This piece reflects on the process of researching and producing S. Louisa Wei's documentary Golden Gate Girls (2014) and the significance of Esther Eng in contemporary feminist conceptualizations of women's filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s. The goal of the documentary and the research is to place Eng back into Chinese and U.S. film histories, from which she has effectively been forgotten. The photo essay uses text and images to describe and reflect on that process, on the challenge of researching Eng through the images that remain, and on the ways in which feminist film history might take account of her.
In 2001, when I began my research on female directors, I came across an intriguing, brief introduction to National Heroine (1937) in the Hong Kong Film Archive database. The film was directed by twenty-two-year-old Esther Eng (1914–1970), a third-generation Chinese American born and raised in San Francisco (fig. 1). By then, Todd McCarthy's Variety article “Eng's Lost Pix a Chinese Puzzle”1 had already inspired a joint effort by Law Kar and Frank Bren in digging out reports on Eng in both the English and Chinese press from 1935 to 1970. Their book chapter “The Esther Eng Story” in the 2004 volume Hong Kong Cinema: A Transcultural View offered the first overview of her life and career, recognizing her contributions as a pioneer in wartime defense films, women's cinema, and transnational filmmaking.2 After scanning more than six hundred photos that seemed to belong to Eng, I began my own research journey with a video camera and the intent to make a documentary about her.3 Law became my producer, and Bren and McCarthy generously shared their contacts and materials.
My ultimate goal was to place Esther Eng back into both Chinese and U.S. film histories, as she had been effectively forgotten by both. I had interviewed many Chinese women directors before, but researching Eng, who passed away in 1970, meant taking a different approach and asking different questions.4 What factors led to a Chinese American becoming the first female director in South China? Were Eng's works similar to or different from the Hollywood woman's films popular between the 1930s and the 1960s? Did her “out” lesbianism produce controversy or hostility? While making Cantonese talkies both within the Hong Kong film industry and as an independent filmmaker in the United States, was Eng's diasporic identity an advantage or a disadvantage?
My documentary Golden Gate Girls was completed in 2014 as a tribute to Eng and other women film pioneers, especially two prominent Hollywood women of Eng's time, Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979) and Anna May Wong (1905–1961) (fig. 2).5 The stories of Arnzer and Wong help to contextualize Eng's racial, gender, and diasporic status. With photos to extend the historical imagination, this essay aims to share my search for Eng's voices through reading her images.
THE CHALLENGE OF IMAGES
Esther Eng's youngest sister, Sally, at once recognized Eng's handwriting on the photo albums I had encountered and thus confirmed that the collection had belonged to her. Eng had written names and dates over some of the photographs, and the mixture of family friends, opera divas, movie stars, and film stills inspired both curiosity and confusion (fig. 3). The images possess power and challenge; they helped me to make an immediate connection with everyone I interviewed, all of whom willingly participated in identifying people they knew. This exercise continued through the making of Golden Gate Girls, as I followed Eng's footsteps from her birthplace in San Francisco to Los Angeles, Honolulu, New York, and Havana. Not many of her friends survived for me to interview. Yet the actresses Siu Yin Fei and Margaretta Ma (fig. 4), the Cantonese opera actors Chin-lee Wu and Danny Li, and a few younger friends of Eng's did offer vivid descriptions of her look, personality, manner, and way of talking.
In her book Directed by Dorothy Arzner (1994), Judith Mayne describes the challenge and promise of pictures in research.6 In May 2013 Mayne accepted my request for an interview after watching an early version of my film. Then she shared, on camera, her amazement at seeing “how similar the styles of Eng and Arzner were!” (fig. 5) When I first saw Eng's portrait, I immediately thought of Arzner. Like Mayne I cannot help but think about possible connections between the two: both were born in San Francisco, though seventeen years apart. Eng grew up watching many movies. Arzner's works such as Christopher Strong (1933), with its plot of a young aviatrix falling for a married man, very likely caught Eng's attention, as she loved the theme of aviation (which appears in her first film) and stories of unfulfilled love (which featured in her eight later films).
Eng left almost no written correspondence or diaries. Indeed, it was primarily from the writings of and about Anna May Wong that I came to understand the Chinese American life that Eng lived—before, during, and after World War II (fig. 6). Listening to the screen voices of Wong and other Chinese actresses, as well as to public speeches by the Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck and China's first lady May-ling Soong on newsreels, helped me imagine the tone and timber of Eng's voice. In Golden Gate Girls, her voice is enacted in both Cantonese and English, speaking from three passages that were as close as possible to direct quotes: one from a letter she wrote to a Hong Kong magazine editor in Chinese, and two in English from interviews she did in Seattle: one with the journalist Betty Cornelius and the other with the columnist Frank Lynch.
BEING THE LONE DIRECTRESS
Existing studies of women film pioneers such as Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968), Lois Weber (1879–1939), Germaine Dulac (1882–1942), and Dorothy Arzner show that even though they were media darlings in their times, each was forgotten as soon as she retired from her film career—but clearly not because she lacked a substantive body of work or a unique approach.7 Since “directress” remained a rarity, until the late 1960s nearly every newly emerged woman director was mistaken by the press as the first. (Tanaka Kinuyo, Ida Lupino, and Cecile Shu-shuen Tang, for instance, were regarded as “the first woman director” in the cinemas of Japan, the United States, and Hong Kong, respectively, even though there had been prolific women directing decades before.) In the 1930s Dorothy Arzner, Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), Sakane Tazuko (1904–1975), and Esther Eng all received press attention as the lone directress in (respectively) Hollywood, Germany, Japan, and China (fig. 7). Riefenstahl started directing already having attained fame as a movie star and dressed the part, but the other three all kept short hair and dressed in men's suits (or shirts) on set.
Comparisons with Arzner and Sakane helped me gain a deeper understanding of Eng. Both began filmmaking in the silent period and worked through the sound period while climbing up the studio ladder from editor to scriptwriter, and assistant director to director. Sakane worked mainly under Japan's master director Mizoguchi Kenji (1898–1956), who suggested that his studio give her a chance to direct First Appearance in 1936. Yet the film crew on the set resisted her fiercely, as did film critics afterward. Tragically, she never directed a second feature and went straight back to assisting Mizoguchi. In order to obtain a chance to direct, even if just short documentaries, Sakane answered the call of the Manchuria Film Association that Japan set up in its colonized northeast provinces of China. The films she made in China were screened in Japan during World War II, and later criticized as imperialist propaganda. When she returned to Japan in 1945, the studios had two requirements for an assistant director that she could not meet: to be a man, and to have a university degree. Thus she worked and retired as Mizoguchi's script girl (fig. 8).8
Arzner worked on nearly fifty films in her seven-year studio apprenticeship before getting her director's chair. Lasky-Paramount promoted her as “the lone woman director” in Hollywood, and her success also encouraged successors such as Ida Lupino.9 Once Arzner became an independent director, the status of “lone directress” did not always work to her advantage. She was given assignments for woman's films, but her directorial control was more at risk. As Mayne points out, she was able to realize her artistic vision to an extent, although her eventual retirement from Hollywood was mostly due to conflicts with studio heads such as Louis B. Mayer, who understood female characters very differently.10
Eng did not have any of the studio apprenticeship experience that was so essential in grounding the careers of Arzner and Sakane. Her “film school” education consisted of watching more than one thousand films while working at the box office of San Francisco's Mandarin Theatre as a teenager. In Hong Kong, her upbringing in the United States, her career start in Hollywood, and her boyish looks and chutzpah made miracles happen for her between 1936 and 1939, in the middle of the Sino-Japanese War. She made five pictures and remained a media darling. The press loved Eng but overlooked the woman director who came shortly after her: Wan Hoi-Ling. Wan began directing in 1938, but her filmmaking was interrupted by the Pacific War, after which she resumed directing for a couple of years. The war created a relatively relaxed environment for women to succeed in society. Moreover, thanks to the rise of all-female theater in 1930s China, Eng's open lesbianism met with almost no controversy because many cross-dressing actresses appeared in the public eye.
WOMAN'S DIRECTOR, WOMAN'S FILMS
Hollywood's woman's film, as a popular genre from the 1930s to the 1960s, has been studied by scholars such as Mary Ann Doane and Jeanine Basinger.11 They define the woman's film as dealing with female problems (of love, marriage, and career), narrating from female characters' perspectives, and often involving plots where women may be adventuresses. These theorizations can also be applied to the Chinese and Japanese traditions of woman's film popular from the 1920s all the way to the 1980s. Before making her directorial debut, Sakane made it clear to the press that she hoped to make a movie from a woman's point of view. Even though she failed to make a second picture, recent studies have begun to call her Mizoguchi's muse and recognize her constant presence on his sets and her editing work as having substantially contributed to his achievements as the director of woman's films in Japan.
Eng never made claims regarding artistic intent as Sakane did. Rather, her attitude toward filmmaking was similar to that of Arzner, who valued the chance to make films and worked within the studio system. Arzner was once famous for enhancing the careers of actresses and was known as a “woman's director,” in Mayne's words. Eng was loved (and even pursued romantically) by quite a few actresses who worked or hoped to work with her (fig. 9). All of Arzner's films center on some kind of romance, and the same can be said about Eng's films.12 Thanks to the availability of most of Arzner's films, many close readings demonstrate how she represents female desire and rebellion from within Hollywood norms. Since only two of Eng's eleven films survive, and these two happen to be codirected, I cannot establish exactly how her gender and sexuality affected her films. Yet some clues are interesting.
The first film that Eng coproduced was Heartaches (1935, fig. 10), in which the heroine, Wai Kim Fong, sacrifices her own happiness so that her lover can defend China. As soon as Eng took over the director's chair in making National Heroine in 1937, Fong's role was elevated to that of a female soldier, fighting side by side with men. In 1938 Eng was invited by four different companies to direct four woman's films. Among these, she cowrote It's a Woman's World (1939, fig. 11), which features an all-female cast. The idea of having thirty-six actresses playing roles from all walks of life in one film was unique, and the film's original English title—36 Amazons—suggests a fascination with half-deity warriors. Coincidentally or not, it was released seven months earlier than MGM's Women (1939), which also had an all-female cast and was directed by the gay director George Cukor (1899–1983). Among Eng's Cantonese talkies made in the United States, Back Street (1947, fig. 12) was also produced and written by her with the story adapted from Fannie Hurst's best-selling 1931 novel of the same title. The novel has been the subject of three Hollywood adaptations: in 1932, 1941, and 1961. Eng's remake is the only one adapting the plot into a Chinese American community, validating the racial and gender sensibilities of a Jewish writer. Overall, we can see that no perfect marriage or fairy-tale ending ever appeared in any Eng film. Like Arzner, she never encouraged women to be happy with their domestic roles as good mothers and virtuous wives.
TRAJECTORY OF FEMALE DIRECTORS
Writers about women film pioneers often describe a kind of “conspiracy” by national cinemas and film festivals to exclude female directors. Teresa de Lauretis, upon attending the 10th Seoul International Women's Film Festival, recognized it as a platform of “cine-feminism” where women directors could find their community and not feel isolated.13 Patricia White's 2015 book Women's Cinema, World Cinema suggests a new paradigm of studying women's cinema in the global context as an alternative world cinema.14 In fact, as women in most countries and territories still face gender inequality, women's cinemas in different nations share so many similarities that they can be regarded separately or collectively as counter cinema, in contrast to a mainstream cinema that remains male-dominated.
In writing the history of women filmmakers in a global context, however, local genealogy cannot be ignored. For instance, writings on Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, and Dorothy Arzner position the three women as a direct lineage leading to Ida Lupino taking over the torch as “only female director” (fig. 13).15 But after Arzner's retirement in 1943 and before Lupino's directorial career began in late 1949, Esther Eng was directing feature films in the United States. Without Eng, the trajectory of women directors would be broken for six years; with her we see a continuity that is important for feminist film history.
A continuous trajectory is very important in keeping a nonmainstream tradition alive. Following Germaine Dulac, the French cinema has kept a place open to one prominent woman at a time: from Marie Epstein (1899–1995) to Jacqueline Audry (1908–1977), Agnès Varda (1928–), Nelly Kaplan (1931–), Claire Denis (1946–), and so forth. In Hong Kong cinema, Eng's position is similar to that of Dulac (fig. 14), leading a trajectory of women directors that has been unbroken from 1937 to today, with one prominent female director at a time until the 1960s, two in the 1970s, and several since 1979.16 The attention to women directors and the tracking of their mutual influences, as well as proactive comparisons when writing about them in terms of cross-references, are very important in promoting the culture and tradition of women's cinema as part of world cinema, which has been exemplified by writings collected in the Women Film Pioneers Project and Patricia White's book, Women's Cinema, World Cinema.17
What I also learned from the life of Eng, who was mainly remembered as a successful restaurateur in her obituary in the New York Times, is that a woman's creative work—especially in film—is more easily forgotten than her commercial endeavors (fig. 15). Even during her film career, most reportage focused on the plots of her films and the romances in her life rather than the artistic merits of her works. When most primary sources about a filmmaker such as Eng are photographs and news clippings, creative and critical writings are crucial in understanding her legacy and keeping it alive. Today the cross-reference strategy can work most effectively if Eng's story can also be presented in other media. For women who are easily forgotten in cultural, racial, and gender gaps, any possible cross-reference to other figures likewise without a mainstream identity (such as Dorothy Arzner and Anna May Wong) helps prevent the oblivion of prominent women, especially women filmmakers, in the writing of history, for such references bring both mutual validation and relevance.