For the first time, storytellers have ‘flipped the script’ on an Australian period drama, telling the story of the brutal chapter of the gold rush era from the perspective of the Chinese miners who came to Victoria’s goldfields in their thousands more than 170 years ago.
Starring Brisbane-born Australian actor Alyssa Sutherland (Vikings, Law and Order) and Yoson An (Mulan), SBS says its new four-part series New Gold Mountain is most likely its most ambitious – and expensive – project to date.
Speaking to The New Daily from lockdown in New Zealand, where she’s wrapping the next instalment of the Evil Dead franchise, Sutherland, 39, says playing Belle, the widow of a wealthy businessman who inherits the local newspaper, and seeks out the Chinese camps, had been “bittersweet”.
“A lot of history has been written by white people and told from their perspective, so I think it’s a great opportunity to put something like this in front of Australians and have all see it from a perspective that is different, and one that can educate us as to what the realities were.
“I feel like I am involved with something that is ground-breaking for Australia,” says LA-based Sutherland, who has also recently starred in The Mist and New Amsterdam after a decades long-career on the catwalk for top designers and on glossy magazine covers.
While there are “some similarities and some differences” between Sutherland’s esoteric Vikings character Aslaug and Belle, she steers clear of pigeonholing her characters.
“I try not to compare too much because that can sway thinking,” she said.
“We visit her [Belle] a few weeks after she’s widowed. She has an independence in her which is really new, and watching what she does with that.
“It’s not true independence. She’s still fighting against the hole her husband put her in. He ran himself into debt and she has to deal with it.
“We focus on what she does after that.
“We learn about the challenges they faced. It’s bittersweet … what makes a period drama so watchable is that it’s still relatable today.
“There’s a sadness in that because we just haven’t evolved far enough and there is still discrimination, systemic racism. All that still exists.”
SBS director of television and online content Marshall Heald said the series “combines high concept drama with relatable characters that put a human lens on a pivotal moment in our history that we’ve never seen on our screens before”.
“It’s not only our first foray into period drama, but it’s one of our most ambitious projects yet, Heald said.
Adds series co-writer Benjamin Law: “It’s probably one of the most expensive dramas that Australia has made. Really, because when you’re trying to recreate an entire world, there’s so much involved in that”.
The racial and class divide of Chinese miners and British rule
Following the gold rush in California – known as Gold Mountain – in the early 1850s, Chinese gold diggers in their thousands landed in Victoria seeking a better life, setting up segregated camps under British rule.
Set in 1857, at the heart of the story is Chinese-born An, who plays Wei Shing, a softly-spoken charismatic leader of the Chinese operation who struggles to remain in control as he secretly amasses his riches.
Then there is the shocking bloody murder of a white woman – and Sutherland’s Belle, who wants to make a name for herself – after her body is found outside one of the Chinese miners’ camps.
Inspired by real-life characters, the pair bring to life forgotten events and put a fresh spin on colonial Australia as we know it.
Leigh McKinnon, a researcher from the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, says there were about 140 Chinese in the state two years before the gold rush in 1853.
By 1855, the Chinese migrant population had increased 11,500, competing against the European miners for digging sites.
Mr McKinnon told SBS the Chinese community faced “unjust tax policies and racial riots against them throughout the gold rush era”.
He says European miners didn’t believe the Chinese deserved to enjoy wealth and such a prominent place in the goldfields.
“Unfortunately, those threads of the story do continue through Australian history,” he says, adding that many stories may not have been true because they originated from Europeans.
SBS screenwriter Law – who tells SBS anti-Chinese sentiment has persisted since first recorded more than 170 years ago – says historians and researchers were “incredibly useful” when pulling together the series.
“A lot of the [show’s] inspiration is actually from history itself. So the historians that we consulted were incredibly useful there … It was important for this show, especially, to foreground and to centre a Chinese perspective.”
Adds Sutherland: “Hopefully, it will open people’s eyes. When we humanise people on screen, it can be really effective.”
New Gold Mountain starts on Wednesday, October 13 at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.