There’s a photo of Esther Eng in 1935, standing on a runway amidst a crowd of crew and collaborators, flanked by an airplane. Next to her are rising movie stars and technical wizards. She is the smallest person on the scene, made even more visible by her youth, at just 21 years old.

But Eng’s gaze into the camera suggests something else – a confidence and charm that would drive the success of China’s burgeoning film industry during one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese and American history.

In every way, Eng was a trailblazer: touted as the first Chinese female director in America and China, she apparently navigated the boundaries of culture, language, gender and sexuality with ease. Eng charmed the media and collaborators, earning a fandom despite her unique androgynous appearance and lesbian identity. And his output was prolific, making nine films in just over a decade between 1937 and 1949, all in the face of growing geopolitical conflict.

Yet half a century after her last film, Eng remains criminally underrated and undercovered in Hollywood and Hong Kong film history. This tension is captured in “Golden Gate Girls,” the 2013 documentary by Hong Kong-based filmmaker, producer and writer S. Louisa Wei. She recently traveled to San Francisco for a screening of the film on October 29 and spoke to SFGATE about the legacy of a San Franciscan who made headlines domestically and abroad.

Sr. Louisa Wei

South China Morning Post / South China Morning Post via Get

“I can’t think of a better word to describe Esther than chutzpah,” Wei said. “She was often the youngest and least experienced person on set, but seemed to know how to work with all kinds of people, without hesitation.”

Eng was born in San Francisco and raised on Washington Street in Chinatown, where she developed a fascination with theatre. Her parents encouraged her to soak up the vibrant Cantonese opera scene, whose stars have performed at venues like the legendary Mandarin Theatre. Later, she would work at the Mandarin box office as a teenager, rubbing shoulders with artists and absorbing countless Chinese-language and Hollywood films.

Despite White America’s painful history of exclusion and discrimination against Asian immigrants, feelings about the Chinese community had begun to change by the 1930s. Japan’s increasing imperial aggression in Manchuria stimulated sympathy and support for China, and cultural milestones such as Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel “The Good Earth” helped change perspectives on the struggles Chinese immigrants faced in America.

A photo of Esther Eng from the film "Golden Gate Girls."

A photo of Esther Eng from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.

Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei

Patriotic sentiment grew in Chinatown, especially after the release of the documentary “The Battle of Shanghai” in 1933. Eng’s father was no exception; so moved by the fervor, he decided to establish the Kwong Ngai Talking Pictures Company with a friend and appointed his then 19-year-old daughter as co-producer. Eng was in uncharted waters, though perhaps more primed for the movies than anyone might have guessed.

“Consider that Esther herself grew up very well in movies. If you work at the box office, you don’t watch a movie once; you watch them repeatedly. So I think she understood the movie language at a young age,” Wei said. “But she also came from a wealthy family, and she was never a shy kid. She wasn’t afraid to do something new. When her father started production on “Heartaches,” Esther went to Hollywood, ready to work. »

Her friend and “Heartaches” star, sassy Cantonese actress Wai Kim-Fong, accompanied her on the trip. The 1935 film follows a romance between a dashing Chinese-American airman and an opera star in San Francisco, which turns tragic as he goes to war in China and she continues a life in America without him. Infused with dramatic theft scenes, color photography and a heartbreaking finale, the film wowed Chinese audiences in America and especially in Hong Kong.

A still from the movie "Golden Gate Girls".

An image from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei
A still from the movie "Golden Gate Girls".

An image from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei

Images from the film.



It was a formative experience for co-producer Eng, who was advised by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe. The resulting momentum allowed Eng to make her directorial debut with 1937’s “National Heroine,” in which Eng again cast Wai for the female lead – this time a brave fighter, ready to fight. stand in the front line with his male comrades.

It was the first time, but not the last, that Eng had directed subversive stories of empowered women who seemed unrestrained by expectations. Perhaps it reflected her own energy: despite being only 22, Eng spoke fearlessly, seemingly indifferent to the cultural norms of the 1930s.

Eng wore a sleek, boyish haircut and insisted people call him by the nickname “Brother Ha.” She had a passion for elevating the talents and stories of women, and she never shied away from getting comfortable with starlets, often photographed in the company of a beautiful colleague. She was openly lesbian, courting Wai and others during her film career. Chinese media seemed to respect him, referring to his partners as “close friends” and otherwise praising his personality, articulate interviews and patriotic spirit.

“National Heroine” proved successful, attracting positive press and interest from Hong Kong’s cinematic elite, including acclaimed director Wu Peng, with whom Eng would collaborate on several occasions. The warm reception prompted her to stay in Hong Kong, where she would make five more films. It was not until Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 that forced her to return to San Francisco. World War II was on and the territory was no longer safe.

movie poster "Golden Gate Girls".

Poster of the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei
movie poster "Golden Gate Girls".

Poster of the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei

Movie cinema posters.

In October 1939, she boarded a ship and sailed for California, leaving behind what would later be known as the first golden age of cinema in Hong Kong. She soon gazed at the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time and marveled as San Franciscans stood up in wartime solidarity, raising money for Chinese soldiers and refugees. These inspirations led Eng to make ‘Golden Gate Girl’ in 1941, teaming up with acclaimed filmmaker Moon Kwan to create a tragicomedy that evokes themes of family separation, reconciliation and sacrifice. It served as a powerful metaphor, urging Chinese unity as the promise of a better future in the face of war. The film also served as the debut for Bruce Lee, who at 4 months played a newborn baby girl, chosen by Eng because she was a close family friend due to Lee’s father’s status as a well-known actor from Hong Kong.

Today, “Golden Gate Girl” is one of only two English-language films (along with 1961’s “Murder in New York Chinatown”) that remains in a viewable format. She made 10 films between 1937 and 1961, with a long hiatus after 1949 due to an exodus of Cantonese film talent from San Francisco – which had served as a refuge during the war – to a newly peaceful China.

“Of course, we dug and looked for films everywhere. We are still hoping to find something. For example, Esther went to Havana, Havana had the Golden Eagle theater… Maybe someone found film reels in a back room,” Wei said with a sigh. “But I’m grateful that ‘Golden Gate Girl’ exists on VHS and I was able to find a copy of ‘Murder in New York Chinatown.’ I found them pretty amazing – all the storytelling, the plot, the shots all came together so well, so at least I have no doubts about his craft as a filmmaker, even if his other films are missing .

A still from the movie "Daughter of the Golden Gate," in which a 4-month-old Bruce Lee had her first role, as a newborn baby girl.

A still from the movie ‘Golden Gate Girl’, in which 4-month-old Bruce Lee had his first role as a newborn baby girl.

Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei

Perhaps the demise of his films is responsible for the lack of attention around Eng as a film pioneer. But if Eng ever felt underappreciated, it never showed. When the film industry became too expensive and complicated, she moved on to a new life as a restaurateur in New York. His first project, Bo Bo, was a great success with Cantonese and Western stars. She later opened Esther Eng’s restaurant and Eng’s Corner, a neighborhood pub that rightly served as a destination for gay men.

Eng never left San Francisco, visiting every year until her mother passed away in 1969. Less than a year later, Eng died after a long battle with cancer. She was only 55 and was buried in Colma, where she remains today.

A photo of Esther Eng from the film "Golden Gate Girls."

A photo of Esther Eng from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.

Courtesy of Sr. Louisa Wei

Wei’s documentary shows, with startling clarity, why Eng deserves proper recognition in the history of American cinema. But she wasn’t just a trailblazer when it came to breaking down the boundaries of gender, sexuality and race in Hollywood. Eng was a true San Francisco girl, bolstered by the city’s culture shock, the ambitions of her immigrant line and her own attitude of radical self-expression, critics be damned.

Eddie Kim is a San Francisco-based writer and multimedia journalist. He was most recently a feature writer for MEL magazine, covering stories about social conflict, masculinity and identity.

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