Directed by S. Louisa Wei. Produced by Law Kar. 2013. Taiwan. 90 minutes.
Study areas: China, Asian American, LGBTQ, film history, cinema studies.
On February 9, 2009, filmmaker S. Louisa Wei received a box of six hundred photos which had been discovered in a dumpster near San Francisco airport by a shop owner. Inside the box were photos belonging to Esther Eng (Ch. 伍锦霞), southern China’s first woman director. This unexpected discovery led Wei to embark on a journey to unearth Esther Eng’s career and life. Wei’s efforts ultimately crystallized in the documentary entitled Golden Gate Girls.
Born in San Francisco on September 24, 1914, Esther Eng grew up in a Chinese immigrant family. As a child, she was fascinated by Chinese opera and later became a big fan of cinema. Working at the box office of the Mandarin Theater, Esther watched over a thousand movies. There is little doubt that the early exposure to opera and cinema sowed the seeds for her subsequent artistic pursuit. Following Japan’s escalating encroachment of China, Esther’s father and friends gathered funds to make a patriotic film named Heartaches. At the age of twenty-one, Esther was asked to co-produce the film, her first foray into filmmaking.
Heartaches depicts a story between Fang, an up-and-coming opera performer, and Lee, a devoted aviator living in the States. The two meet and soon fall in love. However, Zhong, Fang’s stage manager, shows no support for the couple’s budding relationship. He keeps warning Fang to stop seeing the young man, only to realize that his attempt is to no avail. Zhong proceeds with relentless efforts to destroy Fang’s career. Convinced that Zhong’s ploy would distract Lee from his commitment to China’s wartime defense, Fang pretends to fall for another man. Apart from that, she finds ways to secretly relieve Lee’s financial distress. Eventually, Lee leaves for China and becomes a hero, defending his home country against Japan’s military aggression. When he returns to the US later with his newlywed wife, a heartbroken Fang falls ill. In the end, Lee learns of Fang’s sacrifice, and Fang dies contentedly in his arms. Made in eight days in a studio in Los Angeles, Heartaches epitomizes a female filmmaker’s endeavors to form her voice in Hollywood, which hitherto largely had been male-dominated. Finally, it is worth mentioning that, at a time Chinese Americans grew increasingly wary of Japan’s invasion of China, Heartaches conveyed strong nationalistic and feminist sentiments, a feature quite evident in Esther’s subsequent film production.
In the winter of 1939, Esther returned to San Francisco and once again ventured into Hollywood. As Chinese communities in the US closely followed the wartime defense in China, Esther and her friends launched a new film project called Golden Gate Girl. The film revolved around a Chinese immigrant family consisting of a stern father and a “disobedient” daughter. Running a shop in San Francisco, the father orders his daughter to stay away from Chinese Opera, to no avail. Aided by the one of her father’s salesmen, the girl sneaks into a music club, where she meets and falls in love with a Chinese opera singer. When the father finds out what everyone already knew, he throws his daughter out. The girl and the opera singer wed, but the latter loses his job and returns to China. Soon after that, the girl has a baby and dies. The salesman and his friend step in and raise the baby girl, who grows up bearing a close resemblance to her mother. The finale of the film brings much-awaited reconciliation between the shop owner and his granddaughter. At the heart of this bittersweet drama is a message the filmmaker was keen to send out: Chinese people ought to put aside their personal grievances and stay united in the face of common enemies (i.e., Japanese aggressors).
Soon after Japan announced its defeat in World War II, Esther’s father passed away. After that, Esther opened Silver Light Company to continue film production and to carry on her family’s film import and distribution business. In the following decade, she directed another three films, The Lady from the Blue Lagoon (1946), Back Street (1948), and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949). For decades - despite Esther Eng’s incredible achievements as director, producer, and distributor - both Chinese and American film history failed to recognize her as one of the female pioneers in film production in China and the US. As one film critic noted, Esther Eng “utterly eluded the radar of even the most diligent feminist historians and Sinophiles” for a very long time.
During the last two decades of her life, Esther ventured into the restaurant business. Bo Bo was the first dinner she opened in Chinatown in New York. After that, she launched Mongkok next door and Esther Eng Restaurant uptown on Fifty-Seventh Street. For years, Chinese opera performers, filmmakers, and actors gathered at Esther’s restaurants. To this day, senior residents in Chinatown still harbor fond memories of Esther and her restaurant businesses. In 1970, Esther died of cancer at the age of fifty-five. Today, Esther Eng is remembered by many as the southern China’s first woman director, who managed to cross race, gender, language, and cultural boundaries so typical in the world of film production throughout the twentieth century.
This film would be most appropriate for gender and/or film studies courses. The limited scope of the movie and the depth of the discussion related to Ms. Eng make for an intriguing biography for those interested in the roles of Asians and/or women during the early days of the film industry. Note: There is open discussion of the characters’ sexuality.
Women Make Movies handles U.S. distribution; for more information visit their website.
Last Updated: September 21, 2015