The cast of “Better Man”. Picture: Gina Milicia
This month, SBS is broadcasting Better Man, the mini-series about Van Nguyen, the 25 year old Australian who was executed in Singapore in 2005.
I won’t go into detail here about the tragic story because you should do yourself a favour and watch the show “on demand”. The cast is brilliant, the script by Khoa Do is gripping and the performances – especially by lead actor Remy Hii in the role of Van – are fantastic.
It’s also part of a new crop of Australian dramas where Asian-Australians are finally being allowed to sound authentic. Like the Australians they are. With Australian accents … because that’s how they actually speak.
Like the character Chai Li in the wonderful ABC drama Time of Our Lives (starring Claudia Karvan and William McInnes) also currently being broadcast on the small screen (catch it on iView). Michelle Vergara Moore plays Chai Li and she speaks with an Aussie accent. And – hallelujah – the scriptwriters treat this as the most normal thing in the world. Because. It. Is.
You might not think this is a big deal. But it’s a fresh change of pace from the shows I grew up watching.
Back then, if you were an Asian character on TV, you were probably a Triad gangster with an indecipherable accent. If you were in the movies, you expertly popped ping pong balls out of your bits. And if you were a newsreader on SBS, you sounded like Lee Lin Chin.
The reality is that I wouldn’t even know where to find a Triad gangster if my life depended on it. I’m hopeless at precision ping pong. And, no one on the planet actually speaks like Lee Lin Chin.
Interestingly, while these scriptwriters have caught up with the real world, some people haven’t. I do get amazed when some people come up to me and say: “Oh wow, your English is so good.” I resist the temptation to let them know that I also studied French, German, Greek and Latin.
However, some years back I realised that it works both ways. At the time, I was working at CLEO magazine in Singapore and, as part of a story, I was cast in a supporting role in a cop show. I was meant to write a behind-the-scenes story on the show, which starred a local heart-throb.
I played a breakfast TV newsreader in an episode where a bomb goes off in the TV studio. So, while doing my best impression of Mel Doyle, I attempted to act. It was only a small speaking role and I can safely say that I’m not going to win an Oscar any time soon.
After several days of filming in Singapore, we wrapped the episode and I returned to life as a journalist at CLEO.
But then I got a phone call. The producer of the TV show asked me to come back to the studio to re-record my dialogue.
“We just need you to tone down your accent,” he said. “You just sound too Australian.”