Documentary spotlights first licensed Chinese-American female pilot

China 24

Documentary spotlights first licensed Chinese-American female pilot

She made history more than 80 years ago, becoming the first licensed Chinese-American female pilot. But the late Katherine Sui Fun Cheung’s story is still relatively unknown, which is why a new documentary sheds light on her journey to the skies.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.

Inside the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, an audience gathers for an uplifting story.

“Aviatrix” tells the story of Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, born in Guangdong, China, who in 1931 became the first Chinese female to earn a pilot’s license and would go on to thrill audiences at air shows and races.

Several years ago, director Ed Moy made a visit to the Greater Los Angeles area to find Cheung’s daughter, Dottie — now 87-years-old.

“I was a little overwhelmed because she actually keeps a lot of stuff in her living room,” Ed Moy, director of “Aviatrix,” said. “She kept everything her mom has ever accumulated: scrapbooks, photos, videotapes. Everything was in her living room in boxes and folders and so we decided there and then, ‘hey, we should maybe make a documentary.’”

In those boxes, Moy found a rare VHS videotape – likely the only copy that exists – of a TV interview where Cheung describes the first time she flew solo.

“So I said, well, I sat there for a few seconds and said ‘If I die, I die.’ So I just took off. I circled around and landed. Perfect landing,” Cheung said.

The interview also reveals how she doggedly convinced her father to let her take flying lessons– a story also dramatized in Moy’s animated short film “Up in The Clouds.”

Actress and musician Katherine Park — who plays the voice of Cheung – found a unique connection in that Cheung was also a highly skilled musician.

“One of the coolest parts was her daughter gave me her all her old sheet music, and I was playing through some of the songs she likes on piano, and they sound adventurous, like you are flying, so I felt that surge of emotion from the music,” Park said.

Katherine Cheung also wanted to become a flying instructor and had dreams of returning to China to teach people there to become pilots. But Moy discovered her application for an instructor’s rating was turned down three times.

“She really wanted to teach other Chinese to fly, but it was the height of World War II, it was right after Pearl Harbor, right after Japanese were taken away and interned, Chinese were looked at kind of suspiciously,” Moy said. “I can only speculate what was going on in the minds of these instructors who were giving her test. The documents were very murky.”

Eventually, Cheung did return to visit her homeland where she received a hero’s welcome. She’s inspired people both in China and around the world.