Why haven’t we heard of early LGBTQ+ icon Esther Eng, Hollywood’s first Chinese female filmmaker?

Esther Eng was a trailblazer in Hollywood, directing 10 Chinese-language films between 1937 and 1961, but only two have survived to this day. Photo: handout

A Chinese-American woman who wrote, directed and produced more than 10 films. A proud, open lesbian, accepted by her friends and family. Going by that description alone, you might think that we’re talking about some kind of trailblazer yet to materialise in the public consciousness. But what if we told you this person had already lived a full life and died before colour TV became mainstream?

I just went ahead and I wasn’t afraid of anything
Esther Eng, filmmaker

Esther Eng was born in San Francisco in 1919, and in 1937 made history when she was hired by a Hong Kong studio to direct her first feature movie called National Heroine, a film about women joining the army to help protect the country. Later making at least 10 films overlapping the second world war, all of Eng’s works featured strong, independent women.

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Most notably her film Golden Gate Girl (1941), a film made in San Francisco about a woman who defies her family, falls in love and then eventually gets pregnant, received a positive review from industry tome Variety.

The production was in Cantonese and ran exclusively at San Francisco’s Grandview Theatre, but the reviewer noted that the storyline was easy enough to follow and would benefit from English subtitles. By coincidence, and also a sign of how tight-knit the Chinese community was, an infant boy was dressed as a girl to portray the baby in the story – that infant was none other than Bruce Lee.

However, Golden Gate Girl was never widely distributed and, in 1950, Eng went into the restaurant business. It seems she would succeed in all endeavours she put her mind to as she ended up opening a string of establishments in Manhattan.

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In her last foray in the filmmaking business, Eng was the first woman to make an internationally collaborative film called Murder in New York Chinatown in 1961. Wu Peng directed the Hong Kong scenes while Eng sat in the chair for the New York scenes.


She has been credited in papers as the first female director of Southern China. According to the documentary, Golden Gate Girls, S. Louisa Wei’s 2013 production about Eng, when asked in an interview about why she chose to embark on a profession she knew next to nothing about, Eng answered, “It just came to me, I don’t know why. I just went ahead and I wasn’t afraid of anything. I am the only one in our family interested in pictures. I wonder why?”

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In Wei’s essay Finding Voices Through Her Images: Golden Gate Girls as an Attempt in Writing Women Filmmakers' History, she writes that “Eng had quite a few admirers in her life. Eng was loved (and even pursued romantically) by quite a few actresses who worked or hoped to work with her.”


Eng was also involved in Chinese opera way before her filmmaking, and these troupes were distinctly separated into all-male or all-female troupes, where there were actors and actresses who were recruited to train as experts in portraying the opposite sex. So it was quite normal for an all-female troupe to include short-haired and trouser-wearing women who exclusively played male roles.

Wei explains in her essay, “Eng’s open lesbianism met with almost no controversy because many cross-dressing actresses appeared in the public eye.”


In a review of Wei’s documentary, Derek Elley of Variety remarked about Eng’s sexuality that it “seems not to have affected her career in any negative way, partly because homosexuality was an accepted part of the Chinese opera world in which she moved, and from which many film performers of the time came.” She would later be commonly addressed by her nickname, Brother Ha, until she died.

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Unfortunately, most of Eng’s film reels do not exist today, and we’re left just with the impressions of the newspaper interviews and reviews left behind. The lack of mainstream exposure afforded Cantonese films in America left Eng’s legacy in near-obscurity. Wei pieced together clips from her two surviving films, stills from her eight other motion pictures, photos from her six albums, newsreels of San Francisco as she saw them, as well as hundreds of archival images, to make her documentary.


Eng was however remembered as a successful entrepreneur, and her restaurant business was a roaring success for 20 years. It was noted in Wei’s documentary that Eng was remembered as generous to those around her and those in need, but was also known to be an enthusiastic gambler. Acquaintances interviewed remember she would play US$10,000 a hand at gambling dens – equivalent to over US$80,000 today.

Brother Ha died of cancer in 1970 and was buried in San Francisco. If there’s one thing to remember from her story today, as women are struggling to gain equality in the entertainment industry, it’s this quote:

“I just went ahead and I wasn’t afraid of anything.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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She is remembered as America’s first Chinese female film writer, director and producer, a successful entrepreneur and open lesbian – why haven’t we heard about her until now?