Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born in Canton, China in 1904 and immigrated to the United States in 1921 to live with her father and study music. One afternoon soon after her arrival, Cheung’s father took her to an airfield to teach her to drive a car. Instead, she became enamored of the airplanes taking off and landing in the distance.
World War I provided a surplus of small, well-built, relatively inexpensive airplanes, which sparked a boom in middle class aviation hobbyists. Every airpark had an aviation club, although most were segregated by race and gender. People excluded by white male aviation clubs formed groups like the Ninety Nines, an international organization for women flyers founded by Amelia Earhart and Opal Kunz. Cheung’s father and several male cousins were members of the Chinese Aeronautical Association of Los Angeles, an alternative to aviation schools that excluded Asian members. Cheung signed up for flying lessons with the Chinese Aeronautical Association and took her first solo flight after just 12 hours in the air. When her father’s business partner George Young proposed marriage, she accepted under two conditions: that she could keep her family name, and that she could abandon her music studies at the University of Southern California to become a professional pilot.
International politics gave the Chinese Aeronautical Association a broader focus than the usual flight instruction and air shows. On September 18, 1931, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army was ordered by the commander of Imperial General Headquarters to detonate a bundle of dynamite near a Japanese-owned railroad in Manchuria. The explosion was so weak that it only superficially damaged the tracks, but Japanese officials accused Chinese radicals of attempting to derail a train. Japan then used the event, known as the Manchurian Incident, as pretext for invading China the following day. The scheme was exposed within weeks, but Japan continued to occupy China until the end of World War II. In a matter of months, the various Chinese American community organizations in the United States moved to gather funding and aid for Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion. Transportation for the campaign was provided by members of the Chinese Aeronautical Association. When Cheung became the first Asian American woman to receive a flying license in the United States in March 1932, she was added to the association’s docket of aid pilots.
At the time, there were fewer than 200 licensed female pilots in the entire nation. By the following year, she was invited to join the Ninety Nines and entered her first air race. Her plane was smaller and older than her competitors’ planes, and she finished last after landing in a field far from the racecourse. Nevertheless, reporters covered her daring emergency landing, and Chinese American women’s organizations banded together to purchase a more competitive airplane. By the mid-1930s, Cheung had turned flying into a full-fledged career, earning prize money in cross-country races and as stunt pilot at fairs across the United States. She became famous for performing acrobatic loops in the air, flying while blindfolded, and flying her open cockpit plane upside down. In between stunting engagements, she earned a commercial pilot’s license, which enabled her to fly a commercial plane into cities with large Chinese American communities, collect supplies, and raise millions of dollars in war bonds for China. She also became the spokesperson for a multi-organization campaign to mend clothing, sew bedding, and roll bandages to be sent to China.
In early 1937, Cheung planned an extended trip to China. A couple of years earlier two Chinese American female pilots, Hazel Ying Lee and Virginia Wong, had attempted to join the Chinese Air Force but were denied because they were not citizens of China. Cheung hoped to deliver supplies and offer flying lessons so that women could finally join the Chinese Air Force to aid the resistance against Japan. The plan was first thwarted when Cheung was denied a transport pilot’s license despite her professional reputation. Even though she had completed the requisite training, federal aviation officials blocked her licensing, first arguing that a woman could not manage a large transport plane and later claiming a non-citizen should not be allowed to pilot international fights. The Chinese American women’s organizations that had purchased her first airplane in 1932 gathered funds for a second that was large enough to withstand the journey but would not require a transport license. The day before her scheduled departure, Cheung’s cousin took the plane on a test flight; he was killed when the airplane crashed just after takeoff.
Cheung’s father begged her to stop flying, and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in July of the same year added to her reluctance to fly competitively. She quietly canceled her remaining stunt performance dates and instead focused on making her flight school in China a reality. The school opened in late 1937, and Cheung remained in China for almost five years. She was forced to flee Japanese-occupied China and return to Los Angeles in 1942 after the United States declared war on Japan. Cheung formally retired from flying in that year, raised two daughters, and occasionally granted interviews for museum archives and journalists until her death in 2003.