Downplaying the politics

Downplaying the politics

Joan Chen talks about the making of soon-to-air HBO series Serangoon Road, in which she stars, and her love of old buildings

Downplaying the politics

Singapore in the early 1960s. Political and racial tensions are escalating as the British prepare to withdraw from one of their oldest colonies. Members of cut-throat Chinese secret societies share the same back streets as well-paid European expats slumming it in the island's fleshpots. This is the backdrop to Serangoon Road, HBO Asia's first original series.

Co-produced with Australia's ABC TV, the series gets its Thailand premiere this Sunday. Heading the cast is Hollywood star Joan Chen, whose beauty and acting expertise lifts the drama to another level.

"When I was first given the script, I read it and found it very engaging," said the Chinese-born 52-year-old, who turned up for the interview sporting a fetching black mini.

"I always love Singapore. Every chance I get, I want to come back to Singapore. And Singapore in the 60s was even more interesting, politically."

Serangoon Road is a 10-episode detective drama set in a vibrant, boisterous period in Singapore's history. The series takes its name from one of the earliest roads built in Singapore, once famously known as "the road leading across the island"; the symbolism being that this thoroughfare linked Singapore's ethnic communities and residents from all walks of life.

"I think we kind of play the politics down a little bit," Chen conceded. "As a political background, we have the riots, the communists, the police, but all in the background. The foreground is really just a human story and a lot of exciting action. We don't talk about regional politics really. It's just a great dynamic background for us."

Chen plays Patricia Cheng, current owner of the Cheng Detective Agency which was set up by her late husband, Winston. Patricia struggles to keep the agency running amidst rumours of a conspiracy connected in some way to her husband's death. With the help of her Australian-born neighbour, she finds a way to keep her business afloat while dealing with various intrigues.

And, like everyone else in this drama, she has secrets.

"The concept of a detective story is another layer for me. The old-school detective story is one of my favourite genres," she said. "The story is very human. The crime that we need to solve always has an emotional side, which also has a great appeal for me."

Did she find any similarities between the character she plays and her own personality?

"What I have, she doesn't have," said Chen, "and that's how I relate to her. Her husband died, and the most precious thing in my life are my children and she is unable to conceive which gives her this great sense of unworthiness and longing. I think if the character has this kind of longing embossed, then she is more relatable to the audience.

"In a way, we are like two sides of the same coin. Like... what I have, what I deem so dear, she has either lost or never had. And that's how I relate to her."

Even in the trailer, currently getting a frequent airing on HBO, one can spot familiar locations in Singapore, from the elegant Raffles Hotel to colonial-era mansions and heritage buildings. According to HBO Asia, replicas of certain parts of old Singapore, such as Bugis Street and Chinatown, have been built in the Infinite Studios compound in Batam, a small island in Indonesia that's also a popular holiday destination for Singaporeans.

"My character lives in Chinatown and I love Chinatown," said the actress. "I like these old buildings much more than the skyscrapers of today. There is one set that was built in Batam that just looks so wonderful. The old Singapore coming back to life, that's the big attraction for me."

Recruited for Serangoon Road was rising Indonesian star Ario Bayu, who plays an ethnic-Malay police inspector called Amran. This award-winning actor recently appeared in Hollywood crime drama Java Heat, starring opposite Mickey Rourke and Kellan Lutz. Singaporean native Pamelyn Chee Chen Su Ling plays a young Singaporean feminist. Australian actor Don Hary plays Sam Callaghan, the neighbour who helps Patricia run her detective agency.

"To be a series regular, you do a lot of scenes that are procedural," Chen explained. "You try to explain other people's stories and that's something I have done very, very rarely.

"In the beginning it was very difficult because you couldn't express your inner feeling, but then that's not your role. Your role is the procedural person, because you're a regular. The centre of the drama is the guest star. And that's something new. It's challenging."

When Xiao Hua (The Little Flower) was released in 1979, Chen's acting began to attract attention in her native China. But it was her role in Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987) that made her face known around the world. In 1990, she appeared in David Lynch's cult television series Twin Peaks. Chen's most recently seen work is an appearance in Hemingway & Gellhorn, a film about the lives of journalist Martha Gellhorn and her husband, writer Ernest Hemingway (played by Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen).

Besides acting, Chen is also a screenwriter, film director and producer. She directed the romantic comedy Autumn In New York, starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, which came out in 2000.

Chen has proved to be a highly successful crossover, moving seamlessly from Chinese cinema to Hollywood and the American television scene. Does she think it is any easier for Asian actors to branch out these days? Are there any more opportunities for them on the world stage?

"I think people do long to understand Asia more than ever before," commented the Shanghai-born actor.

"It's always much better when people want to know you, actually, want to understand you, instead of putting you in a situation because they need some spices for a dish.

"Now, you're the main dish. Now, you're the meat itself."

The first episode of Serangoon Road goes out on HBO HD (TrueVisions 131) at 8pm this Sunday.

A scene from Serangoon Road .

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