‘Golden Gate Girls’ Resurrects Barrier-Breaking Women in Film

Esther Eng
Esther Eng (middle) with Grandview actress Marianne Quon and actor Teng Pui, San Francisco, 1947.
Photo from Columbia University Libraries collection.

In her latest documentary, Chinese filmmaker S. Louisa Wei (魏时煜) brings to light the lives and work of three women whose film careers broke all the rules of their time.

Golden Gate Girls (金门银光梦) centers around Chinese American Esther Eng, the first woman to direct Chinese-language films in the US. Wei interweaves Esther’s story with those of Dorothy Arzner, one of the only other prominent female directors of the time, and Anna May Wong, widely known as the first Chinese American movie star.

At a time when white heterosexual male ideology ruled the country and the film industry alike, these woman broke all the barriers. Esther and Dorothy defied gender norms not only by becoming directors but also by daring to be successful, achieving lasting respect for their work. Both openly gay, they pursued romantic relationships without shame. Esther and Anna May, who may also have been bisexual, overcame institutionalized racism to earn international recognition both for themselves and for Chinese Americans in film.

Dorothy Arzner and Anna May Wong
Dorothy Arzner (L) and Anna May Wong (R)

Golden Gate Girls premiered last year at the Hong Kong Film Festival and was most recently shown as the opening film of the DC Chinese Film Festival, for which I have been volunteering as programming and festival operation staff. It stands out not only for its interesting characters but also for its style – most of Esther’s films have been lost and there is no known footage of Esther herself, but Wei builds an engaging story by interviewing people who knew the director and highlighting the most telling finds from a box of 600 of Esther’s photos, which was incredibly and very fortunately recovered from a dumpster near San Francisco in 2009.

If you missed it in the festivals, Golden Gate Girls will soon be available on DVD. Until then, check out the trailer below!

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