Pride on Stage: Esther Eng

Episode Summary

Esther Eng (1914-1970) was a groundbreaking transnational filmmaker whose work was only recently rediscovered.

Episode Notes

Esther Eng (1914-1970) was a groundbreaking transnational filmmaker whose work was only recently rediscovered.

Special thanks to our exclusive Pride Month sponsor, Mercedes-Benz! Mercedes-Benz continues to support and stand with the LGBTQIA+ community. Listen all month long as we celebrate women whose authentic expression in their lives and bodies of work have expanded the norms of gender and sexuality in the performing arts.

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Episode Transcription

This pride month, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen. Our star today was a groundbreaking transnational filmmaker whose work was only recently rediscovered. 

Let’s talk about Esther Eng.

Esther was born Ng Kam-ha on September 24, 1914. She was one of ten children born to her Chinese-American family that settled in San Francisco, California. Eventually, she’d adopt the more westernized name, Esther Eng. 

Esther’s young life coincided with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the amount of immigration from China. In the face of this second-class status, the Chinese community in San Francisco experienced a resurgence of patriotism for their native country. As a result, Esther grew up surrounded by a rich tradition of Chinese-language theater and film. 

The 1933 documentary, The Battle of Shanghai had a particularly impactful role in young Esther’s life. The documentary portrayed the Chinese resistance to a 1932 Japanese military attack on Shanghai. Deeply moved by the film, Esther’s father decided to start a film production company with his friend. Due to her love of theater and connection with local Chinese actors, Esther convinced her father to list her as a producer on their 1936 breakout film, Heartaches. The production shot for eight days in a studio in Los Angeles and was sold as, “the first Cantonese singing-talking picture made in Hollywood”.

Thanks to its Hollywood bonafides and the strong patriotic undertones, Heartaches was a huge success around China. Esther traveled to Hong Kong to promote the film and from there, her career took off. At just 22 years old and without any major studio backing her, Esther set out to direct her next major project: National Heroine

National Heroine portrayed a woman in the Chinese military fighting for her country alongside her male counterparts. When the film aired in 1937, it was very well received. The Kwangtung Federation of Women’s Rights awarded Esther with a “Certificate of Merit” for the film’s portrayal of Chinese womanhood. 

Esther went on to make several films during her time in China, all of which featured female protagonists. One of her films, It’s a Women’s World, was also co-written by Esther. It was billed as the first film made in Hong Kong to feature an all-female cast of 36 actresses. 

Despite Esther’s youth and lack of industry experience, it seems very few questioned the young director, writer and producer. In addition to her sparse credentials, Esther’s appearance and personal life were also surprisingly unchallenged for the time. Esther wore men’s clothing and spoke openly about her lesbian relationships. In fact, her sexuality was so embraced in the press that in a 1938 publication of the Sing Tao Daily News, a reporter referred to Esther as “living proof of the possibility of same-sex love.” Other magazines of the time coyly referred to her romantic partners – often the leads of her films – as her “bosom friend” or “good sister”. 

By the end of the 1930s, the conflict between China and Japan had heightened and out of concern for her safety, Esther returned home to San Francisco. Without missing a beat, she dove right back into filmmaking. 

In 1941 she released Golden Gate Girl, making her the first woman to direct a Chinese-language film in the United States. The following year she started her own production company, Silver Light, and released another film. By the end of the decade, Esther’s films were pushing pushed new boundaries, featuring inter-racial relationships in Too Late for Springtime and Mad Fire Mad Love

With the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, many Chinese actors returned to Hong Kong. Facing a much smaller talent pool, Esther’s film career declined. Then in the 1950s, she pivoted once more. 

Esther relocated to New York and became a restaurateur. Her first restaurant, Bo Bo’s, was a huge hit. The famed New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborn, once wrote, “The only trouble with Bo Bo’s is its extreme popularity….at times it is next to impossible to obtain a table.”

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Esther opened five restaurants in New York. She was frequently seen with customers, shmoozing in her masculine suits and cropped haircuts. It’s rumored her ex-girlfriends ran some of the restaurants. 

On January 25, 1970, at the age of 55, Esther died of cancer in New York City. 

Tragically, most of Esther’s films were lost to history. In fact, it wasn’t until 1995, twenty-five years after her death, that a film critic for Variety came across her name in the credits of Golden Gate Girl. It sparked an inquiry into Esther’s larger body work. The full impact of her contribution to both American and Chinese cinema is still being understood. A documentary film that tells Esther’s story came out in 2013. It’s called, Golden Gate Silver Light

All month, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen. 

All month, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen. For more information find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!