Two important collections of items related to the famed aviatrix Katherine Sui Fun Cheung (also known as Zhang Ruifen) were received by MOCA earlier this month. The materials were generously donated by Katherine’s daughter, Dottie Leschencko, and film producer, Edmund Moy. Dottie’s donation includes a scrapbook of Chinese newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters related to Katherine collected by her family. Edmund’s collection supplements the scrapbook with a set of digital images and videos of Katherine and Dottie, including TV and documentary footage.
Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was born in Enping, China in 1904 but moved to the United States at the age of 17 on a student visa. It was during her time in California driving with her father around Dycer Airport, Los Angeles that she became infatuated with the idea of flying. But it would not be until 1931, after having married and become the mother of two daughters, that she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot. Katherine initially wanted to enroll in flight school in China, however, the Guangzhou flight school did not accept female pilots. Undeterred, she decided to learn how to fly in the United States at the Chinese Aeronautical Association in Los Angeles under the tutelage of Bert Ekstein.
After only 12 ½ hours of flight time with the instructor, she was ready to fly solo. In 1932, Katherine made history by becoming the first female pilot of Chinese descent in the United States. She would go on to make a name for herself as a stunt pilot, performing aerobatics for spectators all along the west coast. Katherine would continue her flying career throughout the 30s, performing at airshows and participating in races across the nation, with one of the most notable being the Ruth Chatterton Sportsman Pilots Air Derby. The Ruth Chatterton Air Derby was an air race from Cleveland to Los Angeles and this was the event where she met other fellow female pilots such as the world-famous Amelia Earhart. Earhart would invite Katherine into the Ninety-Nines (The 99s), a renowned all-females aviation club that same year. Unfortunately, Katherine did not complete the race due to mechanical and weather issues and was forced to land her plane halfway through the race.
In 1937, she once again took to the skies after receiving the money to purchase a Ryan ST trainer plane from fundraising efforts by Chinese community associations and celebrities such as Anna May Wong. Katherine intended to use this plane as a trainer for aspiring pilots but her dreams were dashed when a volunteer pilot, Luke Chang, crashed the airplane and subsequently died in the accident. Katherine’s ailing father, concerned with her safety, implored her to stop flying and instead spend time taking care of her mother. Katherine recalled that after she swore to her father to never fly again, she felt “sick for many months” and refused to see anyone for a while. Cheung would redirect her energy to opening a flower shop that she operated until 1970.
As a pioneer and female aviator, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung is recognized as the nation’s first Asian aviatrix by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. In 2000, Katherine was inducted into the Women in Aviation International’s Pioneer Hall of Fame. She was awarded a medal in recognition of her contributions to aviation by the Chinese Consul General of Los Angeles in 2001. In Enping, China, there is a statue built of her that describes her as a world-renowned female aviator. Katherine passed away in 2003 and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.