Katherine Sui Fun Cheung
“THE CHINESE ‘AMELIA”
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born in Canton, China, on December 12, 1904. Her Chinese name, Sui Fun means courage and long life. Her father became a produce buyer on the West Coast and immigrated to America. She was his only child. I was not able to learn anything about her mother. As she grew, she became very interested in music. At age 17, she also immigrated to the U.S. to study music at the University of Southern California. While studying to become a concert pianist, she lived with her father. She earned a degree in Academic Piano from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. After that, she continued her studies at California State Polytechnic University, in Pomona. At that time, most young Chinese women in the U.S. were considered even less than second class citizens, and were very quiet, meek, and subdued. Young Cheung was anything but! She was very high-spirited and adventuresome, a bit of a daredevil.
She wanted to learn to drive a car. Her father consented and took her to a large parking lot to give her lessons. It so happened that the lot he picked out for her driving lessons was adjacent to Dycer Airfield. It was not long before the airplanes attracted her interest. She was much more fascinated with watching the planes take off and land than she was in driving. It was here that her love of aviation was born.
It was very unusual for a young Chinese woman to learn to drive a car, but she wanted much more. She was already breaking tradition, she just decided to push it a little more and learn to fly! She refused to let being female stifle her ambitions. Later, she stated, “I don’t see why women have to stay in the kitchen, when instead they could learn to fly.”
Her father was a businessman. In 1924, she and his business partner, George Young, decided to marry. She said she would marry him under two conditions; first, she would keep her maiden name, and second, he would allow her to learn to fly. Cheung said, “he didn’t really have a choice, but he was more enlightened than most men (of that time) so it wasn’t an issue with him at all.” As she spoke of Young, her love for him was apparent. They eventually had two daughters, Doris and Dorothy. George supported her activities and encouraged her to learn to fly.
In 1932, at the age of 28, her cousin gave her a ride in his airplane. Soon after that she joined the Chinese Aeronautical Association, and began her flying lessons for which she paid $5 an hour. When she began her flying lessons, it was apparent that she was a ‘natural.’ She soloed with 12 1/2 hours of flying time, and then there was no stopping her. She made her first solo landing at Dycer Field, the same field where her love of aviation began. Cheung continued her flying lessons with Lincoln Flying School and soon earned her pilot’s license. She became the first Chinese American woman to do so. At that time there were only about 200 female pilots, about 1% of the pilot population. She officially gave up her desire for a career in music, she was now a pilot!
Not content to simply fly from one place to another, Cheung took up aerobatics. She learned to perform stunts, loops and rolls, and she loved to fly her open cockpit plane upside down, she also mastered spiral dives. She decided to join up with air shows so she could perform. She entered in stunt derbies, and long distance races. She also learned to fly in low visibility, instrument conditions. She was a dedicated pilot and loved every aspect of flying.
She was a very active pilot, but never set speed or endurance records. She was welcomed into the Ninety Nines, an organization of women pilots. Through that group she was able to meet many famous pilots, among them Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, and Pancho Barnes.
In 1936, she became an American citizen which allowed her to earn her Commercial Pilot’s license.
Katherine was very popular, especially among Asian groups. She enjoyed speaking with them and encouraging young people to follow their dreams and not be confined by cultural and traditional stereotypes. The Chinese community loved her. They even raised money to purchase a 125 horse powered Fleet airplane for her. The airplane cost $2,000, and she flew it in the Ruth Chatterton Air Sportsman Pilot Trophy Race, from Los Angeles to Cleveland. The airplane was underpowered, but it held up and she finished the race, after having trouble over the mountains, and with her radio and compass.
In 1937, the Japanese Army invaded China. Cheung wanted to return to China and help in the war effort by starting a flight school for Chinese citizens. Again, the Chinese community in California came to her aid. They raised $7,000 to buy a Ryan ST-A airplane for her to take to China. As she was accepting the airplane, tragedy struck. Her cousin, who had given her her first airplane ride decided to play a stunt on the crowd. He snuck into the airplane and started it up. As he was taking off, he crashed, and was killed in the crash. That destroyed her plans to return to China.
It was about this time that her father, whom she loved, became seriously ill. He was very concerned about her flying. Her cousin had been killed, Amelia Earhart had disappeared, and he wanted her to give up flying. On his deathbed, she promised him that she would quit flying!
She tried to stay true to her father’s deathbed wish, but the sky called her back. She flew for several more years, then in 1942, she stopped flying for good. She had a wonderful flying career over the 10 years that she flew. She flew in airshows, did stunts, gave speeches, and was famous in both America and China. She explained, “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!”
Her husband, George, passed away in 1988, leaving her very depressed. Her family decided that she needed a trip to China, so they took her to visit her Chinese village of Enping. Her reputation had preceeded her and she was welcomed as a heroine. The Aviation Museum in Enping had a display of her achievements, and the Enping Aviation Association and Research Institutes honored her during her visit. The Beijing Air Force Aviation Museum proclaimed her “China’s Amelia Earhart,” and opened a special exhibit to honor her. She was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame here in America, and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum enshrined her as America’s First Asian American Aviatrix. She is one of only 30 people to have a bronze plaque in the Flight Path Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. The Flight Path Walk honors milestones in aviation. She was also honored by Carol Nye, who presented a public art project entitled, Chinese-American Women of LA. The art featured Cheung in a photographic mural at the Metro Plaza Hotel in Chinatown. The display celebrated women who overcame the confines of culture, tradition, and discriminatory attitudes, opening doors for future generations to new opportunities.
Of all the honors, the greatest was in 2001 when the Museum of Flying inducted her into the International Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame. She was one of only four, and received a plaque from the Chinese Consul General. A play, written by Josephine Chien, “Into The Blue,” about her accomplishments was performed at that event.
On the Centennial of Flight, in 2003, the International Women in Aviation recognized the 100 most influential women in the industry in the past 100 years, Cheung was in that list!
The Chinese Amelia died on September 2, 2003, at the age of 98. Another amazing women, whom too few have of us had the opportunity to, know was lost. She was a feisty young woman who dared to dream, and followed her dream into history, and opened the door for many to follow in her footsteps!
Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer