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  • Writer's pictureW.M. Tarrant

The First Chinese American Women Aviators

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll take a brief look at three of the first female Chinese pilots in America. All three became pilots in 1932. At the time, only about one percent of pilots were female and as far as can be determined, none in the U.S. were of Chinese descent prior to these women.

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born Zhang Ruifin in China on December 12, 1904, and came to the United States after high school graduation in 1921. Accompanied by her father, a businessman who traded with Chinese American communities, she studied music at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, California State Polytechnic University, and the University of Southern California.

She left school and married George Young, her father’s business partner and Americanized her name to Katherine Sui Fun Cheung. Katherine enrolled in the Chinese Aeronautical Association of Los Angeles. Doing so, she went against Chinese tradition that expected women to be meek and quiet and tend to the household. Her husband, also Chinese, did not hold the traditionalist view and encouraged her to pursue her dream. She earned her pilot’s license in March 1932. She used her flying skills performing at airshows around the country where she put on daring aerobatic displays. In 1936, she became a U. S. citizen which allowed her to obtain a commercial license. She also earned an international airline license and periodically flew as a commercial pilot.

At about the same time that Katherine was learning to fly, a Chinese American woman from Portland, Hazel Ying Lee, began her flight training. Hazel was born in Portland in 1912 after her parents had immigrated there and operated a Chinese restaurant in Old Town Chinatown. After graduating high school, she took a job at Liebes Department Store in downtown Portland as an elevator operator, one of the few jobs open to a minority woman. She took her first airplane ride in 1932 and began taking lessons at the Chinese Flying Club of Portland. She received her pilot’s license in October 1932, thus likely making her the first American-born female Chinesepilot. In 1933, responding to the Japanese taking of Manchuria, Hazel, along with other Chinese American pilots, went to China to offer assistance. Not being allowed to fly, she took a desk job. She later moved to Canton where she flew for a private airline as one of the few active female pilots in the country. She returned to the United States and became one of only two Chinese Americans in the Women Air force Service Pilots (WASP), the other being Margaret “Maggie” Gee who earned her pilot’s license in 1941.


Across the country in Boston, Rose Lok was learning to fly. She was born in 1912 in China and immigrated at a young age with her parents. The family settled in Boston near Denison House where Amelia Earhart worked in the 1920s. Denison House provided social and educational programs to area residents who were mostly immigrants. Earhart may have been the aviation inspiration for Rose. In 1932, Rose joined the Chinese Patriotic Flying Corps which had been organized to support China in its fight against the invading Japanese. After joining the corps, she began flight instruction, the training taking place at East Boston Airport which is nowBoston Logan International Airport. Being the only female flyer in the group, he received much attention in the press, both locally and nationally. She received her license later that year.

Judy Yung, who was a professor in American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote of the early Chinese American women pilots, “Although few in number, these first Chinese American aviators, in their attempt to participate in a daring sport, broke the stereotype of the passive Chinese woman and demonstrated the ability of Chinese American women to compete in a male-dominated field.”

[Photo: Hazel Ying Lee on the left and Katherine Sui Fun Cheung on the right]

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