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Friday, October 24, 2014, 09:34

Gay forever

By Chitralekha Basu

Esther Eng made a slew of remarkable Cantonese-language films in 1930s US. In a new documentary Louisa Wei turns the spotlight on one of the pioneers of transnational Chinese cinema whom film historians seem to have forgotten. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Gay forever
Louisa Wei with Magaretta Ma, star of Cantonese films, during the shooting of Golden Gate Girls. (Provided to China Daily)

In the last one year or so Louisa Wei has updated and augmented her documentary film Golden Gate Girls at least nine times. “I’m crazy about this film. I keep coming back to it,” says Wei. “I don’t even know what the budget for this film might total up to.”

The major chunk of funding for the film, on the life and works of Esther Eng — the only Chinese woman filmmaker active in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s — came from Hong Kong Arts Development Council. City University of Hong Kong, where Wei teaches film studies, provided equipment and facilities. In the lead-up to making the film, which involved location shooting in New York, Hawaii and San Francisco, and also during post-production, Wei has made too many trips between Hong Kong and the US to keep track of the expenses.

It was a serendipitous discovery that set Wei on Eng’s trail — a box containing 600 photographs of Eng and the films she made, retrieved from a San Francisco dumpster in 2009. It piqued Wei’s curiosity. The near-total silence of film historians, both in China and the US, on the first woman producer-director of Cantonese-language films made in the US inspired her to dig for more.

Actor-producer Danny Lee introduced Wei to Cantonese opera singer friends of Eng’s in New York — the last few surviving members of the group who would frequent Eng’s five restaurants in Manhattan in the 1950s. Wei interviewed people who knew Eng, including Eng’s younger sister Sally and Siu Yin-fei, the heroine of her last film, Murder in New York China Town (1949). When Wei showed an early version of the documentary to film critics in Hong Kong, many were amazed that they hadn’t heard of Eng before, a pioneer of Chinese cinema abroad and a precursor of present-day transnational filmmakers like Ang Lee.

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