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    Esther Eng: Pioneering Filmmaker and Feminist

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Even before the lights dimmed for the 1936 world premiere of Sum Hun, known also as Heartaches, the audience was ready for a unique experience: watching the first motion picture made in Hollywood with only Chinese actors portraying Chinese characters, produced and directed by Chinese filmmakers. Equally extraordinary, one of its producers was a woman, Esther Eng, who would make film history again and again for the next dozen years as the only female producing and directing Chinese-language films anywhere.

    Born Ng Kam-ha in San Francisco on September 24, 1914, Eng grew up in the heart of the city’s Chinatown. As a teenager she worked at the Mandarin Theatre on Grant Avenue, where she saw traditional Chinese opera performed by companies brought over from Canton, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Many of the leading actors became dear friends, including Wai Kim-fong, “the Chinese Sarah Bernhardt,” who would star in three of Eng’s films.

    Now considered lost, Sum Hun launched Eng’s career as a writer, producer, director, and distributor of Chinese language motion pictures. After the film’s American debut, she and “her dear friend” Wai journeyed to Hong Kong for the production’s international premiere. She made film history a second time when Hong Kong’s largest motion picture studio hired her to direct National Heroine. Its themes of patriotism, equality between women and men, and “self-sacrifice as the ultimate proof of personal love” would recur often in her work.

    Released in 1937, it told the story of a female pilot, played by Wai, fighting as an equal beside her male comrades for her country. Hugely successful, it received a “Certificate of Merit” from the Kwangtung Federation of Women’s Rights. Eng directed four more films in two years, again making history with It’s a Women’s World, the first film made in Hong Kong with an all-female cast. A “broad critique of contemporary society” in the city, especially its treatment of women, it was another success.

    Even as a celebrated public figure, Eng never made a secret of her love of women. Journalists who reported about her private life often referred to those she was intimate with as “bosom friends” or “good sisters,” but in 1938 a writer for Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily News openly admired her as “living proof of the possibility of same-sex love.” The revelations did not hurt her in Hong Kong as they would have in Hollywood.

    Because of the growing war in Asia, Eng returned to the United States in late 1939. The next year she began work on Golden Gate Girl, the first feature-length Chinese film made in San Francisco. It premiered in May 1941 at Chinatown’s Grandview Theatre. Film Daily thought it “surprisingly good,” despite having a budget that “would about cover a Hollywood test.” Now lost, it also made history as the first screen appearance of future international star Bruce Lee—as a baby girl.

    Eng directed only three more films during the 1940s, all starring her “great and good friend” Sui Fei Fei: Blue Jade (1947); Back Street (1948); and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949), which she also wrote, the first Chinese-language color feature made in Hawaii. After more than a decade writing, producing, directing, and distributing motion pictures, she retired from the business.

    She moved to New York, where she opened the Chinese restaurant Bo Bo in 1950 with Sui and four other partners. The extremely influential and socially out New York Times food editor and restaurant critic gave it three stars in the 1966 edition of his Guide to Dining Out in New York. The only problem with the restaurant, he wrote, was that “at times it is next to impossible to obtain a table,” although he admitted that “the fare is worth waiting for.”

    After more than a decade, Eng returned to filmmaking one last time in 1961 for Murder in New York Chinatown, which she co-directed with Wu Peng. She opened two more restaurants, Esther Eng on Pell Street and Eng’s Corner on Mott Street. She died on January 25, 1970, only 55 years old, successful in two professions not always welcoming to women and during an era when society was not especially accepting of same-sex intimacy.

    Eng’s list of accomplishments in motion pictures was extraordinary. She was:

    • the first Chinese-American woman to produce a motion picture in Hollywood;
    • the first woman to direct a film in Hong Kong;
    • and the first woman to film in color.

    Working only for independent film studios, Eng lacked the resources to make “a major motion picture,” but she also was free of the restrictions Hollywood imposed, able to be her authentic self at work and in her personal life.

    During the years after Dorothy Arzner, then America’s foremost woman director, retired in 1943 and Ida Lupino received her first screen credit for directing in 1949, Eng was the only woman making commercial films in the United States. Unlike them, she was entirely self-taught; she had never worked in a movie studio before co-producing Heartaches and had received no formal training before she directed National Heroine. Even more impressive, she was only 22 when her first film premiered. Arzner had been 30. Lupino would be 31.

    Sadly, Eng’s films are now considered lost. Someday, however, a persistent archivist or a curious janitor will open a disused cabinet or a dusty storage box in an abandoned garage or a gloomy basement and come across unremembered reels of film that will return one or more of Eng’s films to us and to their place in motion picture history. The lights will dim and we will again witness the history she made.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Published on November 28, 2019