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‘Golden Gate Silver Light’ Doc Reveals Life of First Chinese-American Female Director

Esther Eng - P 2013

Documentary sparks Hollywood interest in feature film adaptation at Filmart.

HONG KONG – Documentary Golden Gate Silver Light unveils the little-known life story of the first female Chinese-American director that worked in Hollywood and Hong Kong.

The documentary, premiering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 1, has sparked interest from Hollywood to turn the filmmaker’s life story into a feature film, according to Law Kar, the film’s producer and prominent Hong Kong film scholar.

Produced by Law and directed by S. Louisa Wei (Storm Under the Sun), Golden Gate Silver Light charts the life of Esther Eng, the first female Chinese-American director who began her career at the age of 22 in 1936, when she helmed Heartache, the first Cantonese-language film shot in Hollywood. She proceeded to direct three more feature films in the U.S. and five films in Hong Kong, all in Cantonese, a Southern Chinese dialect.

“She was a pioneer in many ways,” Law told the Hollywood Reporter. “She was the first filmmaker who was a Chinese-American female, the first director to shot Cantonese-language films in Hollywood, and she was an openly gay lesbian in the 1930s.”

The documentary project kicked off when the Hong Kong Film Archive received a donation of over 600 personal photographs of Eng, said Law, who, with fellow author Frank Bren, dedicated a whole chapter to the groundbreaking filmmaker in their collaborated book Hong Kong Cinema: Cross Cultural View, published in 2004. Law, before he retired from the archive in 2009, made digital copies of the photographs and enlisted the help of director Wei to tell Eng’s life story through the intimate portraits.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Eng went to Hong Kong when she was 23 years old and promptly became a celebrated director and celebrity in the local gossip media with her male-dress and love affairs with actresses. After helming five films in Hong Kong, Eng returned to San Francisco at the urging of her father before the Sino-Japanese War broke out. But her life and work was little-documented in the U.S. outside of Chinatowns across the country, with the exception of Golden Gate Girl (1941), a fundraising endeavor in support of the Chinese war effort dubbed “A Bowl of Rice Campaign” that was subtitled in English. The film, made by Grandview Company and starred a three-month old Bruce Lee as a baby girl, was shot by renowned and Academy Award-winning Hollywood cinematographers James Wong Howe (The Rose Tattoo, The Old Man and the Sea) and Paul Ivano (They Live by Night, Queen Kelly). But in 1949, Eng quit the film industry and moved to New York to open three restaurants, which she ran until her death in 1970.

“At the time, minority filmmakers were largely ignored by the U.S. mainstream press,” said Law. “Esther Eng’s story was striking not only because she belonged to an ethnic minority, but also because it showed how women had a chance to work and to shine during WWII.”

A Los Angeles-based Chinese-American producer has expressed interest in turning the story of Eng’s eventful life into a feature film. The negotiation between the producer and Law was initiated in 2002, but at the time, Eng’s surviving younger sister Sally Eng was reluctant to let her family history get the Hollywood treatment. “Sally distrusted Hollywood’s way of telling a Chinese-American’s story,” explained Law, “she was apprehensive of any distortion as an attempt to add color to Esther’s life.” But the pioneer filmmaker’s life proved colorful enough, as demonstrated in the documentary, and the filmmakers had gained the trust of Sally Eng during the making of the documentary. The feature film project negotiation has resumed during this year’s Hong Kong Filmart.

After its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, producer Law is hoping to bring the documentary to Japan’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in October.