HONG KONG — Before becoming a funeral planner, Connie Wong was a flight attendant for an airline in Hong Kong. The sudden end of a career she’d nurtured for six years brought its own kind of grief, she said.
It was one of the many losses suffered by residents of the Chinese territory. Hong Kong’s economy began to deteriorate in 2019, when a proposed extradition bill sparked months of fiery street clashes between protesters and police. Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, harsh and ever-changing restrictions closely aligned with the mainland’s ‘zero Covid’ policies have turned entire industries upside down. Countless businesses were forced to close, thousands of people left the city, and some that remained had to reinvent themselves.
When Cathay Dragon, a branch of Hong Kong’s flagship company, Cathay Pacific, closed its doors in 2020 when travel ceased, Ms Wong was one of thousands who were out of work. She was used to red-eye flights and couldn’t sleep at night.
“Some people have lost their relatives. Some emigrated. Others lost their health – and not just their physical health, but also their mental health,” she said recently. “It’s not just Hong Kongers, but the whole world is experiencing this. It’s hard to face. I’m my job loss, but life will always bring alternatives.”
A guide for mourners
At Cathay Dragon, Ms Wong, 35, had often asked to be assigned to flights to Kathmandu, Nepal, so she could volunteer at a children’s home and animal shelter. Pursuing something similar that is fulfilling prompted her to sign up last summer as a life celebrant with Forget Thee Not, a Hong Kong nonprofit that seeks to make dignified funerals affordable for families in need.
She meets with families several times a week, in an airy room full of flowers. While helping them plan ceremonies, she suggests taking notes of memories they can leave on or in the coffin as a way to show gratitude or let go of resentment when they say goodbye. For the funeral of a 4-year-old, Ms. Wong decorated the chairs with cut-outs of the girl’s favorite cartoon character.
In some ways, Ms Wong’s previous work experience proved transferable, she said. Just as she had once found ways to appease passengers with flight delays, she now found solutions for those in far greater need.
The adjustment was not easy. After her first few funerals, images of the grieving families flashed through her mind at night. She could barely eat from the stress and her hair started to fall out. In November she took sick leave, which lasted for months. Her bosses asked her to consider whether this was the right job for her.
Ms Wong returned in April as Hong Kong faced the worst outbreak of the coronavirus. Hospitals were beyond capacity and thousands of elderly people died from Covid-19. She dived right back in. When relatives were unable to attend the funerals 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 a more profound satisfaction in helping struggling families cope with a loss.
“The impact of Covid pushed us to face reality,” she said. “We have to adapt.”
The Covid cleaner
Although the pandemic nearly grounded the airline industry, Mandi Cheung’s day job as a security guard at an aircraft manufacturing company remained unaffected. But he quit in March to become a cleaner at a quarantine facility for Covid patients.
It was a chance to make “quick money” while saving to immigrate 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 had.
At the height of the Covid outbreak this year, Hong Kong’s hospitals and quarantine centers faced a major inundation of patients. Mr Cheung’s quarantine camp near Tsing Yi Port, with nearly 4,000 beds, was one of eight hastily built facilities. The experience was more harrowing than he expected.
Mr Cheung, 35, was not allowed to drink water or use the bathroom while wearing personal protective equipment. He cleaned up toilets and used rapid test kits every day, afraid he would bring the virus home. His mother wouldn’t let him in until he disinfected his entire body at the door. (As the number of infections decreased and pandemic fatigue set in, she stopped worrying, he said.)
“There were really no resources — the division of labor was unequal,” he said. “I was filled with resentment as I worked. I told myself it would only be for a few months.”
In the meantime, he kept taking part-time jobs. In May, he worked six-hour shifts at a coffee shop in his neighborhood after working overnight in the quarantine facility.
Mr Cheung had planned to work at the quarantine center for five months, but it was closed in June when the number of “VIPs,” as his team leader told him to refer to patients, dwindled. He plans to work full time in the coffee shop until he leaves Hong Kong.
Before the pandemic, Mr Cheung ran an overnight coffee operation called NightOwl, but it was difficult to sustain financially under the restrictions of Covid dinners. He hopes to open a similar business one day after emigrating. But he is also curious about new experiences.
“Eventually I will explore a new world,” he said.
A caregiver for all ages
As an in-flight service manager for Cathay Dragon, Connie Cheung, 57, had reached the top rung of her career ladder. Ms. Cheung, who is not related to Mandi Cheung, joined the airline, then called Dragonair, as a flight attendant more than three decades ago. She had recently renewed her contract after reaching 55, the retirement age for cabin crew.
She took care of her grandson and daughter-in-law when the airline shut down in 2020. She decided to take a series of government courses in postnatal care, learning breast massages and cooking hearty herbal soups. She started training as a pui yuet, or nanny, for babies and caregivers of new mothers, and in 2021 she started her second career.
“Now I’m a novice again,” said Mrs. Cheung.
She and a friend, Wing Lam, 48, another in-flight service manager, became postpartum nannies, exchanging tips on dealing with germ-phobic moms and grumbling grandparents. They joke about how their slim suitcases have been replaced by metal carts, which they haul from the subway to wet markets to buy groceries for the meals they cook 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 about $3,300 per month. Ms. Lam, for her part, misses the thrill of managing a flight crew, despite the stress and uncertainties that come 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 hopes the airline will hire senior staff. But in the meantime, she plans to use her in-flight management experience as a nanny agent and match caregivers with parents. She has started training people new to the industry, including former flight attendants.
Ms. Cheung stays on track. Her schedule is full because clients have referred her to other moms-to-be. While the work is unstable — she gets no requests one month and a few the next — she hopes it will soon be paid for family vacations.
She said she would see herself looking after babies in the next 10 years: “I’ve found my new direction in life.”