For Corrie Chen, the chance to direct the groundbreaking television series New Gold Mountain was the fulfilment of a dream. By Elizabeth Flux.

New Gold Mountain Director Corrie Chen

Director Corrie Chen.
Credit: Harvey House Productions

When Corrie Chen was 12 years old, her father gave her his old video camera. The family had recently migrated from Taiwan and Chen had finally, tentatively, made some new friends. The camera, her dad told her, was a way to be cool. The director laughs as she tells me this story. “My first thing was trying to do a shot-by-shot remake of the opening sequence of Scream.”

From there, Chen took to film with gusto. “It was always directing,” she says, though it took a while to admit to herself that this was what she truly wanted. After graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts she worked hard to build an impressive portfolio of credits in a remarkably short period of time.

Her work spans short film, web series and television. She directed the highly acclaimed SBS series Homecoming Queens and the final season of Wentworth. She has been nominated for Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) and Australian Directors’ Guild awards, and last year was named one of the Asian–Australian Leadership Summit’s 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians. So when she says she nearly turned down her dream project because she was worried she wouldn’t be up to the task, it comes as a shock.

We’re speaking to each other over Skype as we ride out Melbourne’s umpteenth lockdown, in the lead-up to the release of her latest project, New Gold Mountain. Between when we first get in touch and our second conversation, the first trailers drop and a hum of anticipation starts to build.

New Gold Mountain is set in the gold-rush era of the Australian frontier during the height of racial tensions between the European miners and the Chinese miners,” Chen tells me. “The story revolves around the charming but very morally ambiguous headman of the Chinese camp as he navigates and tries to hide the discovery of a dead white woman on the doorstep of his camp.”

The weird thing about New Gold Mountain is how it feels both alien and familiar. Gold-rush stories are nothing new, although for the past 150 years we’ve been seeing things from the same perspective, over and over again. Most Australians are familiar with the Eureka Stockade, but the anti-Asian Buckland Riot – a racial attack by white miners against the 2000-strong Chinese community in the Victorian township of Buckland – was something I had to frantically look up when it was mentioned in passing by one of the characters.

Split across four episodes that premiere on SBS this week, this series is first and foremost compelling television. It shows the brutality of life in Victoria in 1857, using the murder mystery to connect the lives of the very different people thrown together in the chaos, greed and cutthroat world of the gold rush.

It’s beautiful and devastating in turns. In the foreground is a compelling whodunit, while the background is a richly rendered, complex world that shows how many of the issues we still grapple with today were seeded in the 19th century.

As part of her preparation for directing the series, Chen did a dive into the history of the era. She points to one article that really stood out to her, which highlighted how the “British were forced to reconcile their whiteness and their identity and that was what bonded them together”.

The Buckland Riot was only one of a series of violent anti-Chinese demonstrations that plagued the gold-rush era. “These race riots became like an identity festival for them. I was just so rocked by that description … that racism is a unifying factor and how relevant that still felt,” Chen says. “That’s a thing that is really potent about this show – that even though it’s set over 100 years ago, thematically there is still such an urgency to this story.”

Reflecting on that time, Chen says that “everyone bought their own history and antagonism into this land that isn’t theirs”. This applies as much to the Chinese miners as it does to the Europeans. “We were hoping to really show, within the Chinese community there, the discrimination that was happening between all the different minorities as well, that was a hangover from where they came from.”

One way this is translated to screen is through the different languages the characters speak. The bulk of the dialogue is in English and Cantonese, with different dialects sprinkled throughout. Shifts between languages are all carefully considered: they can indicate power dynamics, attempts at assimilation or familiarity.

Authenticity was key. A Cantonese dialect coach was present on set most days. In order to be true to the era, they recorded tracks even for extras and background conversations. “We needed Cantonese speakers … talking about things that they would talk about in the 1850s. So, yeah, there was a number of days spent just getting some Cantonese men into the studio to have a chat about geese and whatnot,” says Chen with a laugh.

In a television culture where having one Chinese character is seen as enough, and more than one is a rarity, Chen was conscious of what a show like this would mean and what it could do. “I didn’t want it to just be my own experience of what being Chinese Australian meant, because I think that becomes very dangerous – and that’s when stereotypes happen.” In the series “there was a concerted effort to not present the Chinese as a monolith. Every single person has incredibly different opinions on things.”

Diversity isn’t something that happens every so often to tick a box, it’s about expanding the breadth of stories that we tell, about making culture more rich, more representative – more truthful. It was exciting for me, as a Cantonese speaker, as someone who has been interested in hearing about the Chinese experience of the gold rush ever since I first learnt about it at the age of 10, to see and hear these things on the screen. But that’s not what makes New Gold Mountain good – it’s simply a reminder of the things that we have been missing out on until now.

“The older I get, the more I’ve become wary of these bursts that we have of attention and focus on ‘here’s the good news story of diversity working’,” Chen says. “I guess for me, the more work I do, the more I just would hope that the focus isn’t ‘here is a Chinese story’ but rather ‘here is a great show that we should all be watching, because it’s a great show’.”

New Gold Mountain is Chen’s dream job, literally. In 2015 she was interviewed by her alumni magazine and asked what her ideal project would be. “I went on to describe what is exactly this show,” she says.

When she first heard whispers of a series focused on the Asian experience of the gold rush, she says she was “desperate” to see an Asian Australian direct the story. “Someone who knows what it feels like to be a Chinese person in this country, like when you open your mouth and speak with an accent and how people look at you,” she says. “To not have an intellectualised experience – that was what I was really afraid of.”

In one particularly striking scene, the series’ protagonist Leung Wei Shing (Yoson An) is speaking to a white man at the theatre who suddenly calls over two of his friends saying, “This is the one I was telling you about!”

Shing is a leader in his community. He is accomplished and at times ruthless. By this stage in the series, viewers have grown to know him well as an individual. “You say he talks?” one of the men says as he approaches. When Shing replies in perfect English, telling the story of how he learnt the language, the men react as though he is a dog performing a trick, a circus sideshow, cutting him off with exclamations of “wonderful, wonderful” and applause before walking off. His face flickers from incredulity to defensive bemusement. He’s used to it.

“On every set I’ve been on, every single one, there has always been someone who has tried to usher me off because they assumed I wasn’t the director,” says Chen. She’s matter-of-fact about it. “I get it, you know, no one walks around with a name tag that says director or actor or whatever. It’s a workplace that is purely based on visual archetype.” It’s a matter of expectations: few directors are women. Even fewer are also Asian. It makes sense, then, that when people picture a director, they imagine a man.

This is partly why – after years of wishing for such a series to exist, after pushing against her own fears, after carving out a spot for herself – Chen nearly said no when she was offered the role. “I was so scared of how much it would devastate me if I failed,” she explains.

There’s a big sense of responsibility. “It’s all part of being a minority in this industry. Like, if you fail, are you failing as you, because you didn’t do a good job? Or are you failing as an Asian woman? Because Asian women shouldn’t be directors and you’re adding to the bias of it?”

Even though she always loved directing, Chen feels it was an unusual choice for her, especially thinking back to how shy she was when she started out. “I felt so voiceless for so much of my early 20s especially, even though I was sort of going through the motions of making short films and trying to discover who I was.”

She points to three big career turning points so far – her work on Mustangs FC, which ran from 2017-20 and was her first television directing job; Homecoming Queens, which was her first continuous series, and now New Gold Mountain.

There’s a big double standard when it comes to deciding whether to take on a project, a project that will be a challenge, that will be something new. “It’s funny, because when men get offered opportunities before ‘their time’ and make these leaps, everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re a genius, and they’re super talented and whatever’,” Chen says. “But when it happens for women – very rarely – I think that story’s never as clear cut. It’s always shrouded in doubt. ‘It’s because there’s some diversity quota’ or ‘Are you sure you’re ready?’ ”

It’s abundantly clear that she was ready – the quality of New Gold Mountain speaks for itself. The care and thought taken with every frame, with every line of dialogue, with even the background hum of Cantonese chatter that grounds the narrative firmly in its era has been woven together so seamlessly that you don’t think about the work it takes to make it look as though you are simply peering through a window into the past.

This is the mark of a good director – the viewer is not conscious of their presence when watching their work. If someone as accomplished as Chen was second-guessing her suitability, what does that say about those who self-select themselves out of the running?

“I really believe in the importance of Australian stories,” says Chen. “What we get to do, it’s a megaphone – we should see ourselves as having a responsibility of being culture changers. And that’s the part of this work, what I’m interested in – shifting the needle of culture in this country through our stories ...

“I really believe in the power of being part of the many, and a future where my origin story, this story, is not going to be unusual – where, in fact, it’s going to be the norm. And wouldn’t that be amazing?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Gold standard".

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Elizabeth Flux is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.