September 1, 2010
By Melody Uy
In and around Asia’s most bustling cities lay hidden worlds filled with forgotten palaces and temples, abandoned towns and disused underground fortresses that shelter unbelievable relics and untold stories.” With an introduction like this, you know Hidden Cities is more than your late-night, run-of-the-mill documentary. With the help of writers, historians, archaeologists and scientists, presenter Anthony Morse attempts to investigate and unearth these places, and reveal the tales they have hidden for so long. Along the way, he bunkers down in a Cold War nuclear bomb shelter in Beijing, China; explores an old prison island in Penang, Malaysia; experiences the Dutch garrisons of Java, Indonesia; and investigates an underground city in the Kinmen Islands of Taiwan. How did he find these places? “It was a combination between what the broadcaster was thinking about, what Beach House researched into and what we thought were the viable stories within each place in Asia,” said Donovan Chan, creative director of Beach House Pictures, which produced the series. Established in 2005, Beach House Pictures is a Singapore based, award-winning television production company that produces factual content for the global market. In 2008, BHP joined forces with internationally acclaimed documentary maker NHNZ to create a formidable Asian television production powerhouse. Through co-productions or commissions, BHP works regularly with international broadcasters such as the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel and AETN. The company also enjoys a strong relationship with worldleading travel brand, Lonely Planet, having produced over 35 hours of international travel content together so far. Notable projects to date include Man Made Marvels, Lonely Planet Television’s Roads Less Travelled, China First Time Filmmakers and Lonely Planet Television’s Six Degrees. For Hidden Cities, “A lot of what we tried to uncover was pretty unknown,” said Jocelyn Little, managing director of Beach House Pictures. “For example in Beijing we went into Mao’s underground city.” The result is, so far, four episodes featuring previously undocumented places in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. “Personally I find the Mao underground city interesting – fascinating in fact,” Little said of her favourite moments in making the series. Chan agrees, pointing out that “China half a century ago was closed to the world. And now suddenly we are seeing all these little pieces of history.” In the China episode of Hidden Cities, presenter Anthony Morse explores Beijing’s best-kept secret – a series of Cold War bomb shelters that lay hidden under the city. He also reveals the city’s ancient role as Asia’s multi-religion hub from as early as the 13th century; gets a glimpse of the true splendor of Beijing’s lost Summer Palace and explores the little known tombs of China’s enigmatic eunuchs. In the Malaysia episode, Hidden Cities uncovers the dark secrets of a pristine island off the coast of Penang; explores an abandoned WWII British fortress that rivals their other mega-defenses in the region; tries to get the real story behind a mysterious colonial castle and digs beneath Perak’s ancient valleys to find human settlements millions of years old. Episode three takes viewers into an artificial cave system in Indonesia carved out of molten lava by WWII Japanese troops. Hidden Cities also uncovers a centuries old religious complex in East Java that was buried by volcanic ash and digs up evidences of a Dutch castle hidden beneath the town of Semarang in Central Java. In the Taiwan episode, Morse explores a 7-hectare fortress that served as former leader Chiang Kai-shek’s secret military command center during the Chinese Civil War; discovers a forgotten WWII prisoner-of-war camp currently used as an aboriginal refugee center and uncovers an underground city stretching over several kilometers that was dug right beneath an 800-year-old village. “The sense of adventure is really high, and the way we approach the shooting of the show has to complement that sense of adventure,” Chan explained. “We send one crew to each country. We have a regular cameraman and regular soundman, and we have different directors for each episode,” Little adds. Most of the footage was captured with a Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD 422 Camcorder. Beach House Pictures also handled the entire post workflow. Although Hidden Cities has a travel feature feel to it, it is still very much a documentary. “We don’t take it lightly when we shoot it, but we know it has to be entertaining to the viewer, and also educational. So research is just vital. But there’s still a bit of creativity on the ground,” said Chan. After intensive research Beach House Pictures comes up with the shooting script, but things don’t always go according to plan. “Once you get there and as you see the grounds ground you realise – wow, there’s a lot more to explore,” said Little. “In this day and age where you have very strict timelines, you have to be almost absolutely sure what you’re going to get on the ground. It goes back to the initial research. We spend months on every episode when it comes to think about and figuring out what we’re going to get on the ground. Even before the shooting script we have shooting proposals and treatments, where the channel has vetted them and once we get to the shooting script is vetted one more time. And that shooting script is based on whatever is realistically achievable on the ground,” Chan said. “Once we get to the ground the director and the producer has to decide based on that shooting script ‘do we need anything else on top of this’.” “[Presenter] Anthony has been great. He’s very gung-ho. We’ve sent him down into tunnels, wells, jungles,” Little said. “He’s quite an adventurous spirit, so that helps make it entertaining.” Hidden Cities airs on the History Channel on Sundays at 10pm starting on 24 October.