The History of Esther Eng


Esther Eng. Accessed September 14, 2016 from 

Born in California on September 24, 1914, to parents who had immigrated from China, Ng Kam-ha, the fourth of ten children, adopted the name Esther Eng, a moniker more familiar and pronounceable to Westerners.[1] 

Early Life in San Francisco
Her parents settled in San Francisco, where Ng Kam-ha grew up in a home at 1010 Washington Street, and, in her teens, developed a love for the theater.[2] Because of its large population of Chinese immigrants, San Francisco's performing arts community included multiple Chinese-language theaters. These welcomed some of China's most talented artists, including actresses who reveled in their freedom following a recently-lifted Chinese ban on female performers.

Preeminent among these venues was the Mandarin Theater, opened at 1021 Grant Avenue in 1924, which featured as its leading lady Cheung Sook Kun, one of the most well-regarded and best-paid Chinese actresses of her day. The theater's reputation of hosting the crème-de-la-crème of Chinese performers was hinted at in its ads, which boasted: "You haven't seen Chinatown unless you've been to the Mandarin Theater, the only Chinese opera in America."[3]

As soon as she was old enough to work, Eng took a job at the Mandarin’s box office, and seized the opportunity to meet and mingle with its performers. She developed a very close, and probably romantic, relationship with the opera singer Wei Kim Fong, who would later become her cinematic muse.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, adopted in 1882, prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and remained in effect until 1943. While Chinese-Americans were still subject to systemic racial oppression, U.S. culture in the 1930s reflected a growing  appreciation of China. Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth (1930), became a best-seller. A 1933 documentary, The Battle of Shanghai, positively portrayed Chinese resistance during a 1932 attack by the Japanese on Shanghai. Screened in many Chinese communities around the U.S., that film provoked a new wave of patriotism among Chinese-American immigrants.

Esther Eng’s father, Ng Yu-Jat, saw the opportunity to start a new business venture to promote Chinese culture and pride. A brief blurb in the December 6, 1935 issue of San Francisco's Chinese Digest announced the founding of the "Kwong Ngai Talking Pictures Company" and the commencement of work on its first production, Heartaches. The company "has already employed several Chinese stage stars" including "Miss Wei Kim Fong, one of the major attractions at the Mandarin Theater."[4]

Though Esther Eng had no professional experience in film production, her passion for the arts--and, likely, her connections to the Chinese theater community--led her father to hire the 21-year old as "co-producer" of the company's upcoming film.

A Woman Hero
Heartaches, a nine-reel motion picture, was a Chinese-language romantic drama set in the context of contemporary Sino-Japanese conflicts. It was made in eight days in a studio on Sunset Boulevard and was billed as "the first Cantonese singing-talking picture made in Hollywood."[5]

The plot, involving a woman’s painful, patriotic sacrifice for the good of her country, was in keeping with the Chinese nationalism of this era. But Eng's choice to enthrone a civilian woman as the story's greatest hero gave a familiar story arc a new feminist twist.

Hong Kong
Heartaches debuted in the United States in early 1936, and on June 6th of that year, Eng and the film's leading lady, Wai Kim Fong, arrived in Hong Kong in preparation for the film's international premiere.[6] They met with a warm reception, and Eng began a new production at Nanyang Motion Picture Company, Hong Kong's largest studio.

With Eng making her directorial debut, National Heroine, released in 1937, starred Wai Kim-Fong as a woman whose bravery and patriotism are equal to those of her male comrades. The film was hailed as an ode to Chinese womanhood and awarded a "Certificate of Merit" from the Kwangtung Federation of Women's Rights.[7]

It may have taken a bit of time for Esther Eng to adjust to life in Hong Kong. An article in the South China Morning Post notes that she was charged in August 1936 with "owning a radio set without a license." She was fined a nominal $10 after she pleaded ignorance of this law.

It's A Women's World
Eng evidently enjoyed Hong Kong enough to remain there for the next three years.[8] During this time, Eng was prolific, directing 100,000 Lovers (1938), writing the screenplay for Tragic Love (1938), co-directing A Night of Romance, A Lifetime of Regret (1938), and serving as co-writer and co-director of It's A Women's World (1939), a film which showcased the daily lives and professional labors of thirty-six different Chinese women. 

Return to the United States
A variety of circumstances led Esther Eng to return to the United States. One of these was her family's concern about her safety at a time when Japanese military aggression was perilously close to Hong Kong. Another, presumably, was that two close relationships--with the actress Wei Kim Fong and another woman--had ended suddenly.[9]

San Francisco
As a result, Eng returned to San Francisco in October 1939, and planned to focus on distributing Chinese cinema outside of Asia and the U.S. But she soon returned to studio work, directing the  film Golden Gate Girl (1941). This was heralded incorrectly in Film Daily as "the first made-in-the-U.S. Chinese feature." This was the same descriptor applied to Eng's first film a half-decade earlier.[10] 

Hong Kong
While reviews were generally favorable, Eng was unable to parlay this film's success into additional U.S.-based productions. When World War Two ended, Eng returned to Hong Kong with plans for two new films, but these did not work out.

Back to California
Returning to California in 1947, Eng immediately began work on The Lady in the Blue Lagoon. This starred Fe Fe Lee, who (like Wei Kim Fong) was a Chinese opera singer whose relationship with Eng was particularly close. In much the same way that Eng had earlier treated Fong as her muse, she now made Lee the star of this film and the two which followed, Back Street (1948) and Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949). Eng's involvement in the film industry then waned significantly; her last credited contribution was as an assistant director for Murder in New York Chinatown (1960).

Esther Eng (middle) with her leading lady, Wai, and leading man, Wong, during shooting of her film Heartache.
Courtesy of Frank Bren. Accessed September 14, 2016 from

A Surprising New Role
In the early 1950s, Esther Eng found success in a surprising new role: restaurateur. As she told the New York Times, her entrée to the restaurant world was mere happenstance.

After moving to New York City in 1950, Eng encountered an old acquaintance, Bo Bo, who was--along with his troupe of non-English-speaking Chinese actors--reluctant to return to China because of its recent conversion to Communism. Eng decided to open a restaurant at 18 Pell Street, called Bo Bo Cafe, to provide these actors with employment and the opportunity to learn English.

Bo Bo's
Bo Bo's was an immediate hit, leading the Times' famed restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, to write, "The only trouble with Bo Bo's is its extreme popularity…. At times it is next to impossible to obtain a table [but] the fare is worth waiting for."[11]

Historian Jonathan Ned Katz recalls being taken by his mother, father, and aunt (the Associated Press Food Editor, Cecily Brownstone) to Bo Bo’s restaurant around 1950, when he was 12. When the mannishly dressed Esther Eng asked what drinks they wanted, young Katz asked for a “dikery.” Katz remembers the consternation of Eng and the embarrassment of his aunt, who quickly explained that what Jonathan wanted was a “daiquiri.” The historian surmises that, as a youth growing up in Greenwich Village, he had heard the word "dike" applied to mannish women.

Bolstered by her success with Bo Bo’s, Eng, described as the "five-foot-tall dynamo," proceeded to open four other restaurants in New York City (Macao, Hing Hing, Eng's Corner, and the simply-named Esther Eng) between 1950 and 1967.[12]

Gender Presentation and Sexuality
Press coverage of Eng's cinematic career reflects a woman who was surprisingly open about her sexual identity and who never felt the need to don "feminine" clothing. Chinese gossip columnists often mentioned her close relationships with other women (calling them Eng's "bosom friends" or her "good sisters"), but did so in a largely unsensationalistic way.

Lliving Proof of the Possibility of Same-sex Love
Historian and filmmaker Louisa Wei uncovered one remarkably blasé, even laudatory, comment about Eng's gender presentation and sexual identity in a 1938 issue of the Chinese newspaper, the Sing Tao Daily News. The reporter said that Eng's "work, address, manner, and dress," as well as her "sensibility that was completely that of a man," made her the "living proof of the possibility of same-sex love."

Wei noted that the apparent cultural acceptance of Eng's same-sex relationships and masculine gender presentation may have been due, in part, to the popularity of "all-female opera troupes with male-impersonating actresses" in the 1930s.[13] But that culture was far different from the one in which Eng found herself after returning to the U.S. in the 1940s.

Despite the homophobic fever suffusing Cold War American culture in the 1950s, there is no indication that Eng ever attempted to change her gender presentation to one more conventionally "feminine." Nor did she feel compelled to hide her same-sex romantic and sexual interests.

An Outspoken Lesbian
Esther Eng’s non-conforming is recalled by memoirist Bruce Edward Hall’s vivid description, published in 1998, of Eng’s culinary empire,: "[All her restaurants] cater to the well-heeled two-martini crowd, but Esther Eng's is the first to eliminate 'combination' dinners and American food from her menus. Esther is also unusual because she is an outspoken lesbian, always seen wearing men's suits and 'mannish' haircuts. Her ex-girlfriends (of whom there are several) manage her other places uptown."[14]

For a woman who lived life boldly in the face of prominent media attention, the end of Eng's life was remarkably quiet. She passed away from cancer at the age of fifty-five at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City on January 25, 1970.

A documentary film, Golden Gate Girls (November 9, 2013), written and directed by Louisa Wey, tells Esther Eng’s story.[15] 

Christianne A. Gadd received her Ph.D. in American Studies, in 2005, from Lehigh University. Her theses were titled "'Eclectic Affinities:' Intimate Friendships in Women's Colleges, 1880-1930," and "The Advocate and the Making of a Gay Model Minority 1967-2007."
[1] The historical records indicate that at least one set of Esther Eng's grandparents immigrated to the United States from China's Guangdong province.[i] An older sister, Sally Ng Kam-ping, recalled the origin of Esther Eng's last name as the result of many Americans' inability to pronounce "Ng;" she said that Esther was frequently referred to as "Miss N.G." and subsequently added the "e" to make her last name more familiar, and pronounceable, to Westerners. Hong Kong Cinema: 3.

[2] Hong Kong Cinema: 3.

[3] Chinese Digest, November 15, 1935.

[4] Several spellings of actress Wei Kim Fong's name appear in the historical record, including "Wei Gim Fong and Wei Kim-Fong; for consistency, this essay uses "Wei Kim Fong" as it is the most common.  "Cinema Company Organized." Chinese Digest, December 6, 1935: 3. 

[5] Gary Bettinson, ed. "Three Female Stars." Directory of World Cinemas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012): 47.

[6] "Comings and Goings." South China Morning Post, June 6, 1936.

[7] Directory of World Cinemas: 48.

[8] "No Radio License." South China Morning Post, August 13, 1936.

[9] The identity of Eng's other lover remains unknown. See Poshek Fu and David Desser, eds. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 54. 

[10] "First Made-In-U.S. Chinese Feature Debuts in Frisco." The Film Daily, May 21, 1941: 3.

[11] "Esther Eng, Owned Restaurants Here." New York Times, January 27, 1970.

[12] Kathleen McLaughlin, "Industry Is Up as Tourism Falls Off: Clothes and Food Spur Chinatown Economy." New York Times, June 29, 1967.

[13] Wei, S. Louisa. "Esther Eng." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013 (web).

[14] Bruce Edward Hall, Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown (New York: The Free Press, 1998): 248.

[15] Accessed September 14, 2016 from IMDB.