HISTORY

The Untold Story of the West Coast’s First Flight

A Chinese immigrant named Feng Joe Guey was first in flight on the West Coast. He was denied a place in history for almost a century—until serendipity brought together a dentist, a musician, a journalist, a librarian, and a historian to tell his story anew.

It was a comment made to fill the kind of conversational vacuum unique to  dentist offices, when both parties fall into a silence prompted by whining tools or the dry-mouthed difficulty of speaking through cotton pads. The fact popped into Wayne Fong’s head that 2008 afternoon as he cleaned Roger Glenn’s teeth, and to break the quiet, Fong said: “Hey, did you know the first man in flight on the West Coast came from here?”

Fong is an affable dentist with a love of trivia, and his office on the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown is adorned with the usual neutral-toned carpet and stack of waiting-room magazines. His family has lived in the neighborhood for three generations; his grandparents owned the barbershop that served as the center of Chinatown social life at the turn of the 20th century. More recently, he spent 25 years’ worth of Christmases as the local Santa before hanging up the white beard for good.

More than a century ago, Fong’s grandfather stood amid a rapt crowd watching the young man who had rented the workshop down the street soar above the Oakland hills in a homemade machine. Fong’s grandfather later told Fong’s father about the sight. Decades later, at the opening of a community center exhibit on local history, Fong and his father learned about a 26-year-old Chinese immigrant named Feng Joe Guey (Feng Ru in Mandarin) who flew a plane he’d designed and constructed himself at a time when few people in the world had successfully bucked the bonds of gravity.

Wait, Fong remembers his father telling him. I think I’ve heard of this guy.

Feng Ru, known in San Francisco as Feng Joe Guey, emigrated from China to California in the 1890s.
Feng Ru, known in San Francisco as Feng Joe Guey, emigrated from China to California in the 1890s.

It wasn’t the sort of thing that Fong would have brought up with every patient at his office, but he guessed that Glenn would be interested. The son of a legendary jazz performer who’d played with the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, Glenn had dreamed of being an astronaut or a commercial pilot in the days when black skin made such dreams impossible. Instead he had become a renowned musician in his own right—one who flew search and rescue missions for the Civil Air Patrol in his free time.

Glenn considered Fong’s revelation, searching his memory for a pilot from Oakland who had made a mark in aviation’s early days, and a Chinese pilot at that. He came up blank.

“He looked at me like, Come on. I would know this, because I know the history of aviation,” Fong remembers. Who would know about Feng Joe Guey if not the nephew of a Tuskegee Airman? Look it up, Fong told him.

Glenn left the dentist office that afternoon determined to do exactly that. “I’m a strong believer that it’s necessary for people to know their history,” he says. He was proud of being the kind of person who knew the marginalia of the things they loved, and he loved flying more than almost anything. The idea that someone who had accomplished something so groundbreaking could fade into the past—even as other pilots were awarded memorial stamps and license plate logos and included in elementary school curricula—bothered him. How could such a remarkable person have been lost to obscurity?

Feng in the pilot’s seat of one of his early aircraft.
Feng in the pilot’s seat of one of his early aircraft.
WHEELS UP

“With no other spectators than his three Chinese helpers, F[e]ng made his flight in the dim light of the early evening,” reported the Oakland Tribune shortly after his first ascent, in 1909. “The big biplane, with its four starting wheels tucked beneath it like the talons of a bird, sailed slowly in an elliptical course around the crest of the hill.” Feng flew low for 20 minutes that night, following the rise and fall of the hilltop, before the bolt holding the propeller snapped, dumping him 12 feet onto the ground—bruised but alive.

There are limits to what we know about Feng’s life before his unceremonious landing in the dried grass of late summer 1909. Newspapers differ on key dates, a common occurrence in an era before widespread telecommunication made accurate reporting more achievable. As they charted Feng’s rise to prominence, some reported that he came to the United States with his uncle, others that he came alone; some that he arrived in 1894, others that it was 1898; some that he was from a rich family, others that he was destitute. Feng himself didn’t do much to clarify matters. After his first flight, he hired a publicist who fed newspapers false stories about Feng having studied at Oxford and Harvard, hoping to increase his stature.

We do know that he came from Guangdong at a young age and eventually settled in Oakland with his uncle, according to scholar of Chinese aviation Patti Gully. And we know that, despite a truncated education, he spent most nights in his Chinatown workshop teaching himself engineering and aeronautics, staying up until 3 a.m. to pore over textbooks with the help of a Chinese-English dictionary.

Feng was intense and intensely intelligent, a man with big ideas and deep perseverance, Gully says. A May 1909 article in the San Francisco Call describes him as “a slight, nervous little man, with a pair of the brightest eyes that ever shone.” But the pressure he put himself under was evident. “The sleepless nights and the mental concentration he has subjected himself to have left their marks on him, however,” the story continues. “He is a bundle of nerves with no frame.”

Before he achieved success, Feng spent years carefully studying planes used by the likes of the Wright brothers, who flew in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, six years before he went aloft. During that time, he made several failed flight attempts. To add to his difficulties, his workshop burned to the ground during this period.

But after that first successful ascent, he wholeheartedly embraced the aero fever that had gripped the United States, a period Gully compares to the nationwide thrill of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Feng “had to keep 24-hour guard on his workroom, because someone was trying to come through the window to steal his secrets,” she says. “They were worth that much.”

This was doubly true because, as a noncitizen, Feng was unable to patent the fruits of his workshop labors, which along with his airplane designs included versions of the wireless telegraph and a pile driver. He was so anxious to keep his airplane innovations a secret that he had the engine parts for his second plane manufactured by various East Coast shops, then assembled them himself.

Despite those anxieties, he completed a public second flight in 1911, staying airborne for 40 minutes and swooping over the fields of the East Bay before landing without incident. This was likely the flight that Fong’s grandfather attended; it was treated as something between a diplomatic event and a county fair, with curious locals and political figures alike in attendance. “Residents of all the cities around the bay have been pouring into the camp of the Chinese mechanic for the past three weeks in an effort to have a look at his machine, but were always met with the gentle rebuff,” wrote the Oakland Tribune shortly afterward. “So well guarded is the machine that it is almost impossible to get within a block of the field without being asked your business.”

Feng in his Oakland, California, workshop with his self-devised telegraph system.
Feng in his Oakland, California, workshop with his self-devised telegraph system.
THE WRONG COLOR

All this—the handkerchief-waving crowds, the breathless headlines, the cheering of the self-made man in his homemade plane—took place against a backdrop of widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, a scourge enshrined in law in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which wasn’t repealed until 1943.

In what was perhaps the only faithful profile of Feng published during his lifetime, the San Francisco Call wrote that, around the time he was building his first airplane, Feng also broke up a wireless telegraph scam. “F[e]ng Joe Guey looked around the establishment and discovered the mechanism was nothing more than an ordinary telephone, with the wire cleverly concealed,” the article recounted. But although he denounced the project as a fake, “the promoters were not even frightened enough to care what he said about it. What did a poor Chinaman know about wireless telephones?” Still, the Oakland police began their own investigation and ultimately arrested the scammers.

This animosity toward Chinese immigrants is obvious in the media coverage of Feng, some of which is painfully racist. After his first flight, the fledgling industry magazine Aeronautics published a short article that identified Feng as “a Chinese student from Oakland,” then briefly noted that his plane incorporated elements from other respected plane designs. “It is claimed that this machine has flown three-quarters of a mile in a circle on its first trial,” the article concluded, “but this is extremely doubtful for many obvious reasons.”

Not long after, the Oregonian chimed in: “Immigration officials and customs inspectors are today said to be gnashing their teeth. They find it hard enough to keep the Chinese out now, without having them dropping in on flying machines.”

Even the story of a brilliant, tireless self-starter couldn’t overcome the wave of prejudice that was breaking over the United States in the era of Feng’s flights. “He was just the wrong color, the wrong nationality,” Gully says. “I don’t think he got much credit.”

In February 1911, Feng traveled to China at the invitation of the soon-to-be president, Sun Yat-sen, who had likely attended Feng’s second flight in Oakland and offered to make him a captain in the young country’s air force. Feng brought with him one of his planes, planning to fly it in air shows in Guangzhou. The journey represented a step toward a larger dream: introducing his homeland first to flight, then to electricity. But in 1912, Feng’s plane stalled during an air show. In front of a crowd of a thousand people, he crashed into a bamboo field and died. He was 28.

The Republic of China gave Feng a full military funeral; at Sun’s request, the words “Chinese Aviation Pioneer” were engraved on his tombstone. But it was a short-lived honor. When the Cultural Revolution began a few years later, Feng’s family was targeted. All his belongings—including the models he made of his creations, his pile driver, and the plans for his telegraph system—burned along with the family’s home.

Feng’s association with Sun provided him a mere passing mention in Chinese history books; American aviation texts tend to award the “first in flight on the West Coast” honor to other pilots. Together, the whitewashing of America’s aviation past and the careful editing of China’s stories about itself swallowed Feng’s legacy whole.

A rare photo of Feng’s airplane in Oakland, circa 1909.
A rare photo of Feng’s airplane in Oakland, circa 1909.
A FORGOTTEN MEMORY

Feng’s story may have been consigned to local lore and obscure annals for almost a century, a victim of political and social forces far greater than the single immigrant who slept on a cot in his six-by-eight-foot workshop. But even with the weight of the years that buried him, all it took was one man telling his son, who in turn told his own son, to start the process that brought Feng’s accomplishments back to the surface.

After his conversation in the dentist chair, a little internet research convinced Glenn that Feng was both entirely real and unjustly forgotten. “Me being a pilot, I thought somebody should say something,” Glenn recalls. So he headed to the place where Oaklanders go when they discover treasures lost in their city’s attic cobwebs.

The Oakland History Room, tucked into an upper corner of the main library, is a carnival of 20th-century archival delights, a meticulously organized record spanning rancherias, wartime shipbuilding, the Black Panther movement, and the wreckage of the Loma Prieta earthquake. “I had this idea that we should do something to honor him, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” Glenn says. The Oakland History Room seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The afternoon of Glenn’s visit, Steve Lavoie sat behind the semicircular desk from which he could survey the lines of squat file cabinets and cases of reference books that held the city’s institutional memory. It wasn’t the first time Lavoie had heard of a Chinatown pilot and his flying machine. Feng had “always kind of hovered around urban folklore,” says Lavoie, who has spent more than 20 years working in Oakland libraries and considers himself an expert on the city’s past. A couple of lesser-known books mentioned Feng in passing, and Chinese American author Laurence Yep had written a children’s book called Dragonwings in 1975 based on his life.

But many readers didn’t realize the heavily fictionalized book was about a real person. The area’s chapter of the Chinese Historical Society had no information about Feng; the man in charge of the Oakland Unified School District’s ethnic studies curriculum hadn’t heard of him. In the early 1990s, Lavoie had written a short column on Feng’s life for the Oakland Tribune, but he eventually gave up looking for more information. Then, some 15 years later, Glenn appeared in the History Room asking: What can you tell me about Feng Joe Guey?

Feng’s tombstone at the Mausoleum of the 72 Huanghuagang Martyrs in Guangzhou, China.
Feng’s tombstone at the Mausoleum of the 72 Huanghuagang Martyrs in Guangzhou, China.
WEST COAST FIRST

“I’m a big advocate of Oakland,” Lavoie says. “There are a lot of things that Oakland should get credit for that are attributed to other cities; San Francisco steals a lot of our stuff.” The idea that Feng might have been not just a local hero but also a pioneer denied a legacy struck a familiar chord. He was glad to help.

Verification of the “first on the West Coast” claim became the top priority. Could anyone else have flown before Feng? Lavoie followed all research avenues available to him, even traveling to Los Angeles to search library archives there. “They had plenty of documentation of failures, but I couldn’t find anything earlier where they actually had success,” he says.

Confident that they could reclaim the “first” title for Feng, Glenn and Lavoie decided that the next step was to do so publicly. The approaching centennial of Feng’s initial flight presented the perfect opportunity. They recruited Gully for help preparing a memorial celebration, to be held near the site of Feng’s former workshop, now in the neighborhood of Oakland’s Laney College.

Around the same time, Glenn met former journalist Qing Zhang at one of his shows. His NASA jacket—given to him during a gig at the Kennedy Space Center—inspired a conversation about space travel and his flying experience, which tilted into a discussion about Feng. Although Zhang had lived on China’s east coast before moving to California, she had never heard of him. She was taken by the idea that someone in the United States would care so much about his legacy.

Together, the musician, the journalist, the librarian, and the historian planned a commemoration for the centennial of a forgotten flight. The day itself included honored guests pulled largely from Glenn’s Rolodex: a Tuskegee Airman, the Chinese consul general, Orville Wright’s grandniece, and Maggie Gee, the first Asian American pilot during World War II. A local troupe performed a lion dance; a marching band played celebratory songs. “It was kind of quaint in a certain way,” Lavoie remembers. “It was almost like it was happening in 1909.”

After the dance was finished and the last brass notes died away, it was time for the event’s crowning moment: the unveiling of a bronze bust of Feng, commissioned by Zhang’s friends at her former newspaper in Hangzhou, who had been equally moved by the prospect of a much-delayed memorial. Zhang and her husband had traveled to China that summer to help with the considerable logistics of transporting a thousand-pound bronze statue across the Pacific. Even the director of the factory had dubbed the commission a high-priority project, a way to honor a man whose story he was sorry he had not known before.

FLIGHTS OF HISTORY

Though he rarely merits a mention in China’s history classes, these days Feng’s hometown in Guangdong has become a pilgrimage site for aviation students. His family maintains the house where he was born as a small museum, and in Beijing the China Aviation Museum includes a replica of one of his planes. But 10 years after the Oakland centennial, Feng’s legacy in California is perhaps best summed up by the relationships it has fostered.

As they worked together to honor Feng’s groundbreaking flight, Zhang and Gully forged a close friendship. Zhang eventually helped find a Chinese publisher for one of Gully’s books. “This is not only aviation history,” Zhang says. “It’s about human beings and how they seek freedom.”

She keenly remembers her first meeting with Glenn and the team they formed with Lavoie; how even though they didn’t know one another, they found common ground. “They taught me that being American means helping someone you don’t know,” she says—a powerful lesson handed down, in a way, from one Chinese American to another.

After its journey from China to the United States, in an airplane so very different from the one Feng himself flew, the bronze bust now sits in a place of honor near the front door of the Oakland Aviation Museum. Every few months, the museum holds Open Cockpit Day, inviting families and aviation enthusiasts alike to explore its extensive collections and sit in a few of its vintage planes.

On a particularly sunny Open Cockpit Day this spring, the museum teemed with parents and children waiting for a turn at the flight simulator or taking selfies in front of the planes—silver and black or dazzling orange, spindly as wood-and-steel insects. In one cockpit, a toddler wearing a NASA T-shirt squirmed through a photo op with his father, while nearby a set of parents watched their daughter climb onto a child-size Curtiss P-40 Warhawk painted with a shark’s toothy jaws.

Attendees entering the hangar streamed past Feng’s bust, attracted instead to the flashier exhibits with propellers and engines. But one harried couple paused to consider the sculpture, with its solemn expression and formal air. He, slightly balding, checked his phone; she, one eye on the children, read the exhibit’s accompanying plaque. Feng “designed and constructed an airplane in workshops in and around Oakland’s Chinatown that took him into the skies,” the text explained in its biographical blurb. His “accomplishments were largely dismissed by the aviation community of his era, in large part due to his ethnic heritage.”

At the close of the afternoon, as the remaining visitors headed for the exit, four young volunteers from the U.S. Navy’s Sea Cadet Corps carefully lowered an American flag hung at the center of the museum to perform a color guard salute. Their lips moved silently, counting out the marching cadence, as they paraded the flag on a pole past the extended gangways of the vintage planes in the yard, then back through the museum’s main room.

Here their gait became slower and less formal: past the duct tape–silver snub nose of the Boeing dirigible model, past a plane painted like a flying dragon, its claws curving up the side of its nose. But before the cadets could pass Feng’s bust, they turned left with the flag and exited the display area, leaving the pioneering aviator alone in the empty museum once more.

Alissa Greenberg is a writer in Berkeley, California. Although she travels frequently, the Oakland History Room remains one of her favorite places to visit.