Family History and Chinese Women in Aviation

This article was first drafted in July 2020 as a ‘From the Vault’ segment for the NT Chinese Museum e-News, but never completed. The draft was inspired by reading a 1930 newspaper article about the arrival in Darwin of the aviatrix Amy Johnson on her London to Sydney solo flight. The article was to comprise a massive segue.

This revision of the original is prompted by Natalie Fong’s mention of this event in her paper The Emergence of Chinese Businesswomen in Darwin, 1910-1940, and further by Dr Michael Williams’ recent posting on Facebook of a photo of Amy being honoured by members of the Darwin branch of the Kuomintang.

L-R: Dolly (Yuen) Ng, Selina (Lee) Hassan, Amy Johnson, Tommy GEE Ming Ket, and Arthur Lee Hang Gong on the steps of the Residency, Darwin, 1930 (Photograph courtesy of Library and Archive Service, Northern Territory)

At the time, I was writing a biography of my cousin Fred Sexton who moved from the trenches of the Western Front into No. 2 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in WW  I. Post-war, in 1928, Fred was working at the Bristol Aeroplane Works and de Havilland Aircraft Company in England – he was actually employed by Sir Norman Brearley’s West Australian Airways as an engineer. He would have been in England learning about the engines of the de Havilland DH-66 Hercules aircraft that Brearley was in the process of buying. Amy Johnson took her first flying lessons in 1928 at the de Havilland School of flying, Stag Lane Aerodrome. After achieving the first solo England-Australia flight by woman in 1930, Amy embarked on a triumphant tour of Australia in her de Havilland DH-60 Moth, and the aircraft was serviced at Maylands Aerodrome, Perth, the base for West Australian Airways.  So, it is likely that Cousin Fred was acquainted with Amy.

Like most pioneering flights to Australia, the first port of call was Darwin, and it was here that Amy Johnson landed on 24 May 1930. The whole story is in the Northern Standard of 27 and 30 May 1930, and here are some excerpts:

These accounts reminded me of my visit to the Wuyi Overseas Chinese Museum, Jiangmen, China, in 2017.

Pictured above is a replica of the aircraft built by Feng Ru (Joey Fung Guey) (1884-1912) in the USA in 1911 on display in the museum. Joey constructed his first aeroplane in 1909, becoming the first known Chinese man to fly in the USA and the first-ever flight in California and on the West Coast. Originally from Enping County, Joey returned to China at the request of Sun Yat-sen to establish an aviation industry but died in a flying accident in Guangzhao in 1912.

Also on display in Wuyi Museum is a picture board about Zhang Ruifen.

Zhang, also from Enping county, learned to fly in the USA and is claimed to be the first Asian female aviator. Known as Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, she went to the USA in 1917 to study music. Katherine learned to fly with the Chinese Aeronautical Association in Los Angeles, receiving her private pilot licence in 1932 and embarked on a ‘barnstorming’ career. In 1937, following the Japanese invasion of China, she toured USA Chinese communities raising funds for the War of Resistance. Katherine worked as a flying instructor until 1942, when she gave up flying for family reasons and in 2001 was inducted into the International Women in Aviation’s Hall of Fame.

Hazel Yee Ling (1912-1944)

The second (claimed) Chinese aviatrix was Hazel Yee Ling (LEE Yut Ying 李月英). A first-generation US Chinese, she gained her private pilot licence in Portland, Oregon, through the Chinese Flying Club in 1932. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1933, Hazel went to China to join the Republic of China Air Force but was refused entry on gender grounds. She flew in China for a commercial airline, but following the 1937 invasion, she escaped via Hong Kong and back to the USA, where she worked as a buyer of war materiel for the Chinese Government. In 1942 Hazel underwent military flying training with the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) group, which flew ferry missions, meteorological observations, and target towing. In 1944 she qualified to fly high-powered fighter aircraft such as P-47 Thunderbolt, P-39 Aircobra, P-51 Mustang (her favourite plane), and the P-63 Kingcobra. Flying a P-63, she collided with another aircraft due to control tower confusion in 1944 and died of burns several days later. The authorities refused to allow her burial in a Portland cemetery her parents chose as the site was “in the White section”. Her brother Victor, in the Tank Corps in France, was killed only a few days later. After protracted arguments, the Lee family prevails, and their children are buried in the River View Cemetery. For Hazel, it was a non-military funeral, and it was not until 1977 that the US Government recognised the service of the WASP pilots and accorded them military status.

Compatriots of Hazel Lee – Virginia Wong (Wong Quai Yin) and Leah Hing (also claimed to be the first Chinese aviatrix) from Portland, Oregon, gained their pilot licences in 1932. Virginia went to China with Hazel and died of malaria in 1934, but by then, she was a commissioned Lieutenant in the National Commission of Aeronautical Affairs. Returning to USA, Leah worked as a flight instrument technician and flew with the West Coast Civil Air Patrol during World War II.

Ruthy Tu (Tu Guan-Chiao; Du Guangzhou 杜光照), also claimed as the first Chinese female pilot gained her licence in England around 1932 and became a pilot in the Chinese Army. Hilda Yen (Yan Sing Yen; Yan Yaqing 顏雅清) learned to fly in the USA around 1937 and flew in fundraising events for the Chinese war effort. After the war, Hilda became known as an Internationalist and Diplomat and as a leading spokesperson for the Bahai faith (as was Ruthy Tu).

Lee Ya-Ching (1912-1998)

Hilda’s partner in these fundraising efforts was Lee Ya-Ching (LI Xiaqing 李霞卿). Lee learned to fly in Switzerland in 1933 and, in 1935, enrolled in the Boeing School of Aviation in California for advanced training. On her return to China in 1935, Lee was awarded the first Chinese civilian pilot licence granted to a woman. Lee was commissioned to survey 30 000 miles of potential air routes, and established the Shanghai Municipal Air School. Throughout this time, Lee was better known as the actress Li Dandan, appearing in eight movies as a teenager. In 1939, she was cast as ‘the Aviatrix’ in Disputed Passage, starring John Howard and Dorothy Lamour. The movie was a medical drama set in war-torn China where, somewhat ironically, Lee had already established a Red Cross hospital with her own funds following the 1937 Japanese invasion. She stayed on in the USA, flying the country on her fundraising efforts. On her return to China after the war, she was rebuffed in her efforts to join the aeronautical industry and gave up flying. Lee moved back to the USA in the mid-1960s, and in 1966 at the age of 54, she regained her pilot licence.

Jessie Zheng (1915-1943)

Little has been discovered about Jessie Zheng (Cheng Han Yin; Zheng Hanyin 鄭漢英), but she is the first female Chinese Air Force officer and pilot. She evidently learnt to fly in Hong Kong and was sent to North America representing the Air Force on a fundraising mission. Flight Lieutenant Zheng died in Canada of tuberculosis at 28 and was buried there with full military honours.

Kwon Ki-ok (1901-1988)

The last word on who was the first Chinese aviatrix goes to a Korean woman, Kwon Ki-ok (or Quan Jiyu as she was known in China); Kwon may have learnt to fly as early as 1918. Following a period of imprisonment for her anti-Japanese activities in 1919, Kwon went into exile in China. She entered the Republic of China Air Force School in 1923, graduating in 1925.  Kwon remained in the Chinese Air Force, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Following World War II, Kwon returned to the now independent Korea and was vital in establishing the Republic of Korea Air Force.

So, the question is: who was the first Chinese-Australian aviatrix? Minnie (Jue Sue) Tracey was the secretary of the Atherton branch of the Far Northern Aero Club in 1939, but was she a pilot?

About njsresearch6

Although raised in Western Australia, I have lived in the Northern Territory most of my life. Memberships include the NT Genealogical Society (Committee), Australian Museum and Gallery Association (NT Chapter Committee), and Chung Wah Society (NT Chinese Museum Coordinator).
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2 Responses to Family History and Chinese Women in Aviation

  1. Ian Blanden says:

    Hi Neville – do you know anything more about Ruthy Tu or where I might find additional details?

    Ruthy Tu (Tu Guan-Chiao; Du Guangzhou 杜光照), also claimed as the first Chinese female pilot gained her licence in England around 1932 and became a pilot in the Chinese Army.

    I currently work and live in Beihai (formerly known as Pakhoi) China.
    I am writing a book about the people that shaped Beihai during the Treaty Period 1870 – 1940.

    I have found a reference locally to a female “British” aviator landing in Pakhoi in September 1932.

    I originally assumed that it was Amy Johnson but I have been assured by relevant historians that she did not fly over (or land in) mainland China when she undertook her flight from the UK to Australia and return.

    Apparently the visit caused quite a stir here locally at the time, being British, female and an early aviator.

    Any help you could give me to identify the female British aviator would be greatly appreciated.

    I am now thinking that it maybe Ruthy Tu and trying to search for additional details. Any help with relevant contacts or websites would be greatly appreciated.

    Ian B

    • njsresearch6 says:

      Mildred May (Petre) Bruce (1895-1990) flew from England to Japan in her aircraft the Bluebird Sept-Nov 1930. She flew from Hanoi to Hong Kong 7-11 November and this route would have taken her to the vicinity of Beihai. She published a number of books including The Bluebird Flight, Chapman and Hall, 1931 and Nine Plus Lives, Pelham Books, 1977.

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