A cabaret covered with risqué posters advertising the entertainment within; an opium den attached to a seedy bar; bustling provision shops and hawker carts on the side of the road; a big Chinese opera house that dwarfs the other houses on the block. It’s the roughand- tumble streets of post-war Singapore, and it’s also the back lot of Infinite Studios in Batam, Indonesia, where the HBO Asia Original Serangoon Road was produced.
The procedural drama follows the adventures of a former Australian solider (Don Hany), as he reluctantly takes over the private detective agency of his next door neighbour (Joan Chen) after her husband goes missing. “It’s a detective series that at its heart is set in the reality of mid- 1960s Singapore,” says series producer and co-creator Paul Barron. “Every single story in the series was grounded in some fact, some reality of Singapore at the time.” Unfortunately, that kind of authenticity would have been a production design and logistical nightmare in the modern city-state.
The story takes the characters through the colourful street life of Bugis Street, Chinatown and Serangoon Road. Although some scenes were shot at iconic landmarks in Singapore such as Raffles Hotel, production largely took place at Infinite Studios in Batam, on a back lot set created by Infinite Studios and added to by production designer Herbert Pinter and art director David Ingram.
“Trying to recreate 1960s Singapore in Singapore is difficult, so we recreated a lot of colonial Singapore here in Batam,” Barron explains. This included a three-story façade of a Chinese opera house, provision shops filled with eraappropriate goods, kopitiams (coffee shops), a cabaret with uncensored posters, barbershops and various other shop houses authentic to the period in a grid of streets complicated enough for a long, continuous shot. The streets were also littered with trishaws, hawker stands, and the occasional abandoned bicycle. Graffiti, rare in presentday Singapore, was painstakingly hand-painted randomly.
The detective agency central to the story and other indoor sets used throughout the series was built in one of the sound stages at Infinite Studios Batam. Most of the indoor sets were built to scale, in rooms made to appear as dark and dank as they would have been in the 1960s. The look of the detective agency harks back to film noir; a crowded nightclub is constructed with low ceilings and attached to an opium den, illegal but still rampant during that era.
The 10-episode, hour-long series takes its name from Serangoon Road, which was one of the earliest roads built in Singapore and was then known as “the road leading across the island”. HBO Asia pointed out Serangoon Road was the key thoroughfare that spanned the length of the island when it was built, making it a unique crossing point for all walks of life, and it is symbolic of the series as an important main road that traditionally linked the various communities in Singapore. Similarly, pulling together a project that would appeal to audiences across HBO Asia’s 22 territories was the heart of developing the series.
“I was looking for something that had the genre appeal that I knew would work for our audiences, so when I came across Serangoon Road I thought it was so compelling and so interesting, I thought it was something worth pursuing,” says Erika North, VP of Programming at HBO Asia. “Detective stories no matter where they’re from, they work – they travel,” she adds.
Slated for primetime regional broadcast on HBO Asia and ABC TV later this year, the producers have strategically cast international and regional stars recognisable to its Asian audiences. Chen and Hany star alongside Singaporean actors Chin Han, Alaric Tay and Pamela Chee; Australia’s Maeve Dermody and Rachel Blake; and rising Indonesian talent Ario Bayu. The series also features guest appearances by Russell Wong and Xiang Yun.
“We were involved from the ground up,” says North. “With ABC, and with Paul, together the three groups very organically created the script and the characters. Australian and Singaporean writers know their own home turf, but this project was about pulling together a worldclass procedural drama that feels rooted in Asia, which is quite hard to do. It took us a long time to get the script right, but when we finally did it seemed like the right project to do,” she adds. “What we want to do with our ‘HBO Asia Originals’ brand is to create a brand that’s really a legacy of the brand development that has gone into the U.S. for ‘HBO Originals’.”