Arvin Chen (“Love in Taipei,” “Mama Boy”, episodes of “Pachinko”) is to direct “Coolie,” a limited series featuring enslaved Chinese workers in 19th century Cuba.
The eight-part series is the first to emerge from Cathay Film Company, a recent production venture launched by Singapore-based industry veteran Meileen Choo.
In the mid-1800s, when the African slave trade was outlawed throughout the Americas, plantation owners in Cuba instead began trafficking indentured servants from China and other parts of Asia. These, so-called coolies were often treated as slaves, but some integrated into Cuban society and joined the country’s fight for independence from Spain. The provided a low-cost workforce for farms, restaurants, factories and were instrumental in setting up Chinatowns across the world.
With Hong Kong actor Louise Wong (“A Guilty Conscience,” “Anita,” “Table for Six”) in the lead role as a young woman who departs from southern China to marry a political exile working on a sugarcane plantation in Cuba, the narrative sees her join forces with servants and African slaves seeking freedom. But the plantation owner’s spurned wife and her ex-lover conspire against them, triggering a series of scheming and retaliatory moves that leave Cuba’s fate in the balance.
Wong is joined in the cast by Taiwanese actor Joseph Chang (“Eternal Summer,” “Girlfriend Boyfriend,” “Soul”), Colombian actor and TV personality Mauricio Henao (“La Herencia,” “Panama,” “Fake Profile”), and Cuban actors Camila Arteche (“El acompanante,” “Sergio & Serguei,” “Juego de Mentiras”) and Sian Chiong (“La Mexicana y el Guero,” “Menudo,” “Fidel’s Daughter”).
Production begins in December in the Dominican Republic and Panama. In-Ah Lee (“Land of Plenty,” “Don’t Come Knockin’” “The Way I Spent the End of the World”) is the series’ executive producer. Ed Buhr (“Unhung Hero”) is producing.
No broadcaster, distributor or streaming platform is yet attached.
“This story has long been a passion project of mine. We are telling a version here with drama, action, love and intensity during a real time in history with overarching themes that are still very relevant today,” said Choo. “Our intent is to make the connection entertaining and meaningful for a contemporary audience and I’m proud to say we have a tremendously talented cast and team to realize this vision.”
Choo’s family has been a major player in Southeast Asian cinema since 1935 when pioneering Chinese Malaysian woman Loke Yew founded the Associated Theatres chain. Cathay-Keris was a dominant production studio in Singapore, rivalling Shaw Bros, in the 1950s.
Meileen Choo became the CEO of the Cathay Organisation Group of Companies in 1985. The group divested the exhibition business in 2017 and Choo relinquished her post when she retired in 2018. She remains chairman of the Cathay Organisation and started to explore new possibilities of film and TV production through her Cathay Film Company, founded in 2020.
Over the course of her career, Choo has executive produced numerous feature films including “Army Daze”; Tsui Hark’s “A Chinese Ghost Story”; “That One No Enough,” directed by Jack Neo; “Last Life in the Universe” directed by Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang; Arvin Chen’s “Au Revoir Taipei”; “Our Sister Mambo,” a tribute to Cathay’s classic studio films, directed by Ho Widing; and “Oh Lucy!” directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi.”
“The world of ‘Coolie’ is a captivating and unique multicultural world that I never knew existed, and I’m excited to work with our amazing cast and crew to bring that world back to life,” said Chen.