The search for lost films by San Francisco director SFGATE continues | Episode Movies

There is a 1935 photo of Esther Eng standing on an airstrip amidst a crowd of crew and employees, framed by an airplane. Standing alongside her are aspiring movie stars and technical wizards alike. She is the shortest person in the scene, made even more visible by her youth, just 21 years old.

But Eng’s gaze into the camera suggests otherwise – a confidence and charm that would lead to success in China’s thriving film industry at one of the most turbulent times in Chinese and American history.

In every respect, Eng was a pioneer: Touted as the first Chinese director in both America and China, she seemingly effortlessly navigated the boundaries of culture, language, gender, and sexuality. Closely charmed media and collaborators, and gained a following despite being unique in her androgynous looks and lesbian identity. And her production was prolific, making nine films in just over a decade between 1937 and 1949, all in the face of mounting geopolitical conflicts.

Yet half a century after her last film, Eng remains criminally underrated and undercover in both Hollywood and Hong Kong film history. That tension is captured in ‘Golden Gate Girls’, the 2013 documentary by Hong Kong-based filmmaker, producer and writer S. Louisa Wei. She recently visited 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 both domestically and internationally.

S. 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 most inexperienced person on set, but she seemed to know how to deal with all kinds of people without hesitation.”

Born in San Francisco, Eng grew up on Washington Street in Chinatown, where she developed a fascination with the theater. Her parents encouraged her to immerse herself in the vibrant Cantonese opera scene, with stars performing at venues such as the legendary Mandarin Theatre. She later worked at the Mandarin’s box office as a teenager, rubbing elbows with cast members and taping countless Chinese-language and Hollywood films.

Despite White America’s painful history of marginalizing and discriminating against Asian immigrants, feelings toward the Chinese community began to change in the 1930s. Japan’s increasing imperial aggression in Manchuria spurred sympathy and support for China, and cultural milestones such as Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth helped transform perspectives on the struggles Chinese immigrants in America faced.

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

A still of Esther Eng from the film “Golden Gate Girls”.

Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Patriotic sentiment grew in Chinatown, especially after the debut of the documentary The Battle of Shanghai in 1933. Eng’s father was no exception; So moved by the passion, he decided to start Kwong Ngai Talking Pictures Company with a friend and appointed his then 19-year-old daughter to co-produce. Eng found himself in uncharted waters, although perhaps he was better prepared for filmmaking than anyone could have guessed.

“Consider that Esther grew up very savvy with films herself. When you work at the box office, you don’t just watch a movie once; you watch them over and over again. So I think she understood the language of cinema from a young age,” Wei said. “But she also came from a wealthy family and was never a shy child. She wasn’t afraid to try something new. When her father started producing Heartaches, Esther went to Hollywood ready to work.”

She was joined on the trip by her friend and Heartaches star, cheeky Cantonese actress Wai Kim-Fong. The 1935 film follows a romance between a dashing Chinese-American aviator and a San Francisco opera star that turns tragic when he goes to war in China and she continues life in America without him. Steeped in dramatic flight scenes, color photography and a tearful finale, the film delighted Chinese audiences in America and especially in Hong Kong.

A still from the film "Golden Gate Girls".

A still from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

A still from the film "Golden Gate Girls".

A still from the movie “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Stills from the film.



It was a formative experience for co-producer Eng, who was advised by renowned 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 combatant ready to fight on the front lines with her male comrades.

It was the first, but not the last, time that Eng has directed subversive stories of empowered women who don’t seem to be held back by expectations. Perhaps it reflected her own energy: although Eng was only 22, she expressed herself fearlessly, seemingly unfazed by the cultural norms of the 1930s.

Eng sported a sleek, boyish haircut and insisted people nickname her “Brother Ha.” She had a penchant for highlighting women’s talents and stories, and she was never afraid to get cozy with starlets, who were often photographed in the company of a beautiful colleague. She was openly lesbian and courted Wai and others throughout her filmmaking career. The Chinese media seemed to respect this, labeling their partners “bosom buddies” and otherwise praising their personality, articulate interviews and patriotic spirit.

National Heroine proved a success, drawing positive press and interest from Hong Kong’s film elite, including acclaimed director Wu Peng, with whom Eng has worked on several occasions. The warm welcome inspired her to remain in Hong Kong, where she would direct five more films. It was not until Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 that she was forced to return to San Francisco. World War II unfolded and the area was no longer safe.

Movie poster from "Golden Gate Girls".

Movie poster of “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Movie poster from "Golden Gate Girls".

Movie poster of “Golden Gate Girls”.


Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Movie posters for the film.

In October 1939 she boarded a boat and departed for California, leaving behind what later became known as Hong Kong’s first golden age of cinema. Soon after, she saw the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time and marveled as San Francisco rose in war solidarity, raising money for Chinese soldiers and refugees. These inspirations led Eng to direct 1941’s “Golden Gate Girl,” teaming with famed filmmaker Moon Kwan to create a tragic comedy informed by themes of separation, reconciliation, and family sacrifice. It served as a powerful metaphor, urging Chinese unity as a promise of a brighter future in the face of war. The film also served as the debut for Bruce Lee, who played a newborn baby girl aged 4 months, who was cast by Eng because she was a close family friend due to Lee’s father’s status as a well-known Hong Kong actor.

Today, Golden Gate Girl is one of only two Eng films (along with 1961’s Murder in New York Chinatown) left in viewable format. She made ten films between 1937 and 1961, with a long hiatus after 1949 because of an exodus of Cantonese film talent from San Francisco—which had served as a safe haven during the war—back to a newly peaceful China.

“Of course we dug and searched everywhere for films. We’re still hoping to find something. For example, Esther went to Havana, Havana had the Golden Eagle Theater… Maybe someone found some rolls of film in a back room,” Wei says with a sigh. “But I’m grateful that ‘Golden Gate Girl’ exists on VHS and that I was able to find a copy of ‘Murder in New York Chinatown.’ I found them quite amazing – all the narration, the plot, the shots all worked well and smoothly. So at least I have no doubts about her craft as a filmmaker, even if her other films are missing.”

A still from the film "golden gate girl," in which a 4-month-old Bruce Lee had his first role as a newborn baby girl.

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

Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Perhaps the disappearance of her films is responsible for Eng’s lack of recognition as a pioneer of filmmaking. But if Eng ever felt underappreciated, it never showed. When the movie business got too expensive and complicated, she made a new life as a restaurateur in New York City. Her first project, Bo Bo, was a hit with both Cantonese stars and westerners. She later opened Esther Eng Restaurant and Eng’s Corner, a neighborhood bar that appropriately served as a go-to spot for gay men.

Eng never left San Francisco, visiting every year until her mother’s death in 1969. Less than a year later, Eng died of complications from a prolonged battle with cancer. She was just 55 years old and was buried in Colma, where she still lies today.

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

A still of Esther Eng from the film “Golden Gate Girls”.

Courtesy of S. Louisa Wei

Wei’s documentary shows with startling clarity why Eng deserves the credit it deserves in American film history. But she wasn’t just a pioneer when it came to pushing the boundaries of gender, sexuality and race in Hollywood. Eng was a true daughter of San Francisco, empowered by the city’s cultural clash, the ambitions of her immigrant bloodline, and her own attitude of radical expression, critics be damned.

Eddie Kim is an author and multimedia journalist based in San Francisco. Most recently he was a feature writer for MEL Magazine covering social conflict, masculinity and identity.

More movies shot in San Francisco



Leave a Comment