ON THE ROAD
F*** Magazine is in Batam, on the set of Serangoon Road.
By Jedd Jong for F*** Magazine, Singapore
It’s a pleasant afternoon in Batam, Indonesia, and the weather is holding up nicely – a relief given it was raining for the past several days. After hopping aboard a ferry and braving choppy waters, our group is relieved to be on dry land, and is packed into a minibus headed on location for the shooting of a scene for Serangoon Road, HBO Asia’s first co-production (with Australia’s ABC TV).
A ten-part detective drama series, Serangoon Road is set in 1960s Singapore and tells the story of Australian-born Sam Callaghan (Don Hany), whose childhood was spent in Japanese internment camps in Singapore during the Second World War, and who returned to fight in the Malayan Emergency, both experiences causing him considerable trauma.
His neighbour Patricia Cheng (Joan Chen), a widow whose recently-deceased husband leaves behind a detective agency, seeks out Sam’s help to keep the agency on its feet, and to investigate her husband’s death. After he reluctantly agrees, Sam is plunged into a tangled web weaved by Chinese Secret Society gangs, foreign powers vying for control and information, and a city in the midst of political and racial unrest.
As he journeys through both the seedy underbelly and the realm of upper crust expat elites, Sam – along with his girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) and Patricia – is brought face to face with some of Singapore’s most brutal and powerful factions, who are not afraid to kill to keep their secrets.
The series takes its name from one of the earliest roads built in Singapore and a key thoroughfare that ran across the island when it was first constructed, bringing together denizens of every stripe. Scenes have been shot across various locations in Singapore, including Raffles Hotel and black-and-white bungalows in Mount Pleasant, but the bulk of filming was done at Infinite Studios’ brand new stages and backlot at its facility in Batam, which we would soon be headed to.
First on the agenda was a visit to a sleepy seaside town in Nongsa where, with just over a week until the end of principal photography, a flashback sequence was being shot. This scene depicts a young Sam Callaghan, played by child actor Julian Feder, wandering through the Sime Road Prisoner-of-War camp in World War II-era Singapore, searching for his father. Unfortunately, this would be a lost cause as Sam’s dad has been sent on the death march by Japanese soldiers.
“Keep the smoke up, that’s it, lots of smoke”, instructs director Tony Tilse as smoke from incense burners wafts onto the set, adding to the bleak atmosphere created by a reconstruction of the camp with its bamboo gate and thatched roof, and background actors playing prisoners of war. In the corner, there’s a family who is reunited after being separated during the war – but being extras on a TV series isn’t all fun and games.
“You cannot laugh or smile….keep your emotions and expressions from head to toe”, an assistant says sternly over a megaphone. The director calls action.
“Have you seen my dad?” the boy asks to the camera as it follows him forward, through the camp.
After the take is completed, camera operator Bruce Young watches his work on a playback monitor as the crew prepare for another take. This writer says a quick hello to the child actor before we’re whisked off to the studio facility proper.
We alight at the studio and are ushered into a reception room that is plushly carpeted, decorated with paintings and wood carvings with an Indonesian motif, as we await our “guides” to bring us through the set. They turn out to be no mere tour guides, but rather Paul Barron (who created the show along with Peter Andrikidis) and Erika North, executive producer with HBO Asia.
“The backlot is one of things that’s almost old-Hollywood type filmmaking where you get a backlot that’s a blank canvas and you get to create whatever you want with it,” Barron says. He states that re-creating Singapore as it was in the 60’s in modern-day Singapore itself would be difficult to say the least, “Especially if you want to have gunfire and set off explosions and do an action detective series – which is what this is at its heart. It’s a detective series, but it’s meant to be a detective series that at its heart is set in the reality of Singapore in the mid-1960s so this is something that we worked on from day one.”
Before we begin the tour, Barron describes the nature of the show. “This was meant to be a genuine creative co-production where we brought together creative talents across the board and the Asian characters are leads – they’re not the off-siders – where the stories came from Singapore and Malay and Indonesian stories and they didn’t get conceived of as somebody doing whatever. Every single story here was grounded in some fact, some reality of Singapore at the time.”
“I think what works and what attracted me at HBO Asia to this show is the fact that it’s a procedural – at its heart it’s a detective story, and detective stories, no matter where they’re from, they work, they travel,” North opines. “This is a home-grown, a truly kind of Pan-Asian detective story that we really think will travel, not only across the region but internationally, we hope.”
Barron comments that times have changed, and that 30 years ago it would have been impossible for a co-produced show set in an Asian locale to come to fruition. However, when he laid out that “this is a detective series set against this backdrop, in this place”, there was a strong immediate international interest, and Barron hopes that this could become something of a breakthrough because “it’s a primetime drama series that isn’t Vietnam.”
As we walk towards the backlot and spy scaffolding in the distance, Barron relates the effort that the art department went to in order to ensure the details were period-accurate – what he refers to as a “from the teacups up” approach. “In fact when we had the Indonesian minister here on set a couple of months ago, she actually went into the tea room and was remembering the teacups and saying things like “my God, I remember we used to have these when I was younger”. So we’d like to think we got it right,” he says.
It turns out that the very studio facility we were in, built by Singapore company Infinite Frameworks, was one of the keys to getting the project off the ground. Shooting in a controlled environment on a backlot gave the team the opportunity to not only recreate the world the series was set in, but to wreak some destruction as well. “On a backlot situation, we can explode the cars, we can explode the post office, we can have gunfire going off in the street because as a detective series – you need all that stuff.”
Oh yes, there’s some action in store. The series co-creator sets the record straight. “We’re not doing “Miss Marple”, where you can just talk about it all – we’re doing an action detective series.” The impressive Chinatown set we were walking onto would be a permanent fixture on the backlot, though it could be repurposed to represent Chinatown in any era. “What they were creating was a blank canvas of a Chinatown. You could recreate Chinatown in the 1890s, you could recreate Chinatown in the 1980s, you could, in this case, recreate Chinatown in the 1960s.”
And recreate Chinatown they did. An effective movie or TV series set should make one feel like they’ve turned the corner and walked into a different world, and that was exactly what the 60’s Chinatown – in Batam, no less, did. Storefronts and signs looked right out of period photographs, and carts, bicycles and stands were placed throughout the set. There were even live chickens in a corner, probably unaware that they were not actually in 1960s Chinatown.
When asked what the most difficult part was to get right, Barron answered, “I think the most difficult part is getting vehicles. Because trying to find cars that are accurate to the time, that are now 50-year-old cars, is hard.” He says that transforming the empty backlot into 1960s Singapore was the art department’s job, but it was a job that was done extremely well.
Barron has nothing but praise for the scenic artists. “Herbert Pinter is the production designer, and frankly he’s a genius. He has a whole team of people though, some days there’ll be 40-50 people in the art department building things, constructing, painting whatever. So there’s a huge logistics issue involved before we started to shoot here of turning those white walls and empty streets into something like what you’re seeing today. Now, when they fill this with 50 or 100 extras, and you’ve got the bicycles and the trishaws going, it is Singapore in the mid-60s.”
When asked what inspired him to create Serangoon Road, Barron replies, “Well, I love reading history and I love detective stories. And so, how it came about was partly because I love detective stories but when I was reading more and more and spending more and more time in Singapore and getting more and more fascinated by the stories of Singapore and of the region, but frankly just one day I sat down and started to write Serangoon Road. The characters of Sam Callaghan and Patricia Cheng and all of those came from the very beginning. And it was less a bolt of lightning and more I guess a synthesis of a whole series of strands of ideas that I’ve been playing with for a while that found a home in mid-1960s Singapore.”
The series will have an overall story arc about the mystery of who killed Patricia’s husband, and comprise individual stories over the ten episodes.
The series will have an overall story arc about the mystery of who killed Patricia’s husband, and comprise individual stories over the ten episodes.
As the co-creator of the series, Barron is understandably very excited to fill us in on the background of the show, describing how the individual stories were based on real events, and that “while we’re not doing a documentary and we’re not doing a history lesson”, he “wanted the stories and the characters to resonate.” He tells us the backstory of Kang, a former communist insurgent who came in from the cold during the amnesty and ends up working for Sam.
“This is the short version!” Erika interrupts with a laugh.
Barron talks more about Sam’s character: the scene we witnessed earlier on was essentially the beginning of his journey, as a child in the POW camps. He goes back to Australia, joins the army, and fights in the Malayan Emergency and ends up back in Singapore, “running a kind of quasi-import/export business because he doesn’t want to go back to Australia, and the only place he feels strangely at home, is here.”
When asked if he faced any restrictions that affected the storytelling of Serangoon Road, Barron says “I wouldn’t say “restrictions”, but whenever you’re doing co-productions you’re aware of the sensitivities. You know, it’s just a fact of life. And it never got in the way of the storytellers. So there are sequences that touch on potentially touchy subjects at the time because the politics was a part of life here, you can’t not refer to it in any way, shape or form. . But we weren’t telling a story about any particular political party or any particular individual and, you know, the Americans were here and so we have the CIA, but we don’t touch on this that the Americans might have done in real life as much as the fact was that the CIA was here, and American soldiers were on their way to Vietnam and that provided the source of stories.”
With a TV series set in 1960s Singapore and intended to travel, there’s always the danger that it might come off as tacky or cheaply exotic, but Barron is quick to allay our fears. “HBO Asia have been instrumental in making sure that this has an identifiable and real Asian tone, Asian characters – they constantly went up the Asian characters to make sure we didn’t fall into the western clichés, and so they’ve been truly integral to that process.”
This writer asks Barron if an effort was made to not exoticise the series. “Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you know, so when you look at it you’ll be the one to tell me,” he says. “But certainly that was the intention, was not to exoticise…it was to say “real and authentic”. Always the catch-words were “real and authentic”. Now, the thing though – the trick in your question is this though: what is real and authentic will still to Western eyes look exotic. There is no need to embellish it, far from it. As I keep saying, I wanted the Singapore and the Malaysian audiences to look at it and say “that’s real. These are stories we relate to, settings we relate to, and that’s real.” I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we got it right!”
We then proceed to view the interior sets, housed in large soundstages. We walk through the set for the Cheng Detective Agency office – undoubtedly an integral location and probably the nerve centre for most of the stories.
Up next is the Black Lotus Bar, a seedy nightspot lit by garish, colourful neon lights, with foldable wooden chairs, a stage for the band in the corner, a bar stocked with period-accurate liquor and even discarded peanut shells scattered on the floor – that’s as authentic as it gets! We get a peek at the opium dens and a back corridor with ads for massage parlours plastered on the walls.
We wander through a passageway that serves as the hair and makeup room for the extras. Executive producer Erika North tells us that on any given day, there would be 70 to 150 extras on set to bring the backlot to life. We alsot to life. 0 to 150 extras on set to bring the ban daakeup room for the extras. ick to allay ourith HBO Asia Erika North.o pass by Joan Chen’s dressing room, as denoted by a placard on the door. Joan Chen just wrapped yesterday and is resting up before the press conference tomorrow (see adjoining story).
We see a long, narrow set, which is a corridor within a ship, rivets, portholes and all – but we aren’t allowed to walk through because it is still being painted up. We then walk up to the interior set of a house belonging to shady businessman James Lim, played by Edmund Chen. The walls are a bright yellow, and a flight of stairs leads up to a partial second storey set.
Along the stairs are bits of broken porcelain, and there’s what appears to be a bloodstain on the floor – turns out quite the altercation took place in the house. North tells us that the look the art department was going for was very much “Asian noir”, and influenced by such films as Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
Just before we leave, we chance upon art director David Ingram, who tells us a little more about the look of the show. “There was a lot of desaturated colour, but we actually wanted to bring colour into the set. So we wanted to keep the truth of accuracy of colour of the time, where it was actually quite desaturated but we also wanted to bring in our own look to the film that is quite colourful, as you can see from the sets that’s quite vibrant, but not outside the square of what was actually accurate. We’ve actually done a lot of work in Singapore so we have a lot of background knowledge and a lot of books, do a lot of research and actually flea markets in Singapore and flea markets in Malaysia and old postcards – you know it’s fantastic looking at when you can actually find your inspiration for your accuracy. It’s gorgeous with the influence from the colonial architecture and how they preserve that as well.”
And with that, we’re whisked off back to the ferry terminal to catch our boat back to Singapore. But the work’s not quite over for the crew of Serangoon Road, as after principal photography wraps, there’s a five month long post-production process to get the series ready to air in September, which will end a journey, a “road trip”, that started when the project was conceived three and a half years ago.
And the press conference article:
Joan Chen takes on 1960s Singapore in Serangoon Road
By Jedd Jong for F*** Magazine
Not many Asian actors can lay claim to having a viable career in both Asian cinema and in Hollywood. It’s safe to say that Joan Chen belongs to that exclusive group. The actress has been variously dubbed the “Elizabeth Taylor of China” and the “Meryl Streep of China” - flattering comparisons indeed. Looking glamourous as ever, she sat down to field questions from the press at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Singapore, a day after wrapping filming for Serangoon Road, a period detective drama series co-produced by HBO Asia and Australia’s ABC TV.
She describes herself as a detective story buff, saying her love of old-fashioned detective stories was what drew her to the role of Patricia Cheng, a widow in 1960s Singapore who takes over the running of the detective agency her late husband left behind. She was also drawn to the setting. “I first fell in love with the South-East Asia colonial era through Maugham, Somerset Maugham,” she says. “It’s a very unique environment, this colonial era, and we are filming sort of the aftermath of that. That’s another attraction to me.”
When asked what audiences can look forward to, the actress replies “I think it’s a very exciting piece with a lot of action, a lot of human touch – stories you can relate to.” She also highlights the appeal of the fashion, music and style of the era. “If our production ever goes over-budget I think it’s because of the hairspray,” she jokes.
As a director and screenwriter in addition to being an actress, she was able to offer her input on the character of Patricia Cheng. “When Patricia was first presented to me, she was somewhat a little bland. She was someone to facilitate the other characters’ stories.” The actress was able to focus on a character detail that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. “When the character was first presented to me, she was just Patricia, owner of the detective agency, but I noticed that she didn’t have children,” she says. “So I asked the question why, then it became something interesting for me, to put in the angle of her infertility, which for any woman, especially a Chinese woman, an Asian woman of that era, that gives her a deep sense of unworthiness that is an underlying vulnerability.”
Besides her numerous film roles, Chen is known for co-writing and directing the 1998 film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. However, her next directing project, the Richard Gere-starring Autumn in New York, was critically panned and bombed at the box office. On the subject of directing again, Chen mentions that she has completed a short film, Shanghai Strangers, “to test the waters”. Working with a small crew and shooting for only five days, it piqued her interest to return to directing. “I’m now writing a script and trying to see if I can get away from my family and direct another film. I love it, just that after my second kid was born I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do,” she adds.
As an Asian woman in Hollywood, it was inevitable that Chen would come face-to-face with typecasting. “I think there were a couple of stereotypical images that were accepted by the industry, and they don’t want the entire understanding, or just you as a human. It’s more as a spice, as a colour, as an exotic element. So, when I was young and beautiful, I was the object of desire, the sexy vixen, then I got a bit older, then I’m this dragon woman.” She says the roles dried up. The one role she was repeatedly approached to play? “Vampires,” she says to some laughter.
F*** asks if she has seen the new Dredd film – Chen played the evil henchwoman Dr Ilsa Hayden in the 1995 version of Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone. “I haven’t seen the new Judge Dredd film actually…movies like Judge Dredd are not particularly my type,” though she does say that since we brought it up, she’ll go see it. It’s safe to assume that her role in that film fell squarely into the stereotypes she was describing.
Earlier in her career, Chen became a national icon in her native China for her role in the 1979 film Little Flower, for which she took home the Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress. “I didn’t realise when I was a teenager, when I played Xiao Hua (Little Flower) that the whole entire country fell in love with her. I think it was a breath of fresh air because I didn’t know how to perform, so I was just there as my innocent self and people felt it was very fresh and the film was fresh and so really, people, I don’t think anybody during that time would have missed that film, so the entire country saw that film.”
“So obviously then I became this symbol, I became “Little Flower”, and when I left I China it was deemed as sort of a betrayal because I left the motherland and all this love and adulation and people felt betrayed,” she says of the turn in the public’s perception of her. “And when I played in Tai-Pan, it was even worse because I played the mistress of a “tai pan”, a white man, not only played a mistress but she seemed to have like it, and so that was another blow,” she says of the film adaptation of James Clavell’s novel. She compares the antagonism she was met with to the scorn shown towards Lance Armstrong lately – ouch.
She describes the period after acting in Tai-Pan as “a lonely time”, saying she didn’t know where to turn as she was seen as little more than an exotic element in America, but was not welcome in China. She has long since forgiven the public who turned on her, though. “Looking back, I know where it came from now because you know, I’m 51, but when people see me I’m Little Flower, I’m still Little Flower. When people see me it’s a symbol, a cultural symbol, it’s not a person anymore. And that whole antagonism came from that sort of expectation.”
She says that she has definitely gotten over the stir her decision to take up U.S. citizenship caused back in the day. “Everybody in China, if you talk to the young generation and say “oh, I play this sexy woman, the lover of a white guy and got criticised and got on the bad side politically they will be like “what?!” It’s a different era, it’s a different generation and so many Chinese actors or filmmakers have other residentships, I mean our top leaders’ children study abroad,” she says, thankful that times have changed.
When asked if she encourages her two daughters to follow in her footsteps, Chen replies “I think all little kids want to act. Kids are just having fun. I think my kids are normal kids, they will develop whatever their own passions are. But they do make little films with iPhones.” She feels it is fantastic that many youths do not regard making their own films as something difficult, and that she encourages young filmmakers, saying “I think it’s what you have to say that is the most important thing.” She also warns of the danger of sticking to a formula and trying to blindly emulate it, but observes that “if you have your individual stories that you feel passionate in telling, nowadays you have the tools to really tell it.”
To wrap up the press conference, Chen talks about her experience filming in Batam. “I think that studio is going to be used more and more, it’s such a great studio and I would love to go back and shoot there again. The backlot and soundstage, both really great. So convenient, just getting off the ferry, and there is where you live and where you work, it’s a very good setup. And I love Indonesian food, so I look forward to actually explore more of Indonesia. This time I basically, really spent all my time in Nongsa.”
Diana Ser, the moderator for the press conference, remarks “Well if I’m going to look like that when I’m 51, I’ll be eating Indonesian food day-in day-out!”
If only we were all so lucky.