William Wong: Oakland CA Chinatown Makes Aviation History

[William Wong is an author, journalist, and oral historian who was born and grew up in Oakland, California's Chinatown.]

A significant piece of U.S. aviation history was made 100 years ago on September 21, 1909, in the skies over my hometown, Oakland, CA, and the small city of Piedmont, which is completely surrounded by Oakland.

It's a little known history in Oakland, Piedmont, California, and the United States, but in China, it's a big deal.

That's because the man who made the first self-propelled mechanized flight on the west coast of the United States was Feng Ru, aka Feng Yu and Fung Joe Guey, who was born in Guangdong Province, China, in 1883 and came to California when he was 12.

Largely unschooled, he taught himself the workings of various machines and was inspired by the Wright Brothers' historic flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in late 1903.

He was 26 years old when he made the first Pacific coast flight, and he did it over the Oakland-Piedmont skies. He had moved to Oakland from San Francisco after that city's disastrous earthquake and fire in 1906...

... The year 1909 was 27 years after the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers. Most Chinese in America in those days lived highly segregated lives, were denied U.S. citizenship, and weren't allowed to be part of the American mainstream.

To commemorate the centennial of Feng's flight, aviation buffs, historians, Chinese temporarily living in America, and Chinese Americans will attend a ceremony scheduled for 1 p.m., Pacific Daylight time, on Saturday, September 19, 2009, at Laney College in Oakland.

Feng designed and built his biplane in workshops in and around Oakland's Chinatown, which is where I was born decades later. One of his workshops, a relatively tiny space variously described as either 48 or 80 square feet, was at 359 East 9th Street, which today is part of the Laney College campus.

A bronze bust of Feng Ru will be unveiled during the ceremony and will find a permanent home on the Laney campus, whose president, Frank Chong, a Chinese American from New York's Chinatown, was receptive to the idea of honoring the Chinese aviator...

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