Katherine Sui Fun Cheung (Zhang Ruifen) was a Chinese immigrant who became the first licensed female Asian American aviator and the first woman of Chinese descent licensed to fly internationally.
Cheung immigrated from China to the United States in 1921 at age 17 to study music and piano at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. After earning a degree there, she continued to study music at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, and the University of Southern California (USC).
Everything changed her aspirations, however, when, at Dycer Airport (long gone, but located near today’s Western Avenue and 135the Street in Gardena) her father, who by then had also immigrated to the U.S., took her there to teach her how to drive. There she caught the bug for aviation, seeing aircraft take-off and land.
After three years at USC, Cheung quit her studies to marry another Chinese American, George Bow Young, her father’s partner in the produce-buying business. Young accepted the then unusual idea for his wife to keep her maiden name (now Americanized from Zhang to Cheung). He also did not object when, in 1932, she pressed her desire to learn to fly. With encouragement from a male cousin who was a pilot, she began taking pilot lessons with the Chinese Aeronautical Association in Los Angeles. After only 12 ½ hours of training in the cockpit under instructor Bert Ekstein, she was ready to fly solo. On March 30, 1932, she was awarded her pilot’s license. Not only were there then only about 200 women in the country who had a pilot’s license (only one percent of all American licensed pilots), Cheung was the first Asian American woman licensed to fly* and was widely reported in the press as such.
Cheung quickly improved and expanded her flying skills and was soon performing stunt flying at fairs along the California coast. In 1935, she became a member of the Ninety Nines club, an international association of women pilots organized by Amelia Earhart. The following year, she joined the American Aviation Association.
In 1936, a proud Chinese American community, along with famed Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, raised $2,000 to purchase a 125-horsepower Fleet Biplane for her use. She took her aircraft into a Los Angeles-to-Cleveland air race and, although the aircraft was not designed for high altitudes, managed to get the plane over the Rocky Mountains and finish the race, even if finishing second-to-last.
She also place fourth in a Glendale-to-San Diego air race with her humble biplane, competing against more impressive aircraft flown by other pioneer women aviators such as Amelia Earhart.
Cheung never set any aviation records besides being the first Asian American woman pilot, but, she loved flying and wowed crowds at airfields across the country where she could find large numbers of Chinese spectators. “I don’t see any reason,” she said, “why a Chinese woman can’t be as good as a pilot as anyone else. We drive automobiles-why not fly planes?”
In 1937, after the invasion of China by Japan, Cheung, by then a U.S. citizen, visited Chinese American communities across the country to raise money to purchase a training aircraft for a new pilot-training school that she intended to open in China. Her plan was to fly the aircraft to China and train pilots there. Sadly, her cousin, who had taken her on her very first flight and helped her get into flying, took the Ryan ST-A aircraft for a celebratory test flight, just after Cheung accepted it from supporters. As they watched in horror, he was killed when the aircraft crashed into the ground.
Alarmed by the incident, her dying father urged Cheung to promise to quit flying. She honored her father’s wishes, but only until after he died. During the first year of America’s entry into World War II, she served as a flight instructor in the U.S. Yet, the tragic loss of her cousin, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her promise to her father haunted her to where, in 1942, she permanently give up flying. She was 38.
Cheung lived in Chinatown in Los Angeles into the 1990s, operating a flower shop with her husband. In 1989, when visiting China for a vacation with a daughter, she drew Chinese media attention and was lauded for her early aviation accomplishments. In retirement, she moved to Thousand Oaks to be close to family, where she died in 2003. She is buried with her husband in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum recognizes Cheung as the nation's first woman Asian aviator. She is also acclaimed with an exhibit by The Chinese Aviation Museum in Beijing as "China's Amelia Earhart.” She is honored with a bronze plaque on the Flight Path Museum Walk of Fame near Los Angeles International Airport. In 2001, the Chinese Consul General of Los Angeles, on behalf of the Chinese government, presented her with a medal for her pioneering contributions to aviation. She was also then inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
* Another Chinese American women, Hazel Ying Lee, also obtained her pilot’s license in 1932, as did Cheung, but seven months later.
For more of Katherine Cheung's story, visit Aviatrix The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story