Highlighting Wei’s documentary about
the American-born Chinese female director
by Melanie Williams
One of the highlights of the ‘Doing Women’s Film and Television History’ conference in Norwich in April was the chance to see S. Louisa Wei’s beguiling documentary on a women director most of us had never even heard of before, the Chinese American film pioneer Esther Eng (originally Ng Kam-Ha). Eng was born in San Francisco, and directed films in America, as well as in China, Hong Kong and Hawaii, from worked in film from 1935 to 1949, before switching careers altogether and becoming a celebrated New York restaurateur until her death. Her first film was National Heroine (1937) about a female pilot (but a later mid-40s war film project in Hong Kong was abandoned, despite much preparation). Wei carefully contextualises Eng’s life and career in terms of Sino-American relations and the upheavals created by global conflict (Eng’s father urged her to return to San Francisco before the Sino-Japanese War erupted that year). She made the first Chinese-Language film in America (all her films were in Cantonese), and was interested in bringing different cultures and nationalities together in her stories.
Wei also portrays Eng on a more personal level, as an openly gay woman and one of a very limited number of female directors working at that time. In 1939 she made Women’s World, in which all the characters on screen (some 36, in different professions) are female (rather like Cukor’s more familiar variation on the same theme, The Women, also from 1939). In the field of acting, Eng featured Wai Kim-Fong in three of her early films, including Heartaches, and Fe Fe Lee in three of her later titles (both were Cantonese opera singers). Wei cleverly and subtly interweaves the director’s story with that of actor Anna May Wong (born 1905), another Chinese American woman trying to carve out a successful career in film. Wei also considers Eng alongside Dorothy Arzner, the only other women director working in feature film in the US at the same time, and another out lesbian; Wei finds some fascinating parallels between their cool mannish styles of dress.
Wei’s film is gorgeously illustrated throughout with stunning black and white photographs of the director and her associates, many of them found in 2006, in a box left for the refuse collector that was then reclaimed from the dustbin of history by a canny passerby. These still pictures of Eng are complemented and commented on by Eng’s surviving relatives and friends, tracked down by Wei, and they help to round out the portrait of her not only as a filmmaker but as a kind, compassionate, clever woman. The fascinating interviews and the plenitude of stills partially compensates for the fact that the majority of Eng’s films are lost, like the intriguing-sounding Women’s World (1939) and the evocatively-titled melodrama A Night of Romance, A Lifetime of Regret (1938). One film of hers that is still extant is Golden Gate Girl (1941), a Cantonese-language film made and set in San Francisco, which boasts the first screen appearance of Bruce Lee as the heroine’s chubby-cheeked baby, and was shot by renowned Hollywood cinematographer, James Wong Howe.
So we may not have all her films to look at but what we do have, in the shape of Wei’s documentary, is a renewed awareness of Esther Eng’s significance as a remarkable woman filmmaker who had a truly transnational career and who deserves to be much better known and more widely recognised as a film pioneer.
- Heartaches (aka Iron Blood Fragrant Soul) prod (as Ng Kam-Ha) 1935 Hong Kong
- National Heroine dir 1937 b/w Hong Kong
- Ten Thousand Lovers dir 1938 b/w Hong Kong
- Storm of Envy (aka Tragic Love) dir 1938 b/w Hong Kong
- Husband and Wife for One Night (aka A Night of Romance, A Lifetime of Regret co-dir 1939 b/w Hong Kong
- Women’s World dir 1939 b/w Hong Kong
- Golden Gate Girl dir 1941 USA b/w 110m
- Blue Jade (aka The Fair Lady in the Blue Lagoon) dir 1947 b/w USA
- Too Late for Springtime (aka Back Street) dir 1948 b/w USA
- Mad Fire, Mad Love dir 1949 col USA (shot in Hawaii)
- Murder in New York Chinatown location director 1961 USA
This blog was first published on http://auteusetheory.blogspot.co.uk/ who we thank for allowing its re-publication here.
Melanie Williams (@BritFilmMelanie) is a WFTHN Committee Member and Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her work focuses on British cinema, particularly in relation to gender issues. She has written monographs on women in the 1950s films of J. Lee Thompson and on David Lean, and has co-edited collections of essays on the British woman’s film, Ealing Studios, Mamma Mia! The Movie and Shane Meadows. Recent articles explore audience memories of the 1957 British film Woman in a Dressing Gown and the gendered labour of continuity supervisors.