Actress awaits release of new television series filmed in Ballarat

ON SET: Characters Lei, played by Mabel Li and Shing, played by Yoson An in new SBS period drama series New Gold Mountain. Pictures: SBS
ON SET: Characters Lei, played by Mabel Li and Shing, played by Yoson An in new SBS period drama series New Gold Mountain. Pictures: SBS

A star of a new SBS series filmed at Sovereign Hill, west of Melbourne, says audiences can expect a refreshing depiction of intersectionality, race, violence and ruthlessness on the Australian goldfields.

The Courier spoke to actress Mabel Li, who plays the character of Cheung Lei in four-part series New Gold Mountain, set to air on screens this month.

The series opens in Ballarat in 1857 and tells the story of the gold rush from the perspective of Chinese miners who took big risks for a chance at fortune in a new land.

It is important to confront the violence and the racism of our past to move forward properly as a country.

Mabel Li, actress

The characters, inspired by real life, are brought together by a mysterious murder on the goldfields.

Character Cheung Lei is a new immigrant and the only woman in the Chinese camp.

She was sent to Australia by her father, the head of the Brotherhood in China, to make sure the books are in order.

Sydney actress Li said Lei was an 'extreme' and 'ruthless' woman, but she connected to her need to survive and preserve her freedom.

"Despite having such a cunning exterior, what is really interesting is what a vulnerable situation she is in throughout all of this. Her freedom is in the hands of her father, so she is in a fragile position," she said.

Director Corrie Chen said the perspective of Chinese and women on the goldfields was rarely explored.

Li said she had never seen a series that depicted this time in Australia or went into the 'nitty gritty' of intersectionality and the violence and ruthlessness of that time.

"It is important to confront the violence and the racism of our past to move forward properly as a country," she said.

The key scenes of the 1850s Ballarat Town were filmed at Sovereign Hill. Other scenes were filmed at Woowookarung Regional Park and You Yangs Regional Park.

Li said filming in Ballarat reinvigorated memories of gold panning and candle making at Sovereign Hill with her brother as a child.

"Coming back to film was so amazing, seeing all the background artists film the scenes, all the actors, the costumes, everyone was in such amazing costumes," she said.

"It really gives you such an immersive environment to play in.

"There were days on set I wouldn't be on, but I would come in to walk around the streets and watch my colleagues work and immerse myself in it and that was so much fun."

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Li said returning to Sovereign Hill also brought back memories of realising how long Chinese people had been a part of Australia's history.

"I remember I read somewhere Chinese people made up a fifth of the population," she said.

"I remember seeing the posters with Chinese letters around the town and my parents explaining what it meant.

"It was really satisfying to do the show with such a strong Chinese perspective and have those memories of my parents going through the town with me, pointing those things out and that being a realisation."

The crew filmed in Ballarat for a week, but most of Li's scenes were filmed at the Chinese camp which was a set constructed in You Yangs Regional Park.

Production designer Paddy Reardon said the choice of location for the Chinese camp needed to show it was downhill from the European camp.

"In Ballarat, the Chinese were forced to live in a swamp area, at the bottom of what is now Lydiard Street," he said.

"I saw sketches and illustrations of the area, so we chose a shooting location that, from a design perspective, you had to look up to Ballarat and down to the Chinese camp."

Li said the Chinese camp was an amazing set.

"It gives you an image of the inequalities and the segregation of that time," she said.

"I remember walking down the hill and seeing the camp for the first time, it was really emotional actually, that idea there were Chinese settlers here and immigrants for a long time.

"The sense of ancestry was really emotional.

"That was a whole built set and that was a different environment to the town in Ballarat."

Li was born in New Zealand, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, before her family moved to Sydney, where she grew up and continues to live now.

New Gold Mountain premieres Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.

This story TV drama filmed in regional Victoria to hit the small screen next week first appeared on The Courier.