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How a flight attendant became a funeral planner in the age of Covid

HONG KONG — Before becoming a funeral planner, Connie Wong was a flight attendant for a Hong Kong airline. The sudden end to a career she had cherished for six years brought grief of its own, she said.

It was one of many such casualties suffered by residents of Chinese territory. Hong Kong’s economy began to deteriorate in 2019, when an extradition bill sparked months of heated street clashes between protesters and police. Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, severe and ever-changing restrictions, closely linked to the continent’s “zero Covid” policy, upended entire industries. Many businesses were forced to close, thousands of people left the city and some of those who remained had to reinvent themselves.

When Cathay Dragon, a branch of Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific, closed in 2020 as travel came to a halt, Ms Wong was among thousands out of work. Accustomed to working with red eyes, she could not sleep at night.

“Some people have lost family members. Some have emigrated. Others have lost their health – and not just their bodily health, but also their mental health,” she said recently. “It is not only Hong Kongers, but the whole world who is experiencing this. It’s hard to face. I lost my job. But life will always bring alternatives.

At Cathay Dragon, Ms Wong, 35, had often asked to be assigned flights to Kathmandu, Nepal, so she could volunteer at a children’s home and animal shelter there. The pursuit of something so fulfilling led her to apply last summer to be a lifetime celebrant at Forget Thee Not, a Hong Kong non-profit organization that tries to make dignified funerals affordable for families in the need.

It meets several times a week with the families, in an airy and flowery room. As she helps them plan the ceremonies, she suggests writing notes with memories to leave on or inside the coffin, as a way to show gratitude or let go of grudges by saying goodbye. . For a 4-year-old’s funeral, Ms Wong decorated the seats with cutouts of the girl’s favorite cartoon character.

In some ways, Ms. Wong’s previous work experience has proven to be transferable, she said. Just as she once found ways to appease passengers facing flight delays, she now found workarounds for people who needed them much more.

The adjustment was not easy. After his first funeral, images of grieving families replayed in his head at night. She could barely eat due to the stress and her hair started falling out. In November, she went on sick leave that lasted for months. Her bosses asked her to think about whether it was the right job for her.

Ms Wong returned in April, as Hong Kong faced its worst coronavirus outbreak. Hospitals were overloaded beyond capacity and thousands of elderly people died of Covid-19. She dove back into it. When relatives were unable to attend the funeral in person after testing positive for Covid, she set up live streams and narrated the rites.

There are days when she longs to fly again. But she says she has found deeper satisfaction in helping struggling families cope with loss.

“The impact of Covid has pushed us to face reality,” she said. “We have to adjust.”

Although the pandemic has all but wiped out the aviation industry, Mandi Cheung’s day job as a security guard at an aviation engineering company has not been affected. But he quit in March to become a cleaner at a quarantine facility for Covid patients.

It was a chance to make “quick money” as he saved up to emigrate to Britain, he said. The six-day-a-week cleaning job paid about $3,000 a month, about $1,000 more than his security job.

At the height of the Covid outbreak this year, Hong Kong’s hospitals and quarantine centers faced a large overflow of patients. Mr. Cheung’s quarantine camp near the port of Tsing Yi, which has nearly 4,000 beds, was one of eight hastily built facilities. The experience was more trying than he expected.

Mr. Cheung, 35, was not allowed to drink water or go to the toilet if he was wearing personal protective equipment. He cleaned toilets and used rapid test kits every day, fearful of bringing the virus home. His mother would only let him in after disinfecting his whole body at the door. (As the number of infections plateaued and pandemic fatigue set in, she stopped caring, he said.)

“Resources were really lacking – the division of labor was uneven,” he said. “I was filled with resentment as I worked. I kept telling myself that it would only be for a few months.

In the meantime, he had continued to take additional jobs. In May, he worked six-hour shifts at a neighborhood cafe after working through the night in the quarantine facility.

Mr Cheung had intended to work at the quarantine center for five months, but it closed in June as the number of “VIPs”, as his team leader told him to refer to patients, dwindled. He plans to work full-time at the cafe until he leaves Hong Kong.

Before the pandemic, Mr Cheung ran a nighttime cafe operation called NightOwl, but it was difficult to sustain financially under Covid dining restrictions. He hopes to open a similar business one day after emigrating. But he is also curious about new experiences.

“Ultimately, I will explore a new world,” he said.

As in-flight service manager for Cathay Dragon, 57-year-old Connie Cheung had reached the highest rung of her career. Ms Cheung, who is not related to Mandi Cheung, joined the airline, then called Dragonair, more than three decades ago as a flight attendant. She had recently extended her contract after reaching 55, the retirement age for cabin crew.

She was caring for her grandson and daughter-in-law when the airline closed in 2020. She decided to take a series of government courses on postnatal care, learning how to perform breast massages and boil hearty herbal soups. She began training to become a pui yuet, or nanny, for infants and a caregiver for new mothers, and in 2021 she began her second career.

“Now I’m a beginner again,” Ms. Cheung said.

She and a friend, Wing Lam, 48, another in-flight services manager turned postpartum nanny, exchange tips on how to deal with germophobic mothers and grumbling grandparents. They joke about how their sleek suitcases have been replaced by metal carts, which they transport from the subway to wet markets to buy groceries for the meals they prepare for their customers.

When she lost her airline job, Ms. Cheung was earning about $4,500 a month plus benefits, such as health care. Now she earns around $3,300 a month. Ms. Lam, for her part, misses the fun of managing an airline crew, despite the stress and uncertainty that comes with every flight.

In May, Cathay Pacific sent recruiting emails to thousands of laid-off employees, asking them to reapply – for entry-level positions.

Ms. Lam remains hopeful that the airline will rehire senior executives. But in the meantime, she plans to use her in-flight management experience as a nanny agent, pairing carers with parents. She began training newcomers to the industry, including former flight attendants.

Ms. Cheung stays the course. Her schedule filled up as clients referred her to other pregnant women. While the job is unstable – she won’t get any requests one month, then several the next – she hopes it will soon pay off for the family vacation.

She said she could see herself taking care of babies for the next 10 years: “I found my new direction in life.”


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