China’s First Lady of Flight

In an era when Chinese women weren’t allowed to drive cars, Lee Ya-Ching flew the globe.

Lee Ya-Ching with her Stinson Reliant SR-9B, Spirit of New China.(NASM Archives Division)

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Hollywood was smitten with the diminutive pilot, and Paramount convinced her to take a supporting role in Disputed Passage, starring Dorothy Lamour. (Lee was cast as the “Chinese Aviatrix.”) Lee alternated between filming scenes and, on days she wasn’t needed on the set, continuing her goodwill tour. In a note dashed off during this time, Lee wrote: “May 4th. Went to see the rushes, they were not bad. Everyone at Paramount is so nice to me.” But the relentless pace was wearing, as her May 5 journal entry reveals: “I was preparing for bed when the phone rang, some Chinese want to see me, can’t I have some peace? I thought I could get to bed early for once & there they are, never fail. What can I do but to please them. However they were very sweet.”

From 1939 through the end of World War II, Lee raised funds throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. She flew a Beechcraft C17R on behalf of China Relief and an Aeronca Super Chief 65 LB for Relief Wings, and promoted the Red Cross in New Orleans with Chinese-American film actress Anna Mae Wong. Lee was so famous as a flier that she appeared on a bubble gum card and as the heroine in a True Aviation comic book story.

By war’s end, a weary Lee was finally able to return to Shanghai. The conditions of the familiar city shocked her, and she fled to Hong Kong to stay with her father. There she tried to get involved with the aeronautical industry, but was rebuffed. Lee’s eight years of nonstop flying seemed over.

In the mid-1960s Hong Kong experienced an economic downturn and Lee returned to the United States, settling in the San Francisco Bay area. She promptly obtained a student pilot certificate, passing her written and flying exams in 1966, at the age of 54.

In Sisters of Heaven, Patti Gully relates that in the 1970s, while touring the California countryside, Lee “spotted a crop duster sitting in a farmer’s field and asked permission to take it aloft. She proceeded to put the old plane through its paces, performing a series of spins and complicated aerobatic maneuvers until its wires were screaming and its wings were shaking. And then, having taken the machine to the outer limits of its endurance, she calmly landed and politely thanked the astonished owners for their indulgence.”

Next in our series on historical figures in Chinese aviation: Feng Ru, the Wright-inspired aircraft designer.

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