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Cheung, Katherine Sui Fun

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

Katherine Cheung (1904–2003) crossed racial and gender lines to realize her dream of becoming the first Asian American aviatrix.

In 1932, Cheung became the first Chinese American woman to be a licensed pilot. She overcame both cultural and gender expectations in a time when Chinese women were taught to be meek and quiet. Fortunately, she had an understanding father and husband who encouraged her adventurous spirit, which included stunt flying loops and barrel rolls. Although she never realized her dream of teaching women in her homeland to be pilots, she gained the respect of people in both China and the United States.

Fascinated by Planes Taking Off

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born on December 12, 1904, in Canton, China. Her name "Sui Fun" means courage and long life in Chinese. The only child of a produce buyer, she immigrated to the American West Coast in 1921 at the age of 17 to live with her father.

With the intention of pursuing a musical career, Cheung enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) to study music, then went on to earn a degree in academic piano from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. She continued her education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

An unexpected diversion from music occurred when her father taught her to drive a car in a parking lot adjacent to nearby Dycer Airfield. Cheung spent as much time fascinated watching the numerous airplanes taking off and landing as she did to the driving lessons. Not content with already breaking cultural tradition by driving a car, Cheung also wanted to learn how to fly planes. She did not let the fact that she was a woman hinder her ambitions. Her love for aviation was born. "I don't see why women have to stay in the kitchen, when instead they could learn to fly," she said to Josephine Chien in an online interview in Asians in America.

After leaving the music program at USC, Cheung married her father's business partner, George Young, in 1924. They would eventually have two daughters, Doris and Dorothy. A progressive as much as his wife, George accepted Cheung's decision to keep her maiden name, and supported her desire to become a pilot.

First Chinese American to Earn Pilot's License

In 1932 Cheung's cousin, who was a pilot, gave her a ride in his plane. Finally at the age of 28, Cheung was able to act on her desire to learn to fly. She immediately went to the Chinese Aeronautical Association to sign up for flying lessons at five dollars an hour. In a mere 12 and a half hours, under the tutelage of Bert Ekstein, Cheung was given permission to fly solo for the first time. She made a perfect landing at Dycer field, the same site where her admiration of flight first began.

After attending the Lincoln Flying School, it was very soon that Cheung earned her pilot's license, becoming the first Chinese American woman to do so. In the early 1930s, women numbered only 200 or 1 percent of the licensed pilots in America. At this time, Cheung joined the Women's International Association of Aeronautics and had officially given up a career in music.

Indicative of her culturally defiant attitude, Cheung learned to perform stunts, flying acrobatic loops and barrel rolls at county fairs along the California coast. Through the 1930s, she barnstormed, flew her open cockpit plane upside down, and mastered spiral dives. She and other fliers joined in air shows, stunt derbies, and long–distance races. Cheung also studied techniques for flying in blind and low visibility situations.

Joined Amelia Earhart's Ninety Nines

Cheung also joined a number of prominent organizations. In 1936, the prestigious Ninety Nines club asked her to join its ranks. Famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart had established the international group of women pilots only four years earlier. Through the Ninety Nines, Cheung met contemporary aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, and Florence "Pancho" Barnes. Cheung also joined the American Aviation Association.

That same year, Cheung became a United States citizen, which made her eligible to earn a commercial pilot's license. She also acquired an international airline license and occasionally flew as a commercial pilot.

Through her associations, Cheung was able to fly with quite a number of famous women pilots, including Earhart. Although she entered various competitive races during her career, she never set speed or endurance records. Nevertheless, she remembered her roots and frequently toured cities with large Chinese populations. As reported by Josephine Chien on the Asians in America website, Cheung encouraged people during her speeches by saying, "I don't see any reason why a Chinese woman can't be as good a pilot as anyone else. We drive automobiles, why not fly planes?"

The Chinese community so embraced Cheung that it raised money to buy her a 125–horsepower Fleet biplane. The occasion was the Ruth Chatterton Air Sportsman Pilot Trophy Race, a seven–day race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Ohio. Chinese actress Anna May Wong and others purchased the $2,000 plane for Cheung to fly in the race. The modest plane held up yet it was not up to the power of her fellow pilots. Cheung had difficulty flying over the Rocky Mountains and experienced trouble with the radio and compass, yet she finished the race in second to the last place. Cheung also flew in coastal races in California.

A Series of Tragedies Made Her Promise to Stop Flying

In 1937, several tragedies occurred that made Cheung reconsider her daredevil attitude about flying. Cheung's friend Amelia Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific ocean. The same year, the Japanese army invaded China. Cheung devised a plan to return to her homeland to help in the war effort by opening a flight school and teaching Chinese citizens to become pilots.

Once again, the Chinese-American community in California banded together to generously raise $7,000 to buy a Ryan ST–A plane for Cheung to travel to China. As she was accepting the new plane at Dycer airfield, where her love of flying began, a third tragedy struck, this time closer to home. The same cousin who took Cheung on her first flying trip decided to play a prank. He hopped into her new plane but immediately crashed the plane and died. Her plans to visit China were dashed.

At this time, Cheung's father's health was failing, and on his deathbed he made her promise that she would give up flying. Considering the fate of Earhart and her cousin, and out of respect for her father's wishes, Cheung agreed to stop flying. But soon after her father's death, the sky called Cheung back. She flew again for a few more years, until in 1942 at the age of 38 she hung up her wings for good.

Cheung had spent a marvelous decade courageously flying across the country, speaking to local communities and inspiring the next generation. At the age of 93, she explained in a Los Angeles Times interview, "I wanted to fly, so that's what I did. Some of this stuff I've forgotten, but a lot of it I didn't pay any attention to at the time. I was too busy having fun."

Inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame

It was later in her life when Cheung finally returned to her Chinese homeland. After Cheung's husband George passed away in 1988, she was in low spirits. Her family took her on a trip to visit her Chinese village of Enping, where her fame was well known. The Aviation Museum in Enping displayed photos and memorabilia of Cheung's accomplishments, and the Enping Aviation Association and Research Institutes honored her visit.

Throughout her career, Cheung's aerial achievements have been related in newspaper and magazine articles, and she has been honored in exhibits in China and the United States. The Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum proclaimed her "China's Amelia Earhart" and opened an exhibit to commemorate her. In America, the Aviation Hall of Fame inducted her, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum enshrined her as America's first Asian American aviatrix. Cheung is one of only 30 people to have a bronze plaque embedded in the Flight Path Walk of Fame in Los Angeles which recognizes milestones in aviation.

In 1993, Los Angeles photographer and artist Carol Nye presented a public art project entitled Chinese–American Women of LA, that featured Cheung. The photographic mural, which was displayed in the Metro Plaza Hotel in Chinatown, celebrated women who were caught between cultures and overcame discriminatory attitudes to gain new opportunities.

Perhaps Cheung's greatest recognition was in 2001 when the nonprofit Museum of Flying inducted her into the International Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame. One of four aviation pioneers honored, Cheung received a plaque from the Chinese Consul General and watched a traditional Chinese lion dance. At the event, playwright Josephine Chien performed a play, "Into the Blue," about Cheung's accomplishments.

On Cheung's 95th birthday, Los Angeles' Chinatown presented a banquet in her honor. On the Centennial of Flight in 2003, the International Women in Aviation recognized the 100 most influential women in the aviation and aerospace industries over the past 100 years, which included Cheung.

Katherine Cheung died of natural causes on September 2, 2003, at the age of 98. She had two daughters, Doris Wong and Dorothy Leschenko, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Periodicals

Asian Week, March 9–15, 2001.

General Aviation News, April 27, 2001.

Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2003.

Online

Chien, Josephine, "Museum Spotlight: Katherine Cheung, First Asian American Female Aviator," September 2003, http://www.asiansinamerica.org/museum/0903–museum.html (December 3, 2004).

"Katherine Cheung Biography," http://www.veniceskills.org/old/rodrigo/dottie–website/biography.html. (December 3, 2004).

"Katherine Cheung Inducted into Aviation Hall of Fame," January 17, 2001, Association for Women in Aviation Maintenance, http://www.awam.org/Katherine%20Cheung.htm (December 3, 2004).

"Pioneer Hall of Fame Ceremony Honors Outstanding Women in Aviation," Women in Aviation International, March 14, 2000, http://www.wai.org/news/press/2000–3–14fame.html and http://www.wai.org/resources/100women.cfm (December 3, 2004).

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