Hong Kong’s first “directress” was a San Francisco native and an open lesbian. Esther Eng (1914-1970) was a true pioneer in many senses. She made 11 Cantonese language films—one in Hollywood, five in Hong Kong, three in California, one in Hawaii and one in New York—all for Chinese audiences before, during and after WWII. She gave Bruce Lee his screen debut in his role as a baby girl in her 1941 film Golden Gate Girl. When production slowed in the 30s and 40s, she helped her father with his Chinese film import business and, later, ran theatres in New York that screened Chinese movies. While in New York City, she also opened at least four restaurants, including the Esther Eng Restaurant, a fine dining establishment frequented by celebrities like Malone Brando and Tennessee Williams. Following her death in 1970, her obituary appeared in both Variety magazine and the New York Times.
After the retirement of director Dorothy Arzner in 1943 and before Ida Lupino began directing in 1949, Esther Eng was, in fact, the only woman directing feature length films in America. However, the most conspicuous trace of her can be found in the vestiges or her New York City restaurants: the store front forms part of the iconic cityscape that decorates the cover of Madonna’s first album. Drawing on the marks she left in both the Chinese and English press, this film begins to recover some of her lost stories. Clips from her two surviving films, stills and posters from her other eight motion pictures, photos from her six personal albums, newsreels of San Francisco as she saw them, as well as hundreds of archival images are all collected to present her life and the tumultuous time in which she lived in a stunning display of visuals.
Golden Gate Girls is not just a biographical portrait of Esther Eng; it is also a tribute to pioneer women filmmakers working on both sides of the Pacific, and the courage with which they crossed boundaries of language, culture, race and gender.