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She directed her first film, National Heroine, in Hong Kong where it opened on March 13, 1937, at the Central Theatre. She again starred Wai in this "National Defence" spectacle, acted in Cantonese, including songs and comedy, against a serious background of Sino-Japanese warfare. At this stage - before the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident" (July 7, 1937) ignited the Sino-Japanese war of 1937--45 - local censorship laws did not allow such films to actually name Japan or the Japanese. But the implication was clear, whether the "enemy" was a pack of wolves or foreign soldiers.

According to the blurb, National Heroine was a mixture of "dynamite & explosions of tears and laughter", emotionally very intense, interwoven with tragedy and comedy and with a top line cast. The film earned cast and director a Certificate of Merit from the Kwangtung Federation of Women's Rights. Others called the film a "prelude to the Saving the Country Movement", one that "honours Chinese Womanhood".

Esther went on to make 4 more features in Hong Kong, including its first all-female film, Its a Women's World, under the working title of "36 Women of the Heavenly Gate". The films reflected the director herself with their strong feminist themes often of women proving themselves the equals of men, much as Esther had to do in the cinema. It's a Women's World was also a social critique through the depiction of three dozen different lives in contemporary Hong Kong.

In 1939, she followed her friend, Wai Kim-fong (the star of 3 Esther Eng movies), back to the US, partly through fear of an impending Japanese attack on the territory. She had made five HK films with others in the pipeline that remained unfinished.

Esther continued to make movies in the US, among them Golden Gate Girl (1941), the only one of her pictures to be seriously reviewed in the trades. It has the distinction of being the first film in which Bruce Lee ever appeared, here representing the "Golden Gate" girl as a 3 month old baby. That was 30 years before he became the world's most famous martial artist.

Esther loved Hollywood "B" pictures. She was keen to raise her own and HK filmmakers' standards to that model - good stories with a high technical level that belied slim budgets. She vigorously expressed disappointment in the poor technical horizon of contemporary HK cinema when she returned there in 1946.

She created other "firsts", including Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949), the first all-Chinese movie shot in and around Hawaii.

With her great passion for Hollywood movies, it is unfortunate that her own films never "crossed over" to the American mainstream, a term often used to describe the phenomenal success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Esther trod that path more than 60 years ago.

The very early 1960s saw a brief comeback when she directed New York scenes for Wu Pang's film, Murder in New York Chinatown (HK, 1961). To date, these are the only fragments remaining of her work.

But we have hopes. We know that she distributed Cantonese movies throughout the Americas, including Cuba and Hawaii, before and after the Pacific War of 1941- 45. Is it just possible that some old warehouse or laboratory, somewhere in South America, still stores some old film cans containing a print or two of her films?

Watch this space!

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Copyright Frank Bren 2001 &2010. Site enquiries via  Selected imasges of Esther Eng and stills from her films are reproduced by kind permission of Esther's sister,  Sally Ng Kam-ping. the others from Frank Bren's personal collection).

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