We love a sweeping historical drama, but a sweeping historical drama blended with a murder mystery? Interest = definitely piqued. New Gold Mountain on SBS manages to satisfy those with a penchant for tales of the past, as well as those who just want to solve a murky crime.
The four-part series, created by Peter Cox and directed by Corrie Chen, takes us to Ballarat in 1857. Scores of gold-seekers were arriving in Australia after “Gold Mountain” (California) and its wealth of gold deposits were drying up and Australia was nicknamed the New Gold Mountain, with the Ballarat goldfields being ground zero for wealth-seeking hopefuls.
The first episode introduces us to a slew of characters with very different lived experiences of the Rush – Leung Wei Shing (played by Mulan star Yoson An), the head of a Chinese mining camp in the area; recently widowed Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland) who is forging her own independent life via working on her late-husband’s printing press, The Ballarat Times; and several miners from a European camp.
These perspectives introduce us to the complex tensions rippling below the surface of fragile relationships – xenophobia and racism toward Chinese miners, sexism toward women. It’s all there and a fundamental part of the series.
Of course, there’s a mystery. The first scene introduces us to an unnamed woman in yellow, putting rocks in her pockets and wandering into a creek. Later, Shing finds her body hidden in scrub near the Chinese mining camp – she’s been stabbed. Her death is the thread that connects our key characters – Roberts investigates the murder for her paper, an Irish miner in the European camp mysteriously burns documents pertaining to a marriage, Shing will battle the police as they attempt to pin the murder on the Chinese miners, and Aboriginal tracker Hattie (Leonie Whyman) fights to ensure the murder isn’t pinned on her community nearby.
The series has some similarities to Deadwood, the long-running, critically acclaimed HBO series that focused on the American gold rush. Both depict the complexities of a community hastily formed around the prospect of immediate wealth – communities that were built fast, figuring the rest out later. But New Gold Mountain sheds light on the migrant experience in the Australian goldfields. The terrain is unforgiving and the people even more so. Tens of thousands of Chinese gold-seekers arrived in Australia during the mid-1800s, and their experience is a story that has not been explored to this depth before.
Still, Deadwood was a slow burn – with only four episodes, the plot of New Gold Mountain ramps up from episode two and rattles full steam ahead, keeping even those less interested in historical tales gripped.
New Gold Mountain utilised Victoria’s historical tourist attraction Sovereign Hill to reflect 1850s Ballarat, with the mining camps created by production designer Paddy Reardon in bushland just outside of Melbourne – the results feel big budget, you’re immersed in the 1800s rural experience, and it’s nothing like the glossy westerns would have you believe.
Hopefully the success of this series sees other lesser-told stories hitting streaming services and the big screen – Australia is full of them, and it’s about time they were brought to light.
New Gold Mountain is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.