Blind Spot: Looking for Esther Eng

By Bren, Frank | Metro Magazine, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Blind Spot: Looking for Esther Eng


Bren, Frank, Metro Magazine


WHAT PRICE MEMORY? IT IS 100 YEARS SINCE CHINA'S FIRST FILMS WERE MADE IN BEIJING AND THE OUTSTANDING ICON OF THAT CENTURY WAS A WOMAN, NAMELY THE 'CHINESE GRETA GARBO' RUAN LINGYU. DESPITE OUR UNFAMILIARITY WITH HER FILMS IN THE WEST, SHE IS RIGHTLY ON RECORD AS AN IMMORTAL OF WORLD CINEMA. BUT WHAT OF CHINESE CINEMA'S EARLY WOMEN DIRECTORS?

WAS there a singular Chinese woman behind the scenes in filmmaking before 1949? Yes there was, a second-generation American whose name was Ng Kam-ha or Esther Eng.

Esther Eng should have been famous as the only woman directing commercial American feature films between the careers of Dorothy Arzner (1920s-40s) and Ida Lupino (1950s). Newspapers in Hong Kong, Seattle, Honolulu, New York and Cuba did acknowledge her as the world's 'only' woman making Chinese-language films. Unfortunately, her work must now be imagined from stills, reviews (mostly in Chinese), film catalogues and two surviving screenplays. Eng's 'lost' American films include Heartaches (1936, co-producer only), the 'First Cantonese Singing-Talking Picture Made in Hollywood', (2) Golden Gate Girl (1941), reviewed in Variety as 'the first feature-length Chinese talking picture ever made in San Francisco's Chinatown', (3) Blue Jade (1947), 'produced in Hollywood in color', (4) Back Street (1948), the second remake of an earlier Hollywood Back Street (John M. Stahl, 1932) and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1948-49), the 'first, full-length color movie to be made in the Hawaiian islands by the Chinese'. (5) A Seattle newspaper even credited her with a 'Cowboy and Indian' film. Although this claim is unconfirmed, the rest, you might think, is sufficient for a niche in American film history.

But there is more here than a forgotten filmography spanning fourteen years in an understudied ethnic cinema. Esther Eng made five other films in Hong Kong between 1936 and 1939, and until well after the Second World War she was without peer among women in Chinese cinema. The only other woman credited with a feature in this early period was Xie Caizhen, who wrote, starred in and perhaps directed Cry of the Orphan (1925) for the Mingxing (Star) film company in Shanghai. (6) In Hong Kong, actress Tong Sin-to produced and wrote films in the early 1930s, but Esther Eng was the first to have to made multiple features anywhere in China. Upon her death at 55 in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, obituaries appeared in Variety and the New York Times describing her as a 'proprietor of Chinese restaurants [who] produced and directed motion pictures in Hong Kong'. (7) Friends mourned her as 'a theatrical director, producer, restaurateur, a great lady'. (8) Then, silence.

In 1995, Variety's chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, wrote an article entitled 'Eng's Lost Pix a Chinese Puzzle'. McCarthy questioned why this director, whose work clearly included feminist and/or patriotic entertainments, 'had utterly eluded the radar of even the most diligent feminist historians and Sinophiles'. (9) Despite that signal in one of the world's best known show business periodicals, Eng remained a blind spot for subsequent writers of wide-ranging books on Chinese cinema or women in film. In 1997, the Margaret Herrick Library--which, like the Library of Congress, is a last-word resource for film scholars--regretfully put it this way: 'We do not have a clippings file for Esther Eng. At the very least, we should have clipped her obituary which appeared in Variety Weekly, as is our policy, but someone seems to have dropped the ball in 1970'. (10) How could such a career simply vanish?

Esther Eng (Ng Kam-ha) was born on 24 September 1914, one of ten children in a family of Cantonese origin, though her parents were born and resident in San Francisco. In 1935 her father, Ng Yu-jat, indulged Esther's wish to make movies by establishing a film company at the Ng family home in 1010 Washington Street. This is an emblematic address for Chinese-Americans considering that 'double ten' (10 October) and 'Washington' respectively signify the national revolutions of China and North America. …

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