The petite young lady standing mid-center in the above photo is film director Esther Eng Gam Ha (伍錦霞 ,1914-1970), surrounded by her cast and crew during the filming of her 1936 Chinese-language film Heartaches in Hollywood. The photograph may come as a surprise to many, since Eng’s place in film history was only brought to public light in 2013 by City University of Hong Kong professor and film maker S. Louisa Wei with her documentary film Golden Gate Girls. Here stands Eng, full of glamorous Hollywood confidence, in a photograph that is silent testimony to her remarkable life and achievements.
Historical stuff – documents, journals, oral stories – is soon discarded, and often quickly forgotten. Photographs and film collections become lost, and people who remember people in photographs die. Had a box of Ms. Eng’s personal photo albums not been salvaged in San Francisco and acquired by the Hong Kong Film Archive, and had the photos not sparked the interest of Louisa Wei, it is very likely that the details of Esther Eng’s life and position as Southern China’s first woman director would have been lost to history. As a queer Chinese-American woman film maker, producer and distributor, Eng’s is the kind of history that largely remains unwritten. Fortunately Ms. Wei has chosen to write her chapter with a great amount of original research and an even greater amount of love.
Golden Gate Girls uses personal and professional interviews along with accurate, extensive film clips and photographs to bring Eng’s story to the screen. The cross-cultural life of Asian American entertainers itself is a fascinating documentary subject but Eng’s extraordinary personality makes it compelling. While the film’s art production can feel low-budget and the text and voice-overs contain too many grammatical and pronunciation errors, these budget constraints are a small price to pay for the only film ever made about Esther Eng. Wei juxtaposes her own personal discovery of Eng;s position in history with the careers of Chinese-American actress Anna Mae Wong, who was destroyed by racial discrimination, and queer Hollywood film director Dorothy Arzner. This narrative weave may feel disconnected but the inclusion of Eng’s cinematic contemporaries serves to expose the limited choices available to women of their era, and highlights how confidently Eng, film maker, world traveler and entrepreneur, was willing to cross social and national boundaries.
Eng made approximately 10 films , two of which are currently extant in collections (Golden Gate Girl and Murder in New York Chinatown). In Hollywood she worked with the legendary James Wong Howe and Josef Von Sternberg’s photographer Paul Ivano. After moving to Hong Kong to direct films, Eng was an instant success and her vivacious popularity made her a media darling. Her war-time films are saturated with Chinese-American patriotism, and every film she made featured women in leading roles. Her career as a film director in Hong Kong was unfortunately cut short by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
Golden Gate Girls contextualizes Eng’s career within a catastrophic era that too often dictated the movements of Eng and her associates. Hong Kong film maker/author Law Kar, Western biographers and critic Todd McCarthy, Hong Kong film maker Chor Yuen and many of Eng’s contemporary entertainers augment Wei’s original research with their invaluable social and cinematic history. The voices of Eng’s contemporaries are as poignant as they are important. Underlying Wei’s interviews is a strong sense of the fragility of history, and her tenderness toward these senior entertiainers is marked. The tone of Wei’s narrative is one of love and respect. She is acutely aware of what has been lost, and what she has been able to preserve.
Golden Gate Girls is ultimately a complex tapestry of experience and, like history, it feels sometimes diaphanous, perhaps just beyond reach. But through this nebulous history, Eng shines. She proves to be much more than just a product of her cross-cultural society and historical era; she illuminates Golden Gate Girls with her vibrant, indomitable spirit. And her legacy continues to encourage others to pursue their own dreams. Through Golden Gate Girls, Esther Eng has been given her rightful place in history.
See the trailer and find further reading, news and DVD information below.
Professor Louisa Wei brought Golden Gate Girls to San Francisco’s CAAMFest in 2014. The film was screened at the Great Star Theater, the last intact and functioning theater in Chinatown, and the very place in which Esther Eng’s films had been shown decades ago. In attendance was Eng’s sister Sally, who appears in the documentary. The circle of history was, in a sense, made complete that evening, and Wei’s dedication to women film directors had made it possible. But We’s journey to discover Eng is not yet finished. She is the author of a book on the life and career of Esther Eng, due to be published in January 2016.
The Wikipedia entry for director S. Louisa Wei
Frank Bren’s website on Esther Eng
More on Esther Eng, Grandview Film Company and the Hong Kong-Chinatown film connection can be found in Law Kar’s excellent book Hong Kong Cinema: A Cross-Cultural View.
“Gay Forever” is a good article with an even better title from China Daily about Golden Gate Girls.
HOW TO GET THE DVD: Golden Gate Girls is currently available on the website Women Make Movies. Please note: this website only sells to institutions. A better option: the Hong Kong DVD is available on Region 3 at YesAsia.com