How a flight attendant became a funeral planner in the Covid era

HONG KONG — Before becoming a funeral planner, Connie Wong was a Hong Kong airline stewardess. The sudden end of a career she had cherished for six years brought her own kind of pain, she said.

It was one of many losses experienced by residents of the Chinese territory. Hong Kong’s economy began to deteriorate in 2019, when a proposed extradition law triggered months of fierce street clashes between protesters and police. Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, harsh and ever-evolving restrictions that closely aligned with the continent’s “Covid Zero” policy turned entire industries upside down. Numerous businesses were forced to close, thousands of people left the city and some of those who stayed have had to reinvent themselves.

When Cathay Dragon, an arm of Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific, closed in 2020 as travel ground to a halt, Ms Wong was among the thousands thrown out of work. Used to working on red-eye flights, she couldn’t sleep at night.

“Some people lost their relatives. Some emigrated. Others lost their health, and not just their bodily health, but also their mental health,” she said recently. “This is not just about Hong Kongers, but the whole world is experiencing this. It is difficult to face. I have lost my job. But life will always bring alternatives.”

At Cathay Dragon, Ms. Wong, 35, often asked to be assigned to flights to Kathmandu, Nepal, so she could volunteer at a children’s home and animal shelter there. The search for something equally rewarding led her to apply last summer to be a celebrant of life at Forget Thee Not, a Hong Kong nonprofit that tries to make dignified funerals affordable for families in need.

It meets several times a week with the families, in a well-ventilated room adorned with flowers. As she helps them plan the ceremonies, she suggests writing keepsake notes to leave on or in the casket, as a way to show gratitude or put aside grudges when saying goodbye. For a 4-year-old girl’s funeral, Mrs. Wong decorated the seats with cutouts of the girl’s favorite cartoon character.

In some respects, Ms. Wong’s previous work experience proved transferable, she said. As much as she had once found ways to placate passengers facing flight delays, she was now finding solutions for people in much greater need.

The adjustment was not easy. After his first funerals, images of grieving families replayed in his mind at night. She could barely eat from stress and his hair started to fall out. In November, she took a sick leave, which lasted for months. Her bosses asked her to reflect on whether this was the right job for her.

Ms Wong returned in April, when Hong Kong was facing its worst coronavirus outbreak. Hospitals outgrew her capacity and thousands of elderly people died of covid-19. She dived again. When family members were unable to attend funerals in person after testing positive for Covid, she arranged live streams and narrated the rites.

There are some days when you long to fly again. But she says she has found more far-reaching satisfaction in helping struggling families process loss.

“The impact of Covid pushed us to face reality,” he said. “We have to adapt.”

Although the pandemic practically grounded the aviation industry, Mandi Cheung’s day job as a security guard at an aeronautical engineering company remained unaffected. But he quit in March to become a cleaner at a quarantine center for covid patients.

It was a chance to earn “quick money” while saving to emigrate to Britain, he said. The six-day-a-week housekeeping job paid about $3,000 a month, about $1,000 more than her security job.

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

Mr. Cheung, 35, was not allowed to drink water or use the toilet while wearing personal protective equipment. He cleaned bathrooms and used rapid test kits every day, worried about taking the virus home. His mother would let him in only after she disinfected his entire body at the door. (As the number of infections leveled off and pandemic fatigue set in, she stopped worrying, she said.)

“There really was a lack of resources, the distribution of work was unequal,” he said. “He was full of resentment while he was working. He was telling myself that it would be only for a few months.”

In the meantime, he had continued to take on additional jobs. In May, she worked six-hour shifts at a coffee shop in her neighborhood after working overnight at the quarantine center.

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

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cheung ran a late-night 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 he emigrates. But he is also curious about new experiences.

“In the end, I will explore a new world,” he said.

As a service manager aboard Cathay Dragon, Connie Cheung, 57, 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 turning 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 be a pui yuet, or nanny, for babies and a caregiver for new mothers, and in 2021 she began her second career.

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

She and a friend, Wing Lam, 48, another shipboard services manager turned postpartum nanny, trade tips on how to handle germaphobic moms and whiny grandparents. They joke about how their fancy suitcases have been replaced by metal carts, which they transport from the subway to wet markets to buy food for the meals they cook for their clients.

When she lost her job at the airline, Ms. Cheung was earning about $4,500 a month plus benefits, such as medical care. Now, she earns around $3,300 a month. Lam, for her part, misses the thrill of managing an airplane crew, despite the stresses and uncertainties that accompany each flight.

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

Lam is hopeful that the airline will rehire senior staff. But in the meantime, she plans to use her experience as an in-flight manager as a nanny agent, connecting caregivers with parents. She has started training people new to the industry, including former flight attendants.

Ms. Cheung stays the course. Her calendar has filled up as clients have referred her to other pregnant women. While her job is unstable (she won’t get applications one month, then several the next), she hopes she’ll soon pay for family vacations.

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

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