By Carol N. Vu
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If not for Wong Tsu, Boeing might never have become the industry giant we know it as today.
And if not for a group of Asian American employees at Boeing, the contributions of Wong Tsu might still be shrouded in secret today.
Wong was Boeing’s first engineer and the man behind the Model C, the seaplane that was Boeing’s first financial success. Wong is also considered the father of Chinese aviation, having built a distinguished career in China after leaving America.
But he remains a relative unknown, here as well as in China. Even in The Boeing Co.’s history books, Wong is hardly mentioned. It took Key Donn, president of the Boeing Asian American Professional Association (BAAPA), several years to track down old photographs and documents about Wong’s life.
Donn also acknowledges the difficulty of convincing company executives the importance of honoring this aviation pioneer.
Today, finally, the fruits of Donn’s and BAAPA’s labor can be viewed at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. It is the first and only exhibit in the world that honors Wong’s contributions to aviation. It was unveiled in August to a crowd of community leaders and VIPs that included the president of Boeing China, David Wang.
The new permanent exhibit acknowledges Wong Tsu as Boeing’s first engineer and includes old photos, personal documents and a large plaque bearing the engineer’s image. Commissioned especially for the exhibit, the bronze plaque cost $2,400. The Boeing Co., BAAPA and the Society of Chinese American Aerospace Engineers were among the six organizations that contributed to it.
“We wanted to do something unique, so we thought of a bronze statue. But there was concern — even the CEOs (of Boeing) don’t have bronze statues (of themselves in the museum),” Donn said. “So we did a plaque with his portrait.”
For their efforts to give Wong the spotlight he deserves, Donn and BAAPA will be among the recipients of the Top Contributor to the Asian Community Award on Dec. 8. It is an honor given out annually by the Northwest Asian Weekly and its sister paper, the Seattle Chinese Post.
Donn first learned about Wong Tsu about 10 years ago, through the Society of Chinese American Aerospace Engineers. The group wanted to honor Wong, but didn’t know what to do. A few years later, Donn, still curious about the Chinese engineer, began tracking down information about Wong in his spare time. His contacts in China helped tremendously; one expert on Chinese aviation history, an author, had old photos of Wong. People in Xian and Beijing sent more photos and documents to Donn.
Wong, who also designed planes and taught aviation to university students in China, isn’t well known in China because information about him isn’t publicly displayed there. Donn explained that it’s because Wong was a supporter of Chiang Kai-Shek, not Mao Tse-Tung, who remains influential in China’s communist government today.
Now that Boeing has acknowledged Wong, it is Donn’s hope that China will as well. Donn said a few Chinese universities are “really interested.”
Wong was born in 1893 in Beijing. At age 16, he traveled to England to begin advanced naval studies. Six years later, he was taking aeronautical engineering classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boeing hired the young engineer a few years later for $20 a week.
The idea for the Model C came from Conrad Westervelt, but it was the young Wong who made it a reality. The Navy immediately ordered 56 of them. “Because of the order, it got Boeing into aircraft manufacturing. … I don’t know where Boeing would be without” the success of the Model C, Donn said.
In 1917, after only two years as Boeing’s chief engineer, Wong returned to his native China. Over the next few decades, he took on a number of prestigious positions, including chief secretary of the China National Aviation Corporation and professor of aviation at Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.
In his life, Wong had a hand in designing about 30 planes.
Wong died in 1965. He has one son, by adoption, Wong Chung-Eng, who lives in Tainan, Taiwan. Donn asked the son if he could come to Seattle for the exhibit unveiling in August, but he declined, saying he was too old to fly.
According to Donn, Boeing and the Museum of Flight didn’t start warming up to the idea of acknowledging Wong until recently. For years, Donn wrote letters and set up meetings with higher-ups to try to convince them of the importance of Wong in the history of the company. Donn is quick to credit Hank Queen, the now-retired vice president for engineering and manufacturing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, for being a big supporter of the project early on.
But not until China became a major customer did other executives really show their support for it, Donn said. Last year, China purchased $1.4 billion worth of Boeing planes.
Donn, a senior system administrator and 25-year employee of Boeing, said it’s always made sense to him that the Museum of Flight should showcase the Chinese engineer. Wong’s presence would attract more people, especially from the Asian American community.
Donn has already given many tours of the Wong exhibit to visitors from China. Earlier this month, he was there as two Chinese journalists doing a documentary on U.S.-China relations learned more about the Chinese aviation pioneer.
“We did this exhibit so people will know (about Wong),” Donn said. “He’s our role model for our generation, and for the next generation.” (end)
On Jan. 21 at 2 p.m., Donn will give a lecture at The Museum of Flight’s Allen Theater about Wong’s life. A video presentation is also part of the program. This is being organized as the public celebration of the Wong exhibit. Anyone who mentions “Wong Tsu” when purchasing a ticket to the museum that day will receive $2 off regular admission. Call 206-764-1384 for tickets.
This is the local chapter of BAAPA’s biggest project in its five-year history. The 600 members in its Seattle chapter include employees as well as retirees. Nationwide, there are nine BAAPA chapters.