Katherine Cheung was born in Canton, China in 1904. When she was 17 she moved with her father to California to study music at the Los Angeles Conservatory. After graduating, she continued her studies at Cal Poly Pomona and the University of Southern California.
Even while in school, she had a wild streak that sometimes broke out of the demure, ladylike persona that society expected. She convinced her father to teach her to drive, a mark of independence unusual among women at the time. It was during one of these lessons with her father in a parking lot near the airport, that she became interested in an even more unusual skill—flying.
When Katherine agreed to marry her father’s business partner George Young, she had two conditions. The first was that she would keep her maiden name, and the second was that he support her dream of learning to fly. She later said that, “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.”
The large number of planes left over after the First World War had made aviation a common hobby for the middle class, with many “flying clubs” springing up across the country. Unfortunately, Asian Americans and women often found themselves excluded from these organizations. So, they formed their own. In 1932 Katherine began flying lessons at the Chinese Aeronautical Association. She received her pilot’s license that same year, becoming the first Asian American aviatrix in the country, and one of only about 200 female pilots in America, about 1% of the nation’s total. Amelia Earhart organized these aviatrixes to form the Ninety Nine Club, or the “Double Nines”.
Katherine of course became a member, and a close friend of Earhart. She also began to race and learn stunt flying, becoming popular at air shows around the country. She was especially beloved by the Chinese American community, who raised $2,000 to buy her a biplane.
In 1935 Katherine became an American citizen, which also allowed her to earn her commercial pilots license. She could now travel the country in larger commercial planes, visiting cities with large Chinese American communities and collecting money and supplies for China, which was then occupied by Japan.
She planned to return to China and open a flight school, to train volunteers for the Chinese military, which had no female flyers at the time. But in 1937, on the day that she was to accept a new plane and begin her mission, it was destroyed during a test flight. Cheung’s father begged her to stop flying, and for the most part, she did.
That didn’t stop her from founding her school though. She returned to China later that year, and stayed for nearly five years, until US involvement in World War II forced her to leave. She continued to travel and speak about her experiences until her death in 2003.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jennifer Brook Joyce. Jennifer is a recent grad of NYU’s Public History MA program, and her goal is to create accessible, academically sound popular history. @jbjhistory
Find out more…
This page is dedicated to everything about Katherine and has lots of information to explore, including some great photos & video clips.
You can watch this interview of Katherine before she died