“I don’t see any reason why a Chinese woman can’t be as good a pilot as anyone else. We drive automobiles so why not fly planes?” That was the question Katherine Sui Fun Cheung posed in director Ed Moy’s documentary “Aviatrix: The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story” shown at Northside Library on May 22 near the end of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Over 20 people came to learn about Cheung, known as the first Chinese American female pilot.
“Katherine Sui Fun Cheung embodies female empowerment,” said Cheryl Lee, Northside Library’s branch manager and program coordinator. “She’s an inspiration to women who can see that in spite of the ceilings in front of you, you can break through those ceilings.”
Cheung was born in Canton, China. In 1921, 17-year-old Cheung came to America. She laid her eyes upon airplanes for the first time while learning to drive with her father near Los Angeles’s Dycer Airfield. Years later, after flying with a family friend who got his license, Cheung caught the flying bug and asked her father about taking aviation lessons.
“When I come back, I talked to my father. He said ‘No.’… He says, No I can’t do it. Then we talk…talk…Finally, he said ‘Okay.’ He gave into me. My mother says, ‘Okay.’ [My husband] said ‘okay’ and he support me. And he was very proud of me,” said Cheung, interviewed by Mary Pinkney in the film. “I start with Bill Gage [as my instructor at Dycer Airport in roughly Sept. 1931.] Every morning I went up there for half an hour. I feel great. I love it.”
Shortly after receiving her license in 1932, Cheung became a daredevil stunt pilot. She also joined the Ninety-Nines, a women’s flying club founded by Amelia Earhart.
“Katherine Cheung [was] the first Chinese American woman pilot who joined the Ninety-Nines in 1932,” said Barbara Schultz, aviation historian. “They saw no boundaries with who could fly despite their background or their ethnic background.”
In 2003, Cheung passed away at 98-years-old in Thousand Oaks, California.
“One of the most extraordinary persons that I wrote about in the book [“Linking Our Lives”] was Katherine Cheung; they called her the Chinese Amelia Earhart,” said Judy Chu, Congresswoman of California’s 27th District, in the film. “In fact, Amelia Earhart and her were acquaintances. She was the most outstanding pilot of her time, a woman pilot. It’s even more extraordinary considering the fact that she was an immigrant from China. Most Chinese American women were told be seen and not heard and thought to be invisible. But Katherine Cheung didn’t pay attention to any of it. Katherine Cheung was also affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Everybody was up until 1943 when it was repealed.”
The film also recognized the various projects in the arts, from theater to comics, that Cheung’s story had inspired. During a Facebook chat after the screening, Moy revealed that other people’s work fueled his inspiration during his film making. (Associate producer Katherine Park attended the screening.)
Visit https://youtu.be/MyulG4mS9io to view a short version of “Aviatrix: The Katherine Sui Fun Cheung Story.”