Discovering noir in ‘Serangoon Road’

Peter Imbong

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A chat with one of the stars of HBO Asia’s first original drama series, 'Serangoon Road'

PERIOD PIECE. Show is set in Singapore during the heady 1960s. Photos courtesy of HBO Asia

MANILA, Philippines–The Singapore many of us know is the highly developed, energetic, and gleaming tourist and business city-state it is today. But in the 1960s, the then member of the Federation of Malaya (which formed Malaysia) was just discovering self-governance after being ruled by the British Empire. In August of 1963, Singapore declared independence from Britain unilaterally. Two years later in 1965, Singapore officially gained sovereignty. And it is during this crucial time of transition and reform that “Serangoon Road,” HBO Asia’s first original drama series set in a classic and lush detective-noir film style, begins.

A co-production with Australian Broadcasting Corporation Television, the 10-episode hour-long series is set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1960s Singapore, when the island broke away from British and then Malaysian rule.

Rappler spoke with one of the series’ stars, Singaporean actor and director Alaric Tay, and asked him about what viewers can expect from the new series, and the distinctive look of the noir genre.

Noir is a visually lush film genre with a moody color palate; the persistent presence of shadows, smoke, and fog; all in a gritty urban landscape. Is this something we can expect from “Serangoon Road”?

Visually, we have a great production design team that managed to really bring back the 1960s look and feel of Singapore. Because if you were to currently shoot anything in Singapore, it looks way too modern. We went to great lengths to actually even go all the way to Indonesia to shoot in a studio. We had a backlot there where we shot most of the street exterior scenes and basically recreated the colonial shop houses of that era. And we’ve got quite a bit of indoor sets which were recreated to look just like the colonial buildings of the time, as well.

Is there smoke? There must be smoke.

There’s a very old-school feel. I recall every time that we’d be on set, you’d see the smoke machine, or there’s always someone creating a smoke effect. You won’t really see it on the screen, but you will feel it, and that’s something that’s created by [the] smoke effect that’s been dissipated across the set which really gives it a very old-school type of film look. And that’s quite typical of noir, as well.

ASIAN NOIR. Street scene in 'Serangoon Road'

Tell us about your character, Kang, who plays opposite the lead – the detective role played by Australian actor Don Hany.

Kang was a former communist turned to work for the colonial masters in Malaya because, at the time, the communists were losing money and they were on the losing streak of the war. So Kang, being one of the guys who defected, basically figured that, “I’m not being well treated here and I need to survive. If they can’t give me what I need to survive, I’ll go to someone else who can.”

And this forces him to do what?

The colonial masters give him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, which was actually one of the smartest things they could do – to attract all these insurgents out and offer them a good life. And they, in turn, were to fight the war with the colonials to flush out all the communists in the jungle. And that’s pretty much how Kang met Sam Calahan; they fought in the war together.

And where do you think Kang’s conflict comes from?

The biggest conflict is the fact that Kang is a gambler. He’s an orphan so he grew up in the streets. He’s a risk taker. So gambling is part of him. He gambles with money, his life, his friends’ life. And that’s part of the conflict of “Serangoon Road” as well. Kang leads Sam into trouble now and then with this addiction of his.

What research did you do to prepare yourself for this role?

I did quite a bit of reading up on the time, especially on the Malayan emergency, because that’s the roots of where my character’s background comes from – especially the relationship with Sam. They formed their relationship during the war so I actually read up quite a bit about the war, but not so much talking to individuals.

'GAMBLER.' Tay as Kang, flanked by Cleave Williams and Don Hany

It’s no secret that HBO’s been behind some of the most memorable TV series in the last few decades. And “Serangoon Road” is HBO Asia’s first drama series. How does it feel being backed up by basically the same brand that created iconic shows like “Band of Brothers,” “The Sopranos,” and – I have to mention it – “Game of Thrones”?

Oh wow. Let’s talk about the feeling alone of working with HBO. Some of my favorite series of all time, like “Band of Brothers,” was an HBO production. And hearing that HBO was on board this project made it even more exciting for me. It’s like putting me on the ranks with Steven Spielberg, that kind of thing. Although not really, but the feeling is like that.

You’ve worked on many films and series before? With HBO behind you, what’s the difference?

HBO’s emphasis on production values was something I was very impressed with. I think the production value alone in this project is something that gives me the confidence that this is a project that’s really going to succeed and do well. But it’s not just the look, it’s the story, the caliber of the actors hired, and being in the company of all the other actors is something that I also want to emphasize and also thank HBO for. Working with the people that were on this project is really quite a fulfilling experience.



‘Serangoon Road’ premieres Sunday, September 22, 9pm, on HBO and HBO HD, with new episodes airing weekly at the same time.

Peter Imbong is a full-time freelance writer, sometimes a stylist, and on some strange nights, a host. After starting his career in a business magazine, he now writes about lifestyle, entertainment, fashion, and profiles of different personalities. Check out his blog, Peter Tries to Write.

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