Ballarat goes back in time on TV

October 10, 2021 BY

Powerful: Mabel Li plays the formidable Cheung Lei in New Gold Mountain. Photos: SUPPLIED

LIKE many people, actress Mabel Li visited Ballarat in her childhood to learn more about the Victorian gold rush and try her hand at finding a nugget.

Now, she returns to Sovereign Hill as Cheung Lei in SBS and Goalpost Television’s four-part TV drama, New Gold Mountain.

The breakout star plays the cunning yet vulnerable daughter of ruthless Chinese businessman, Master Cheung, who sends her across the seas on a mission to oversee the work of his men in the Goldfields all while a local murder investigation unfolds.

She said the opportunity to play a strong female lead role was exciting and one she thought may not be possible in the local film and television industry.

“When I was at drama school I felt like maybe because I’m Chinese, I’m a young woman, I was still doubtful or not sure if there was a place for me to play a key role in Australian television,” Li said.

“When I got the script, I thought ‘wow, what a complex character’.

“I think the mystery of it is really gripping. I was reading through it, and I was like ‘oh, what’s going to happen?’.

“I had all these predictions and the way that it unfolds is really beautiful actually and touching, heartfelt and tragic. That’s why I think its special and I’m excited about it.”

Li said she felt “totally transported” back in time to the show’s 1857 setting when filming on the iconic Sovereign Hill main street.

Sovereign Hill is a central location in the show where miners, policemen, reporters and civilians all connect.

“It looked incredible,” she said. “It definitely felt like I was immersed in the world.

“The actual street and the town that they’ve preserved or rebuilt is incredible. I spent some of my time walking up and down when I had free time, just walking in there imagining what it would be like.

“Playing in that time period gives you so much of the character. There was so much research that I did, and the circumstances of Chinese women during that time… just thinking about the journey it would’ve taken for [Lei] to get to Australia.”

Exploring racism towards Chinese and Indigenous people, and sexism towards women during that time, Li said the show confronts the country’s violent past and brings up questions about what it means to belong.

“I think not a lot of people knew that a fifth to a quarter of the population by the end of 1860 in the mining community was Chinese,” she said.

“That’s really significant and I feel like a lot of history has been erased. I think this show puts that at the forefront and sees it with not a whitewashed lens, which I think is really important.”

Tune into the premiere of New Gold Mountain at 9.30pm on Wednesday, 13 October on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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