Esther Eng: The Chinese-American filmmaker lost in memory
Not too many people know about Esther Eng, who became famous for the Chinese movies she directed and made for the American and Chinese audiences in the US in the ’30s and ’40s.
In total, Eng made four feature films in America and five in Hong Kong, her work leading many to consider her the greatest female director of early Chinese cinema.
She also rebelled against social expectations at the time, living a public life as a woman who loved other women.
Sadly, her legacy has been mostly forgotten.
Esther Eng: The Cantonese American Dream
Eng– or Ng Kam-ha– was born in California on 24 September 1914 to immigrant parents from China, the fourth of ten children.
Her parents settled in San Francisco, which had a large population of Chinese immigrant community. This meant there were also a lot of Chinese-language theaters, which welcomed some of China’s most well-known performers.
This led to her love for the theater– specifically Cantonese opera– when she was a teenager. (She had changed her name to Esther Eng by then, as Westerners couldn’t pronounce “Ng.”)
As soon as she could, she got a job at the Mandarin Theater’s box office, which gave her a chance to meet with its performers.
Reportedly, it was here she became close and probably had a romantic relationship with opera winger Wai Kim-fong.
When Eng was 19 years old, she convinced her father, Ng Yu-Jat, and his business partners to set up a film company, Kwong Ngai Talking Pictures Company, that specialized in making Chinese films.
Esther Eng enters show business
At 21 years old, Eng became co-producer on the company’s first film, Heartaches, a romantic drama directed by Frank Tang that starred Wai.
The film came out in the US in 1936 and then later premiered in Hong Kong. Both Eng and Wait attended the premiere. She loved it so much she stayed for three years there and dove into the movie-making business.
She worked for Nanyang Motion Picture Company, Hong Kong’s largest studio, and her directorial debut was National Heroine, which was released in 1937 and also starred Wai.
The film was awarded a “Certificate of Merit” from the Kwangtung Federation of Women’s Rights for its story of a woman fighting during the Sino-Japanese War.
Eng went on to direct or co-direct four other Hong Kong features.
With Japanese military aggression so close to Hong Kong, she decided to return to San Francisco in 1939 to begin distributing Cantonese films in both Central and South America.
Esther Eng goes into the food business
She directed her first film in the US in 1941 with Golden Gate Girl in San Francisco, which got a good review in Variety. However, it didn’t lead to more film work for her in the US.
After the Second World War, she tried to make another movie in Hong Kong but decided to go back to the US in 1947 where she made three more movies.
Sadly, her film career tapered off then and she decided to go into the restaurant business after moving to New York City in 1950.
Eng opened a restaurant called Bo Bo Cafe, to help non-English speaking Chinese actors employment while also helping them to learn English.
It became so successful that she opened four more restaurants in New York City: Macao, Hing Hing, Eng’s Corner, and Esther Eng between 1950 and 1967.
Esther Eng’s open lifestyle as a lesbian
But throughout her life, Eng never hid who she was– even when homophobia began to rise in the 1950s during the American Cold War period.
Chinese gossip columnists would talk about her close relationships with other women, and dubbed them as Eng’s “bosom friends” or her “good sisters.”
Derek Elley, who was a Variety staffer at the time and an expert on Asian films, said Eng: “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 said.
Meanwhile, Bruce Edward Hall– who wrote about Eng’s restaurant empire– said Eng was “unusual because she is an outspoken lesbian, always seen wearing men’s suits and ‘mannish’ haircuts.”
“Her ex-girlfriends (of whom there are several) manage her other places uptown,” Hall added.
Esther Eng’s forgotten legacy in film
Eng lived a quiet life after and died of cancer on 25 January 1970 at the age of fifty-five at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Unfortunately, most of her work was lost in time. She was only remembered when filmmaker S. Louisa Wei came out with a documentary about her, Golden Gate Silver Light, in 2013.
The trailer of the documentary can be seen below: