1964-65. Singapore is a city at a crossroads. Political and racial tensions are at fever pitch as the British pull out, and a new nation is about to be born. The lights of Bugis Street have never burned so bright: bootleg copies of Motown songs boom out from street stalls; the Rolling Stones are in town along with tourists and American sailors fresh from Vietnam. They join British and Australian soldiers checking out the prostitutes and gambling dens en route to their own war in Borneo.
The famous Straits are filled with ships from around the world; and militant union demonstrations and race riots sweep the streets. The Cold War is hot in the tropics; Chinese gangs prosper; and people die as the city is hit by terrorist bombs.
The Malayan Emergency is over but has added new scars to the memories of colonial rule and the Japanese occupation during WW2. The sun may have set on the Empire, but British and Australian troops are still in the middle of an intense four-year jungle war in neighbouring Borneo, while in one year, terrorists will set off more than 29 bombs in Singapore itself. And then there are the Americans, and that war in Vietnam.
This is the city of Sam Callaghan (Don Hany), Patricia Cheng (Joan Chen), the CIA's Conrad Harrison (Michael Dorman) and the clients of the Cheng Detective Agency.
Sam Callaghan runs a sporadic import/export business with his Malayan partner Kang, but agrees to help neighbour Patricia Cheng at her detective agency after her husband is killed while working on a case. Patricia may not be a detective, but she knows she needs a good investigator with contacts in the Chinese and Malay communities, as well as among US/British ex-pats. Sam is all of that. But, after a childhood in a POW camp and a chequered career in military intelligence during the Malay Emergency, he is also carrying a lot of baggage.
However, he does enjoy a mutually satisfactory and discreet relationship with Claire Simpson (Maeve Dermody), the lonely and bored wife of an ex-pat oil company executive.
This then starts for Sam, as a case-by-case part-time job, and eventually he is effectively working almost full-time at the Cheng Detective Agency. The agency's cases range from the usual (straying spouses and petty fraudsters) to events with international implications and complications. Sam's contacts from his military days are useful - but they start to drag him back into a dark world that he would prefer to leave behind.