SBS’s ‘New Gold Mountain’ Examines What It Means To Belong In Australia

"I wanted to use the landscape to navigate something I’ve been asking myself my whole life, what does it mean to belong to this country?"

sbs new gold mountain photo

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Set in 1857 among the simmering cultural melting pot of colonial Ballarat, SBS series New Gold Mountain shines a light on the experiences of Chinese-Australian miners that migrated to the Victorian goldfields in search of fortune.

The series centres on two Chinese brothers as they desperately try to untangle the mysterious murder of a white woman from a web of opium gang wars, stolen identities, and the rarely shown multi-racial tensions of early colonial Australia.

The limited series is a goldrush nerd’s dream, and it’s been director Corrie Chen’s for close to a decade. As far back as 2011, Chen described her ideal project as a Western dealing with the ethnic tensions of the Victorian gold rush in an interview with the University of Melbourne’s magazine.

When I remind her of the old interview, she laughs, admitting she herself had forgotten the interview until her parents reminded her of it. “I am a big believer in saying out loud the thing that you really want. But I had this spooky out of body experience, like, did I predict the future?” 

The Asian-Australian migrant experience is one Chen, whose family is from Taiwan, knows intimately, and it’s this familiarity with fractured belonging that threads together her body of work, and New Gold Mountain is no exception.

“This show was birthed from the idea that it was from the Chinese-Australian point of view. So, I really grabbed that with both hands,” she says. For Chen, the series is a long-awaited step forward from making award-winning short films like Happy Country and the ABC short comedy, Homecoming Queens.

Her relatively small but formidably unrestrained body of work sees Chen lending an intimate eye across drama, comedy, history, and documentary. All of it holds her in skilful stead to weave together for the sprawling familial veins of New Gold Mountain.

corrie chen

Source: SBS

Revolutionary, On Multiple Fronts

“I wanted to be able to find a blend, an authentic blend, that really harnessed the power of the cultural clash,” she told Junkee.

But for Chen, that cultural clash at the heart of the series — between First Nations peoples, Chinese migrants, the Irish and the British —  is the complex reality of New Gold Mountain, not the story. “When I say clash, I don’t mean East versus West. I wanted to find the space between where you’re able to navigate those. I’m an immigrant so that comes very naturally to me and I didn’t want to lose either half of that identity.”

As a Taiwanese-Australian settler, Chen’s identity is intertwined with New Gold Mountain. Her direction is self-aware and unflinching, capturing the violence, the heat and the loomingly harsh Victorian landscape in sweeping sunlit shots. In stark contrast, brothers Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An) and Leung Wei Sun (Sam Wang) are dashing.

“The visualisation of the Chinese from the very start was very loaded and very important to me. I wanted them to look powerful and I wanted them to look very cool.”

“The visualisation of the Chinese from the very start was very loaded and very important to me. I wanted them to look powerful and I wanted them to look very cool.”

And there’s no other way to say this, they do indeed look cool. Thanks to Chen’s specific vision and the masterful costuming of Cappi Ireland, the Leung brothers carry themselves from scene to scene with a swagger previously gatekept for the sunburned outlaws of old Hollywood westerns. But the brothers are something new: “They’re contemporary in an aspirational sense. That’s what’s revolutionary about it,” says Chen.

Something equally as revolutionary in the series is the portrayal of First Nations peoples, whose experiences during the gold rush, much like the Asian-Australians’, are rarely acknowledged. Yet New Gold Mountain simmers with the often unspoken tensions between settlers of colour and First Nations people.

This is something that isn’t explored as much as it should be — the racism within the Chinese community towards other cultures. When you are a minority and you are experiencing oppression in all its different forms and levels, it’s quite easy to not recognise your own actions when you are also an oppressor in some form.”

In New Gold Mountain, the conflict between the Chinese and First Nations miners heats up when Shing moves the murdered white woman’s body off the Chinese camp into the Blackfella’s territory. But his ignorance is received with wrath by massacre survivor and Palawa Pakana woman, Hattie (Leonie Whyman). Both are at the mercy of the British colonial forces, but Shing is forced to realise his position in this dangerous dance is not as powerless as he first thought.

“We were able to just dip our toe into it in some parts of this show,” Chen acknowledges, “but it’s something I find very real and very complicated.”

corrie chen new gold mountain

Source: SBS

Love And Fear Of The Land

Much like the characters in the series, the location itself is portrayed with a duplicitous beauty. Sovereign Hill’s alluring bushland is effortlessly returned to the not-too-distant past under Chen’s gaze — through a lens rooted in fear as much as reverence.

“I have quite a fear of the Australian bush, even though I find it so visually stunning and beautiful,” she explains. The push and pull between Chen’s vision of this land as something to fear, as much as something in which people plunder in the hope of finding glory, renders the landscape a character in its own right.

“The landscape itself is judging all the newcomers to the land,” says Chen, referring to a darkly comic scene that sees a kangaroo glaring at the miners as they attempt to hide the murdered woman’s body. “It’s tongue in cheek, but holding onto the judgement.”

“I wanted to use the landscape to navigate something I’ve been asking myself my whole life, what does it mean to belong to this country?”

The cheeky vignette is one of the many moments where Chen’s skill for finding pathos in the most complex events of history is on full display. “It speaks to the setting of the show; all these miners from all around the world coming into this land with this sense of adventure and entitlement and claiming something that’s not theirs. I wanted to use the landscape to navigate something I’ve been asking myself my whole life, what does it mean to belong to this country?”

It’s a big question for a series to answer, let alone a person. Corrie Chen is aware of the culture around labelling New Gold Mountain as representation but hopes the series won’t be reduced to a buzzword.

“I’m really proud to talk about how it does change the point of view of who we’re putting on screen, but at the same time, that’s not all it is,” Chen explains. “My hope for this show is that we don’t see it as the cool thing of the moment. I understand a lot of conversations around it has been and will be about representation, which is fantastic.

“But I am also aware that when we build a show up like that, we risk talking about it like it’s the exception to the rule. The core ambition of this show is to show you that maybe history isn’t what you think it looks like. There are so many pockets of history that the torchlight of the screen hasn’t shone attention on, and by opening the minds of audiences to what history is, it might just shift the needle of what we perceive as the Australian identity.”

New Gold Mountain is now streaming on SBS on Demand.

Merryana Salem (they/she) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster, who you can find on most social media as @akajustmerry