Colonialist miniseries Tanamera, about a British scion wooing a Chinese girl in Singapore, has plenty of Star Trek patronising
Last week, someone in the office talked about how she was trying to talk a friend out of reading Tanamera. It's a best-selling 1981 novel by English writer Noel Barber, set in Singapore in the years just before and after the Japanese Occupation.
The book, she says, is rubbish. More to the point, it drips with every Oriental cliche you can imagine and adds 20 more to the list. I had just watched Jack Neo's 1960s kampung drama Long Long Time Ago, now showing in cinemas, which also features plenty of historical wishful thinking, so I was taken by the idea of looking at old Singapore through tinted glasses.
In 1989, Barber's story of two wealthy families, one British and one Chinese, was turned into a television miniseries. To my delight, an Internet angel had uploaded all seven episodes on YouTube. Now, I could watch actors such as our own Lim Kay Tong speak Barber's words.
I will admit right now that two episodes were all I could take. The work, a British-Australian co-production, has plenty of that Star Trek patronising. Non-whites are aliens - noble, intelligent aliens who do crazy things because that is what aliens do because, well, they are aliens and, besides, it works so much better for the plot.
I suppose this is better than the James Clavell brand of history, in which the author of Tai-Pan and Shogun populates ancient Japan and Hong Kong with, as far as I can tell, a gang of idiots.
The series is titled Tanamera - Lion Of Singapore. Just who the Lion is is unclear, but I suspect it is one of the many Brits shown in the opening episode. It's a romantic, gilded age for the British, who spend all their time swilling gin and playing tennis.
On the edges of the frame, you see some locals serving drinks and clipping hedges, but the show's producers don't seem to care if these people consider this a romantic, gilded age.
Anyway, our hero, the scion of a venerable British business dynasty, falls in love with a Chinese girl, the daughter of a business rival. He's a bit of a cad and she is, of course, as pure and unspoilt as freshly made tofu. At a society ball, he gawps at her, eyes a-bulging and mouth open, like a goldfish in heat, in case we don't get that he's keen.
So this is a Romeo and Juliet situation, a star-crossed lovers deal. To drive the point home, two expats looking at the lovers have the following conversation:
Jealous British woman: "Nothing so tempting as forbidden fruit."
Wily neutral Swiss man: "So forbidden?"
She: "Absolutely. Her father is the leader of the Chinese community and we are the white barbarians."
She ends the chat with this beauty: "In Singapore society, white meets Wong, but never in bed."
"White meets Wong" is going to be the name of my punk band. Or laundry business.
The "white barbarian" business is interesting because in every movie with problematic race politics - say, a war movie set in the Middle East or any movie in the Taken movie franchise (2008, 2012, 2015) - you will find a get-out-of-jail-free card in how the Westerners were hated first, thus giving Liam Neeson the right to hand out free karate chops.
The rest of that episode of Tanamera is just as you would imagine. The rich Chinese father uses the word "honour" in 50 different ways to mean "plot complication stopping the couple from getting together".
Lim plays the snivelling villain spurned by the woman falling for the British cad and he attempts vengeance in the most logical way possible - becoming a communist guerilla and kidnapping her. I guess that's how Marxist theory began - Karl Marx was just trying to win back a girl who was seeing a man who refused to share the means of production with the proletariat.
I zipped ahead to the last clip and - spoiler alert - it ends with the British guy going Rambo on Lim, crushing communism and winning the girl all in one smooth move.
I wonder if Neo is interested in picking up the story from here for his next movie?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Star-crossed lovers doomed to fail'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.