Serangoon Road, an ABC-TV/HBO co-production, 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, Kang. It features Joan Chen as Chinese-Singaporean 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. Serangoon Road is about families and relationships, connections and networks. It is primarily concerned with Australia’s place within the world and within the region, and how other relationships impact it. And it’s about racism, and history, and how colonialism and racism are firmly entrenched in a separate country, and all in the past.
In this pair of posts I will be looking at Australia within its regional and historical context, and Asia within Australian media. The White Paper Australia in the Asian Century may have found itself archived to Trove well before its time, but Serangoon Road was commissioned and produced within its moment. It is a reflection of where Australia has found itself for over half a century now; here, separated from its Colonial Masters by the great Asian Monolith.
Key players in Serangoon Road are Australian, Singaporean, British and American. Kang, Sam’s local partner, is Chinese-Singaporean, speaks Mandarin, and has connections with the local gangs through his gambling addiction. He is comedy relief with the occasional meaningful moment. Su Lin is beautiful and slightly sheltered, a result of her Peranakan family. She is primarily used as the pipe, to whom explanation is given or who explains things for the white viewers, such as when she’s approached by the CIA agent and comments, with a look of skepticism, “You ang moh have the most terrible manners;” to explain that what the CIA outsider is doing is wrong in a Singaporean context.
Harrison, the CIA outsider, plays a prominent and annoying role in Serangoon Road, serving to remind the viewer that the USA has long had a military interest in establishing itself firmly within South East Asia. As the American, and in conjunction with his occasionally appearing boss “Wild Bill”, Harrison also illustrates the sense of entitlement and expectation that pervades American dealings in South East Asia.
Australian Claire, Sam’s girlfriend, is cuckolding Australian Frank. She is naïve and headstrong, she dresses inappropriately for Singapore in the 60s and if Su Lin is unavailable to act as the pipe, Claire takes up the slack. In case you need the extra scene setting, in an early episode, Mrs Cheng smiles at Claire who is outraged to discover no-one is being punished for an incident resulting in the death of Malaysian children. “Welcome to Asia,” she says, inviting Claire and the viewer to assume that Asia as a whole is corrupt and dirty and all about who you know, and it’s just to be accepted; and that the Singaporeans accept this.
The other minor character Australians are a clear part of Australia’s political and business push into Asia, with a diplomat, some businessmen, a couple of reporters and mention of politician. These include Frank, Claire’s nice-guy husband who’s not terrible, just very boring and puts the company and Australia first, to the detriment of Singapore and Malaysia; Frank’s boss, the sleazy Maxwell, who hits on Su Lin despite her being half his age and is a perfect example of Australians in South East Asia; Macca, the misogynistic barfly; and the Australian High Commissioner, who is old boy’s club and old-school racist.
Serangoon Road cycles through a series of antagonists, some recurring, eventually settling on two. Kay Song and his grandfather are the local antagonists, Chinese-Singaporean and ruling Chinatown and further ruthlessly and lethally, head of a local gang with aspirations to expand. And there’s the MI6 agent who feels a right to be in Singapore, who declares “there’s a greater good in ensuring the successful transition of the region” when asked to help at a local level, and who later bribes and betrays Harrison.
And in this show ostensibly about Singapore, there is only one Indonesian and one Malay with speaking parts. There is the one Indonesian, a money-grubbing, murder-attempting second wife, confirming stereotypes; and there is the one Malay, a much-maligned and often overlooked Police Inspector, who does Sam (and Australia) many favours and never earns a favour in return. This is a commentary on images of Malays and Indonesians that remains as palatable as it has always been.
There are two Black characters who give us two Black experiences in Singapore that are at first glance conflicting, but set against a backdrop of the 60s and the equality movements of the time, implies that racism is a thing of the past.
Episode nine sees Ernie Dingo playing Robbbo, an Indigenous Australian serviceman who returned to Australia after the war to find his wife missing and his children stolen. Waking up next to a dead lady friend, Robbo is the first and strongest suspect, particularly when surrounded by white Australian expats who are convinced of his guilt. Australian racism is woven through this episode, not only through the presumption of guilt for (unsaid) racial reasons, but through said words as well: the High Commissioner says “Canberra’s trying to be a bit sensitive to the black issue – there’s a referendum in the air”, as if he’d rather have nothing to do with it; and “Bloke’s obviously as guilty as sin…Abo. Booze. Woman dead,” as if that answers it all, and as if Don will agree. Robbo’s experiences of racism are real and current within the show, but framed as this is against Robbo being innocent, and against the backdrop of the past and set in Singapore, there is a distance here, as if that is where the racism sits and stays. We’ve conquered it! In the first episode we’re introduced to a black American sailor, framed for the death of a fellow soldier and presumed guilty. Queue lots of comments about race issues. When called in by the CIA to investigate, Don explicitly asks, “Is this a race thing?”, acknowledging that it very well might be; but when he enquires if the (innocent) sailor is going to go home, Don tells the black man, “it’s 1964, it’s a brand new world out there,” once again explicitly trying to create a racism = the past dynamic; but also implying that within the show, in 1964, racism is over.
The series culminates with the central mystery of the murder of Mrs Cheng’s husband solved, and the Detective Agency team watching the Moon Festival celebrations together as a team. There are ties that have been used successfully and unsuccessfully during the series, and the Moon Festival is the closing of a season. There’s a mixture of Australian and American and Chinese-Singaporean, but nothing has really been decided, and in essence nothing has changed. Singapore is still as it is, and Sam, as Australia, still feels a right to being there that, despite being questioned through the series, remains. Is this the relationship of Australia in Asia? Attempts at political, cultural and economic expansion fall flat and feel dull, enthusiastic. And, given the lack of Australians who aren’t either white or indigenous, where does that leave the rest of us? I will explore some of these issues in part 2, Australians in Singapore and the legacy of colonialism on Serangoon Road, up next week.