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Golden Gate Girls
(aka. Golden Gate Silver Light)

a Documentary By S. Louisa Wei and Law Kar

See Golden Gate Girls at IMDB

GGG-1Hong 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.

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Esther Eng early photos.

My first encounter with Esther Eng took place in 2001 when I began conducting research on Chinese women directors. This research originated from the realization that women’s stories often got lost in the course of history writing, particularly in film history. Recovering such stories has become the main focus of my academic career. I did not consider making a documentary on Esther Eng until early 2009 when over 600 photos from her personal collection—including many stills from her films—fell into my hands. Her career, her life seemed to be an extraordinary case in the history of Hong Kong filmmaking, one that gave rise to many intriguing questions.

Wai Kim Fong starred in Heartaches.

Wai Kim Fong starred in Heartaches.

When I began to dig further into materials concerning Esther Eng, I found a few factors that together seemed to contribute to her success. First, she started her career with Heartaches (1935), a film with a patriotic mission. This helped her establish a positive public image with audiences on both sides of the Pacific as the second Sino-Japanese War was under way. Second, the fact that her first film was filled in a Hollywood studio was stressed and even exaggerated in local press, which gave her immense credibility as a new and young filmmaker. Third, her directorial debut was also a critical and box office success that opened up opportunities for more projects. Finally, she was able to draw talent from the many Cantonese opera performers who visited North and Central America during the 1940s during and after WWII. For 14 years of her life, she was an active professional filmmaker; but by the time of her death, she was mostly remembered as a restauranteur.

The movie poster of It’s a Woman’s World (1939).

The movie poster of It’s a Woman’s World (1939).

When reconstructing Esther’s life, I was constantly amazed by how many times she had personally journeyed across oceans but even more so by her casual boundary crossing in her everyday life. In order to find the narrative that would leave the most vivid impression of Esther and her time on the mind of today’s audience, this film has already gone through 8 complete versions.

COMMERCIAL THEATRE SCREENINGS:

  • Broadway Film Center, Hong Kong, September 24-October 16, 2014

INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALS:

2013

  • Chinese Film Forum – Cornerhouse Program, Manchester, UK, 2013
  • Special Forum, CAAM Fest, San Francisco, US, 2014
  • Hong Kong Film Archive – “Transcending Space and Time – Early Cinematic Experience of Hong Kong”, 3/8 & 3/16, 2014
  • Official Selection, Fringe Festival, Shenzhen, China, November 24 and December 1, 2013
  • Screening and Exhibition, “Transcending Space and Time: Early Cinematic Experience of
  • Hong Kong”, Hong Kong Film Archive Program, January-April, 2014. (My documentary Golden Gate Girls was screened on March 8 & 16, 2014; and an interview with me on the making of the film was exhibited from March 23 to April 16, 2014.) Official Selection, Helsinki Asian Film Festival, Helsinki, Finland, March 16, 2014
  • Official Selection, CAAM Fest (Center for Asian American Media, previously San Francisco Asian Film Festival), San Francisco, March 17, 2014
  • Winner of Intra-Cultural Spotlight Award and Opening Film, Washington DC Chinese Film Festival, Washington DC, USA, September 4, 2014
  • Official Selection, The 7th Beijing Queer Film Festival, Beijing, China, September 20, 2014
  • Official Selection, Paris Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival, Paris, France, November 1-2,

2014

  • Opening Film, The 2nd China Women’s Film Festival, Beijing and Shanghai, China, November 22 –December 10, 2014
  • Official Selection, Shanghai International Film Festival, June 15-16, 2015

CONFERENCE/FORUM SCREENINGS:

  • Forum Screening, Chinese Cinemas In and Outside China Conference, Manchester, UK, October 11, 2013
  • Forum Screening, Shenzhen Film and TV Makers’ Society, Shenzhen, China, January 24, 2014
  • Opening Screening, The 3rd Global Chinese Language Cinema Conference, Shanghai University, Shanghai, December 14, 2013
  • Forum Screening, Doing Women’s Film and TV History Conference, Norwich, UK, April 10, 2014
  • Forum Screening, International Conference on Global Capitalism and New Orientations in Women’s Movement, Shanghai, June 20, 2014
  • Special Screening, Asian Film Studies Society Conference, Macau University, Macau, July 15, 2014
  • Special Screening, “Month of Asia”, Colgate University, Hamilton, USA, October 2, 2014
  • 2nd Chinese Women’s Documentary Film Festival and Symposium, Brown University, Providence USA, October 4, 2014
  • Screening and Dialogue, Swarthmore University, Philadelphia, USA, October 7, 2014
  • Forum Screening, University Students’ Film Festival and Symposium on Rewriting Film History, Beijing Normal University, April 27, 2015
  • Forum Screening, Wexer Art Gallery, Ohio State University, September 22, 2015
  • Forum Screening, Michigan State University, September 24, 2015
  • Forum Screening, University of California at Santa Barbara, September 30, 2015
  • Forum Screening, New York University, New York, February 3, 2016
  • Opening Film, The Esther Eng Conference, Columbia University, New York, February 4-6, 2016

BRIEF REVIEWS

Elizabeth Kerr (Critic, The Hollywood Reporter)

Documentary filmmaker S. Louise Wei sheds some much-needed light on a hidden piece of Hollywood, Hong Kong, women’s and Asian-American film history. … One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context.

Derek Elley (Film Critic, Film Business Asia) Hong Kong film teacher Wei frames her film

as a personal journey of exploration, following the traces of Eng’s trail from Asia to the US, tracking down any survivors who knew of her, and assembling every piece of information that still remains. The portrait that emerges is of an energetic, sunny and determined woman for whom “boundaries of race, language, culture and gender… did not seem to exist.”

Kevin M. Thomas (Critic, The Examiner)

“Golden Gate Girls” is a wonderful documentary by Louisa Wei who digs deep into the past to tell us of pioneering lesbian director Esther Eng, one of the first female (and queer) Chinese American directors. Wei’s film is more than a loving tribute to Eng, set to the most amazing jazz music, but Wei also pays tribute to other pioneering and lesbian filmmakers such as Dorothy Arzner, who paved the road for many of our more recent female directors –gay or straight. The 90 minute film also is a beautiful refection of early San Francisco, where Eng made a lot of her movies. The film is able to cover a lot of ground with its short run time.

Kimberly Chun (Critic, San Francisco Bay Guardian)

What gets lost in translation? These directors, more often than not, foreground their attempts to read between the lines and penetrate a fog of forgetfulness and counter-histories in order to get to a few truths, subjective and otherwise. Such is the case of Hong Kong documentarian S. Louisa Wei, who unearths the once-dumpster-relegated tale of SF Chinatown-born-and-bred Esther Eng, the first Chinese American woman director, in Golden Gate Girls — with rich, mixed results.

Patricia White (Professor and Chair, Film and Media Studies, Swarthmore College, Board member, Women Make Movies)

In Golden Gate Girls, Louisa Wei tells the story of one remarkable woman and uncovers a rich chapter of film history that challenges both gender hierarchies and national narratives. With a captivating archive of hundreds of newly discovered images, prodigious research, and interviews with those who knew her, the film tells the story of San Francisco-born Esther Eng, the first woman to direct Chinese-language films in the US and the most prominent woman director in Hong Kong in the 1930s. She was also out as a lesbian—she sported mannish attire and lived with her leading lady. While Eng later became a celebrity as a New York restaurateur, her contribution to film history is sadly overlooked, her 11 feature films mostly lost. Golden Gate Girls restores Eng to her place in history, weaving her story in and out of those of Hollywood contemporaries, director Dorothy Arzner and actress Anna May Wong. With her oeuvre of women’s pictures, proud sexual and ethnic identity, and transnational career, Eng is an ideal subject for the novel forms of historiography scholars have devised to illuminate those fascinating figures. Wei, in turn, is an ideal interpreter, animating the archive with very contemporary questions of agency and cultural exchange. Through commentary on the tantalizing photographic record, she invites viewers to project their own movie fantasies onto the gaps in the historical record.

Bérénice Reynaud (Curator for San Sebastian Film Festival and Vienna Film Festival, Professor of Film at California Institute of the Arts)

Esther Eng gave Bruce Lee his first role, as an infant (talk about “casting intuition”). She made films on both side of the Pacific, in Cantonese, for the larger Chinese diaspora. She was openly gay at a time when few women were out, and won respect both in the film industry and the restaurant business. Born on the first year of WWI in San Francisco, she lived and made films through WWII and died in New York on the cusp of the 1970s. Yet, until the last few years, there was virtually no account of her life and work. Louisa Wei is an uncommon director: she teaches film theory while making films and writing books that investigate hidden corners of Chinese history, or the untold achievements of female directors. Golden Gate Girls is alluringly posited at the intersection of these fields: how women’s contribution to film history overlaps with the tumultuous History of the 20th century. Professor Wei taps onto her own trajectory as a diasporic Chinese woman (born in Shandong, educated in Canada, living a few years in Japan, working in Hong Kong) to try and re-create what it must have meant “to be Esther Eng.” Through her minute research and intuitive editing, Eng’s beautiful face looks back at us, forcing her to reconsider what we thought we knew; we decipher the subtle traces she left in the streets of San Francisco and New York; and, at moments, it seems that we hear her silenced voice whisper in our ears.

Gina Marchetti (Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, Hong Kong University):

Louisa Wei takes us on a journey of discovery in the footsteps of the remarkable Esther Eng, who defied gender expectations and racial hierarchies as an early Chinese American woman filmmaker. While investigating Eng’s screen career and personal life, Wei opens up the world of the Chinese diaspora in the interwar period to a greater appreciation of the role women played in the film industry. A woman pioneer in her own right, Wei provides a sensitive portrait of this intrepid, but largely neglected filmmaker who too easily fell through the cracks between Asian American and Chinese screen history.

Staci Ford (Hon Associate Lecturer, Department of History, Hong Kong University):

Golden Gate Girls is cultural history at its best. Esther Eng’s life is a transnational tale of connecting pasts and her films an understudied and (until now) unappreciated archive of transpacific flows. Louisa Wei’s formidable talents as a scholar/researcher and as director are lovingly poured into 90 minutes of lively and thoughtful recuperative biography. In addition to restoring Eng to her proper place in the history of film, US and transpacific history, Wei manages to tell several other stories that show how women’s networks have been shaping Hollywood as well as individuals and communities for decades.

MEDIA REVIEWS

*For reviews in Chinese, please see the Chinese parts of this website.

REPORTAGE & INTERVIEWS

*For Chinese reviews, please see the Chinese parts of this website.