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Pioneering Filmmaker Esther Eng Made Movies in the ’30s and ’40s on Her Own Terms

Esther Eng Lesbian Filmmaker
Courtesy of Louisa Wei

Esther Eng broke all the rules. In the 1930s and ’40s, it was remarkable for a Cantonese American woman to be a producer and director. Even more impressive: She was always upfront about being a lesbian. In 1941, a Variety reviewer praised “Golden Gate Girl” and added that a great marketing hook could be “the fact that the director is China’s only woman film director, who has a flock of releases to her credit in China and made a film in Hollywood five years ago.” 

Unfortunately, Eng’s works are now lost. But filmmaker S. Louisa Wei created a 2013 documentary about her, “Golden Gate Silver Light,” relying on photo albums from 1928-48 that were found in a San Francisco dumpster in 2006. Reviewing the doc on Film Business Asia, Derek Elley said the movie creates a portrait of an energetic, sunny woman, for whom “boundaries of race, language, culture and gender did not seem to exist.” 

Esther Ng (or Ng Kam-ha) was born in San Francisco on Sept. 24, 1914. She was a fan of Cantonese Opera and befriended many of the performers there. Her first credit was as co-producer of the 1936 movie “Heartaches,” filmed in Hollywood in eight days and directed by Frank Tang. She changed her last name in the credits to Eng, to make it easier to pronounce.

She directed several films in Hong Kong including “Storm of Envy” and “Ten Thousand Lovers,” and returned to the Bay Area in 1939, distributing Cantonese films in Central and South America.

She also directed “It’s a Women’s World” (1939), featuring an all-female cast of 36, as well as the late-’40s films “The Blue Jade” and “Mad Fire Mad Love.”

When Wern. reviewed “Golden Gate Girl,” it was playing an exclusive run at the Grandview Theater in San Francisco, in Cantonese without subtitles. But the reviewer said the story (about a girl who defies her family, falls in love and gets pregnant) was easy to follow and could do good business if English subtitles were provided.

He added that, as a novelty film, “It would be natural for benefit performances to raise money for Rice Bowl drives.”

Millions of Chinese were suffering as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War that began in the late 1930s, so Chinese communities in the U.S. pitched in with fund-raising events from 1938-41, featuring street entertainment, Chinese opera companies and a parade, among other enticements. According to Bill Van Niekerken at the San Francisco Chronicle, the S.F. events were the most successful of the 700 cities participating, raising $55,000 in the first year, and even more in the next two years.

But “Golden Gate Girl” never got a wide distribution. Eng segued from filmmaking to the restaurant biz, opening an eatery in New York City in 1950.

Her final film credit was “Murder in New York Chinatown,” in 1961. But that was a one-off amid her 20-year career as a restaurateur, including five locations in Manhattan.

Eng died in 1970 at age 55. She was largely forgotten until a 1995 column in Variety drew attention to her, encouraging film historians to look into her works.

Helping to do research for that column was Elley, a Variety staffer at the time and an expert on Asian films.

When he reviewed the documentary at the Hong Kong Film Festival, he commented that Eng’s lesbian life “seems not to have affected her career in any negative way, partly because homosexuality was an accepted part of the Chinese opera world in which she moved, and from which many film performers of the time came. With her boyish haircut and mannish clothes, she was always addressed by the nickname ‘Big Brother Ha.’ ”

Elley concluded, “Until more of her work surfaces, she’ll remain a fascinating footnote in Chinese film history.” Wei’s documentary is being distributed by the New York-based Women Make Movies.