tonight instead of her leaving Singapore, and she makes out and she’s like “and what about tomorrow?” and he says “We’ll work it out” and “I love you” and Claire says “I’ll always love you” and “it’s too late” and then she walks away and gets into the car which has already started to drive away (I guess Frank thought she was gonna stay) and she just looks at Frank and gets in the car and doesn’t look back and I shriek and clap my hands in delight. CLAIRE YOU’RE THE BEST.
We cut to MI6 dude pushing a copy of the Pamelyn file into an envelope addressed to Wild Bill. “Take that, you little piece of shit,” he says, as he seals it. I laugh and clap my hands in delight. You were a jerk but well played, that man.
In Serangoon Road, Don turns up as everyone gathers in the street and watches the awkward CGI fireworks. There’s dragon dance (I don’t dragon dance at moon festival, but sure, I guess) and firecrackers and people smiling warmly at one another, and that’s where it ends, content and not-revenged and Chinese (with two interloping white guys) on Serangoon Road.
Hey so that was a series! As a finale it went where it needed to go, tying up all the loose ends and giving us an ending. The major season arcs of who and why Winston was killed, and boring white romance thingies, were resolved. But we didn’t learn any more about Alaric’s gambling, which was such a major thread in earlier episodes, and Ario was completely wasted. He spent so much time letting Don dictate things, despite being a police officer, and I’d like to know why. There was some effort towards lines towards a second season, primarily the postage of the file to Wild Bill and Song Ge’s dismissal of Joan and Don, and of course in the celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival, but all in all it felt like an end.
This final episode was also about relationships and connections. A lot of the flashbacks were about Winston’s relationships with the people around him (dancing and making out with Joan and teasing her; Don offering him help as they passed by one another; being firm with Second Wife and the boy). There was Pamelyn establishing boundaries in her relationship with CIA dude, Don trying to work out his relationship with Claire (and Frank trying to establish where his own relationship lies), the reaffirmation of Alaric and Ju-E’s relationship. Even the storyline as it extended out beyond Winston’s murder was about relationships: the Lim brothers spying on one another; Song Ge’s relationship to his Grandfather, and Joan and Don’s relationship to the Red Dragons. It was excellent in just this way, because if you’re going to tell a story of Singapore you need to be telling a story of families and relationships.
Speaking of families, I’d love to know if there was non-Asian confusion about Joan suddenly being Auntie and Second Wife and the boy being considered family (explicitly, with “中秋节 being a time for family”), as it isn’t something that needs to be explained but given the explainy-ness of other parts of the series, perhaps it does?
Sometimes in my reviews I think I came across as hating this series. I didn’t hate it at all. I loved the feelings of familiarity and home-ness I got from watching this, and the way my heart warmed and the way I felt homesick whenever they got something right (or even close to right); and the way it jarred when it was so wrong. I appreciated when the terrible things were accurate, like pompous Westerners (men and women) in their cooled, tidy, clean, separated enclave, too precious to dirty themselves near locals, not bothering to learn any of our dialects or languages (my father was one of those people, in fact). But this was not a great series, even on its own; and it was an awkward one when you remember it’s not only from My ABC, but from HBO Asia as well, when HBO is so well known for amazing television. This was not worthy of that – at times it was awkward, clunky, and filled with average writing and dialogue that was pedestrian and added no real character quirks, merely served to push the plot along.
But I still enjoyed the ride.
I have a wrap up post to come, which will be going up at Peril Magazine, talking about some of the themes of Serangoon Road after I’ve had a chance to percolate on them. Some things I’m gonna be talking about include: Don’s total disrespect for everyone in his constant refusal to clothe himself properly, I mean seriously, that is more inappropriate than the Mr Darcy goes swimming scene in the 1995 BBC P+P; Colonialism and westerners in SEA in the mid-20th Century; interracial relationships in SEA in the mid-20th Century; race relations; the representation of SEA in western media; the sense of home on my tv here in Australia and what that means.
Uh but if you wanna chat about this on twitter, fb or in the comments here. PING ME. Do it now.
DON DRESS APPROPRIATELY HAVE SOME RESPECT. EVEN THE DUDE IN JAIL CAN DO IT.
Old people memory dancing, so awkward
Pamelyn, Secretary of my Heart, makes CIA dude apologise for lying about the file. I know you can’t tell me all about your work, she says. Just say no comment.
When Joan tells Pamelyn about Second Wife and the baby, she says “your Uncle Winston had another family,” which is the exact right way to say it. At the mistress’ house, the boy calls Joan Auntie and implies that she’s paying for his new school, which, nwaaah. Family.
Language watch: Joan says kopitiam but Don says coffee shop. Whhhhy? No Hokkien for like a million years. Lots of lols Mando, but technically should have been more also.
After all that give give give help from Ario to Don, nothing came of it! Ario why you helping this mat salleh what.
They tie murderer to the couch, bandage his hand, and then just leave him there?
Wild Bill: so amazing with the lines. “Make sure you find them before they find you,” he says to Don in the bar about the silent partner; “You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”; “It’s not that you did it, it’s whatever he’s got on you that made you do it.” This entire scene had some cliched lines but was still somehow excellent. “I can’t use you. Everyone crosses the line; it’s important you look back and you can still see it.”
Grandfather Tiger also excellent lines, mostly to Joan and Don: “Speak.” to Don: “Not you.”
Were the negatives in that file they gave to Grandfather Tiger (which Kay Song then burnt)? Could use that for future!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
While living in China I met my friend Wendy, also a Chinese-Australian from Melbourne. We would hang out often, through the afternoon and into the evening. Eventually, though, she would run off from me, to go watch her Chinese dating show. I would make fun of her. Then we came home to Melbourne.
If You Are The One (非诚勿扰) is that Chinese dating show. I love it.
The premise is that there are 24 women, and they stay on the show episode after episode until they end up with a date. Each episode features 4 guys; they show some (pre-filmed) videos and the women ask questions, and through this process the women turn their lights off if they become disinterested in the contestant. At the end, if there are lights on, the guy can choose one of those remaining women.
Often, even if there are lights on, the guy will say no to those remaining, and leave without a date. Frequently, they will leave without a date anyway, because all 24 women will have turned off their lights. Sometimes the contestant will have a large number of women to decide between, and the women will have done the hard sell on themselves, which is always super excellent – I love a woman who puts herself forward, and is in a situation where she is supported in putting herself forward, as they all are on 非诚勿扰.
Each guy is on stage for between five and ten minutes, so everyone has to decide fast. The guys might have a better idea of the women, as the women stay on episode after episode (and are filmed and screened regularly), and viewers can get an idea of their personalities. The questions are pointed, and cover all sorts of things; the decisions are snap and sometimes seemingly random. The outcome is serious.
Prior to watching 非诚勿扰, I’d always considered dating shows boring, superficial things; nothing wrong with them, but kind of pointless and not for me. At the end of each opportunity, two people leave to have a date, and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. 非诚勿扰 is not like that. It is portrayed as very life or death, must end in marriage stuff. If it’s going to be ‘let’s have a date and it might not work out,’ people clarify with “let’s start as friends and see what happens,” rather than the other way around.
Now that we are home, and 非诚勿扰 airs on SBS2 Tuesday through Thursday nights, Wendy and I watch it together, from our own couches. We text our often snarky comments back and forth, making snap pronouncements and guesses as to the outcomes. It is easy to do.
非诚勿扰 is incredibly stereotype based; it’s all snap decisions and assumptions, and every word and every choice is weighed for significance and, usually, allows someone to be found wanting. One contestant came out in a t-shirt, and a woman berated him for not caring about his appearance. Another woman came to his defence – she was an art gallery owner, and analysed his clothes, correctly deducing that he had designed the print on the shirt and was wearing it for the first time this evening, and based on that deduction would be happy to leave her light on for him. (He chose her, in the end)
If a contestant is a little large, or 胖, we assume they will lose a number of lights. If the contestant is nerdy looking, or old, or bald, or too ridiculous when they come out; if they focus too on one thing, or talk too much about their parents, then the women will turn their lights out.
One contestant says “I lived in Taiwan for so many years, and most girls I have met are Chinese, so I’ve become accustomed to getting along with Chinese girls…Unlike foreign girls who always keep talking during a chat, showing no respect to others, Chinese girls are generally more considerate,” said Joel. “Maybe they’re influenced by traditional Chinese culture, Chinese girls are good listeners.”
Gosh! We are, aren’t we? I know I totally am.
Over two weeks SBS2 aired the Australian specials of 非诚勿扰, and despite the many things I could say about the show, it is this in particular about which I would like to chat.
非诚勿扰 is allegedly based on failed Australian dating show Taken Out, and is currently so popular in Australia it’s discussed on AFL forums. It’s been profiled on the Vine, with an article entitled ‘Why we’re obsessed with If You Are The One’.
Why ARE Australians obsessed with 非诚勿扰? Why am I?
We’ve seen dating shows before, and we’ve seen this dating show in particular before, and it failed. But it’s now so popular here it’s on SBS2 three nights a week (though last night’s episode was a repeat).
How much is laughing with, and how much is laughing at? These two screencaps at The Vine really highlight that for me:
This is a Chinese way of speaking, of communicating; of making sense of the world. Was this cap set chosen because we’re making fun of Chinese people? I mean, I know it’s awkward in English but are we as Australian viewers being encouraged to make fun of Chinese language quirks? (an aside: I totally struggled with this when I spoke Mandarin every day)
Don’t get me wrong, I make fun of Chinese people. But that’s a thing I get to do as a Chinese person, having lived in China, understanding what it is exactly that I’m making fun of; understanding that I am, in essence, making fun of my self, of my family, of my history.
And I wonder, what is the line between real and unreal; between stereotypes for good and for bad? And how will that impact me, in my life? People take this show seriously, so I feel justified considering its messages seriously.
There is growing scepticism within China as to whether foreign specials, and participation of foreigners on the show, is viable and realistic, or simply a ratings grab. Can foreigners have stable long-term relationships with Chinese people, due to the cultural differences?
The Australians on the show (all Chinese, born outside of Australia – from China and Malaysia), if they mention dating an Australian woman, say it didn’t work out due to cultural differences.
As someone with an Anglo-Australian father, even I’ve had a whole lot of cultural differences in failed relationships with other non-Chinese Australians, yes, but to attribute all of them?
My mother, when I first started dating, advised me not to date a mainland Chinese man – for fear he would be too traditional, too feudal; he would expect me to stay at home and look after the children. The opposite, indeed, as suggested by this article:
Zhou also said she believes that many foreigners don’t fully understand China. “All they have learned is the old feudal culture, which says that women should stay at home raising children and doing housework. I also met one who didn’t want his girlfriend to be a model or an actor, as he thought that was not appropriate for Chinese women.”
Even news.com.au is talking about 非诚勿扰, and they mentioned the Australian special:
If they’re serious about a dating show, they – and you – need to get onto If You Are The One. Chinese dating show. Big there – 50-odd million viewers – but not huge given the population. It’s culty though. You wait til you watch it. SBS has now put it on Tuesday through to Thursday, because people are discovering it and its frank charm. It’s a kind of panel show, the guy comes out, there are questions, they give their assessment, he gives his, his friends appear in a video and say their piece, he picks his girl, the end. It’s sensational. None of the fakery of The Bachelor. It just feels fake doesn’t it? They’re all too scared to say anything real, I feel like. So last night there’s a guy on, Luo Si, 29, he’s from Sydney, where the universities have no gates – this is what he says – and his experience with relationships is very discouraging. “Like waves, they don’t settle down … I just want to find the right girl. But who is the right girl? Can you tell if you believe in love? What is love?” Fantastic. His friends came on – and it would’ve been better if this bit hadn’t been shown – and talked about how he was in love with a girl he chased for two years. She showed “no reaction.” Each time he was rejected, one them said, he’d drink by himself. In the end Luo Si chose the girl who said she liked cooking and cleaning.
It’s culty, they say. But what makes it culty? Is it the seriousness and the earnestness? Is it the ridiculous costumes my current favourite wears? Is it the attitudes and the silly noises and dances? Or is it the laughter, the laughing at and the laughing with?
I love laughing with it, too. And I love the insights it gives to Chinese culture, traditional and otherwise, and how it reminds me of being in Beijing, even reminds me of the friends I have long since left behind there.
In China, an article in Time suggests, 非诚勿扰 and shows like it are popular because they’re honest, and because they place capital in being honest, and there is a lot of dishonesty in China and across the world, in dating and in other areas. And I love that about it, too.
One of the Australian contestants was doing well, he had 24 lights on at the first video, and still over ten as his last video began. In it, his cousin tells a story of when they were younger, they were making dumplings and the contestant was sent out to purchase chives, and brought back ‘green vegetables’ (this usually means gailan or bokchoi) instead. The cousin laughed and said, but I’m sure he’s better now, but it was too late. Almost in unision those lights turned off, the implication already there: this man cannot look after himself. That from a 20 second tale about vegetables.
One woman, when asked how she budgets, confesses that she spends all her money by the end of the month and doesn’t save at all. A previous woman was notoriously stingy, rejecting immediately any man who she felt spent too much, regardless whether he had the personal wealth to support it.
“I can’t tell if you didn’t shave or if this look is intentional,” murmurs one woman. “You look much better in the video than in real life,” states another. I love them and their honesty and their abruptness. It seems so genuine. I think this is in large part why I love this show.
I have no real conclusions, except to state that based on the assumptions on this show, I’m only ever gonna have great relationships with other half-Chinese half-Anglo Australians from Malaysia.
If you’re in Australia, you can watch If You Are The One with English subtitles on SBS2 or on SBS Ondemand. If you hang out on twitter you can chat about the contestants using the #ifyouaretheone hashtag, which the SBS2 twitter does quite actively. If you’re not in Australia, you can watch it on the Official Youtube (no English subs).
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?