Esther Eng was born in San Francisco on September 24, 1914. Eng was the fourth child in a family of ten children. Eng's Grandparents originally came to America from the Toy Shan (Taishan) county in southern China's Guangdong province. Eng was a fan of Chinese Opera and having lived in San Francisco she was able to socialize with the Chinese singers and actors who performed there. San Francisco had Chinese language theaters which were successful and had hosted some of the best actors from China.
When she was 19, her father and his business partners create a film production company with Eng as a producer. The studio was based at 1010 Washington Street while Esther looked for a studio in Los Angeles. Esther's first screen credit was as co-producer on the film Heartache (1936). Heartache is set in San Francisco and was directed by Frank Tang, Heartache was shot in eight days with two reels shot in color. The film was made at a rented studio in Hollywood.
In 1936, along with friends and the film's leading actress Wai Kim Fong, Eng went to Hong Kong for a premiere at the Queens Theater under the title Iron Blood, Fragrant Soul. After China entered war with Japan, she directed the film National Heroine (1937). The next year, Eng made the film National Heroine (1937) about a female pilot that fights for her country. The film was a success which led to Eng staying in Hong Kong where she directed her two next films: Ten Thousand Lovers and Storm of Envy both released in 1938. She also co-directed the film A Night of Romance, A Lifetime of Regret with Wu Peng and Leung Wai-man. In 1939, she created the film It's A Women's World which had an all female cast showcasing 36 women in different professions.
In 1939, she returned to San Francisco to begin distributing Chinese films in both Central and South America. In 1941, Eng directed the film Golden Gate Girl in San Francisco. which received a favorable review in Variety that year. Eng returned to Hong Kong to make a war film between 1946 and 1947. After months of preparation that included location hunting in southern China, Eng had to abandon the project. By mid-1947, Eng returned to California where she made The Blue Jade that starred another Cantonese Opera singer Fe Fe Lee. Eng followed it up with another film with Lee titled Too Late For Springtime (1949) about a Chinese girls' relationship with a Chinese-American GI. This was followed up by a film shot in the Hawaiian Islands titled Mad Fire Mad Love about a romance between a mixed race woman and a Chinese sailor.
Eng stopped making films to go into the restaurant business in 1950 with her friend Bo Bo, a Chinese actor who had been stranded in New York. Eng supported him and managed his stage career in the United States and later named a restaurant she co-founded as "Bo Bo". This was the first of her five Manhattan restaurants which included the Esther Eng Restaurant which opened in 1959. In 1961, she earned her final film credit being the co-director with Wu Peng for Murder in New York Chinatown. Esther Eng directed all the exterior scenes of the film. Eng died of cancer at the age of 55 in January, 1970.
Most film productions that Eng worked on are lost films except for two: Golden Gate Girls and Murder in New York Chinatown. Eng's films were mostly standard romantic dramas, generally with women at the center.
Eng was openly lesbian. Her sexual orientation did not affect her career negatively partly because homosexuality was an accepted part of the Chinese opera, which she was associated with. Around the time that Heartache was released, Esther Eng changed her family name from Ng to the more easily pronounceable Eng.
On April 1, 2013 the documentary about the life and career of Esther Eng titled Golden Gate Silver Light premiered at the Hong Kong Film Festival. The film was directed by Louisa Wei and was inspired by the 2006 discovery in of Eng's photo albums dated between the years 1928 and 1948. During production of the film, Wei found more albums but no audio or film records of Eng.
S. Louisa Wei's 2014 feature documentary, Golden Gate Girls, compares the media representation of Eng with that of Dorothy Arzner. Judith Mayne, the author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, is interviewed in the documentary, saying, "I love the fact that history of woman filmmakers now would include Dorothy Arzner and Esther Eng as the two of the real exceptions, who proved it was entirely possible to build a successful film career without necessarily being a part of mainstream identity."Heartaches (1935, as co-producer)
National Heroine (1937)
100,000 Lovers (1938)
Tragic Love (1938)
A Night of Romance, A Lifetime of Regret (1938)
It's a Women's World (1939, co-directed with Lu Si)
Golden Gate Girl (1941)
Lady from the Blue Lagoon (1946)
Back Street (1947)
Mad Fire, Mad Love (1949)
Murder in New York Chinatown (1961, co-directed with Wu Peng)