There aren’t too many historic photos of Portland-born Hazel Ying Lee, but among those you can find online there is an unmistakable air of self-determination and courage that emanates from her. These are two traits that undeniably helped her overcome racism and gender discrimination to become the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military during World War II. A new children’s book called “The Intrepid Flights of Hazel Ying Lee” tells his incredible story.
Tiffany Camhi, host of the OPB All Things Considered, spoke with book author Julie Leung about the legacy left by Lee.
Tiffany Camhi: Lee was born into a large Chinese-American family in Portland in 1912. What was life like for people of Asian descent in Oregon during this time?
Julie Leung: In my research for this book, many of the experiences I read reflected very well the oppression of the Chinese exclusion law. It was the first federal law passed to prohibit an entire ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. Chinese Americans who are already here in the United States have therefore become very isolated in their own Chinatown. They had curfews they had to follow. They were not considered US citizens. In fact, they did not have citizenship. So Hazel [grew] in this atmosphere. I think, even though she was a child, she obviously realized there were these invisible walls around her growing up in Portland. I cannot imagine that she did not feel these barriers in her daily life.
Camhi: So Hazel had to overcome all this discrimination, but she still learned to fly airplanes. And then finally she joined a team of elite female pilots in the US Air Force. How did she do it all?
Leung: I’m just thinking of a singular determination. One of the things that has always struck me about every picture of Hazel I have ever seen is that daring in her eyes. She just wanted to do something that no other Chinese American girl had done before. In the book, she accompanies this fun trip with a friend and the minute she takes the air, she comes to realize that this is what she wanted to do no matter what. Hazel therefore did everything to pay for the flying lessons. She got her bachelor’s degree in just over a year and from that point on she just hasn’t stopped chasing the heavens.
When the Japanese invaded China in the early 1930s as part of World War II, she returned to China to try and enlist in the Chinese Air Force. They didn’t let her fly, so she eventually returned to the United States. When the Female Air Force Service Pilots open program, the first thing she did was enlist.
Every trivia I’ve ever read about Hazel describes how bold and brilliant she was. She used her lipstick and wrote Chinese nicknames on the tails of her peers’ planes. So you get this beautiful, vibrant portrait of a woman ahead of her time who used her ethnicity as a pride.
Camhi: Why did you choose to tell his story through a children’s book?
Leung: I think back to when I was younger and the picture books that I really wanted to see, which were people who looked like me living in this country and doing great things. These were not necessarily available to me. Part of what really drives me to write picture books on Asian Americans is the hope that for the next generation these books will be available, especially books on Asian American women who fight stereotypes. Hazel stood out to me as a perfect example of this. I thought she deserved a place in the story books.
Camhi: You mention Lee’s Cantonese heritage several times in the book. Why did you decide to add this?
Leung: It was very important for me to recognize the multitude of cultures that exist within the Chinese diaspora. The majority of [Chinese] immigrants who came to the United States before the 1960s came from Guangdong province. I wanted to differentiate the Cantonese aspects of this culture, such as sentences and pronunciations. I wanted to honor that, if only to make sure the world understands that this is not a monolith. The Chinese language has many different dialects and it is not just Mandarin.
Camhi: How do you feel about the release of this book now, at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans and Are the Pacific Islanders alarming?
Leung: I wrote this book two years ago. I wrote it with this idea of writing for myself, for the version of myself that would exist now. And I think releasing the book in this climate made me realize that this book is not just for the community that I identify with. Everyone should read it. It is important that there are several stories in the world for other people to experience.
Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.