JHU email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-04-04 published
By Winfred JHU, Page A20
Family woman, career woman. Born July 14, 1926, in Shanghai. Died October 6, 2005, in Toronto, of respiratory failure, aged Within the extended family, Mary was known as "Maha." We teasingly named her after a character from the Three Stooges films; it stuck for 40 years. To make up a set, her husband became "Baha."
Maha was sixth of seven children of Z.T. and Lily TAO. Growing up between successful older siblings and a pampered baby brother gave her an understandable, if somewhat exaggerated, sense of being overlooked; it made her an enduring supporter of the underdog. Her childhood world was first the colourful heyday of Shanghai, then later the cruel period of Japanese occupation. Through those times, the family lived in a state of "genteel non-affluence." Maha attended a prestigious girls' school, then she went to university to study pharmacy, unusual for a woman in China in those days.
The Chinese civil war interrupted her plans. The family moved to Hong Kong, where she joined a small investment brokerage firm as Girl Friday. Working in a windowless office with her cigar-chomping English boss, her go-go attitude and razor-sharp mind quickly made her a recognized star. Clients, from corporate executives to "barefoot millionaires" implicitly trusted her skills and integrity. One old-school gentleman would bring her quantities of cash for his account, rolled inside a newspaper. As the company grew, she managed its day-to-day operations.
In 1955, she married K.D. CHENG, from an acquainted family. It was a perfect match: while he was reserved and frustratingly stoic, she was lively, bossy and could sometimes be a pest. They had three children in quick succession. The nephews and nieces who grew up around them were very much their children, too. While still courting, they caused great amusement at his club's Christmas party by bringing five kids. With the next generation, they would have a similarly expanded group of grandchildren.
But the hectic, high-pressure lifestyle began to take its toll on Maha's heart, already damaged by childhood scarlet fever. She made changes, including becoming a vegetarian and teetotaller. And she began to devote serious attention to Buddhism.
This phase of Maha's story ended in the late 1960s when political unrest hit Hong Kong. At the prime of their careers, she and Baha gave it all up and came to Canada, to give a secure and healthy future to their children. In Toronto, her previous achievements counted for little. Although she quickly passed her professional exams, she once again became a clerk in an investment firm. With neither the opportunity nor any real desire for advancement, she worked enthusiastically at her job and was a popular and highly valued employee. Her family thrived and became thoroughly Canadianized. In the 1980s, she postponed retirement to support two nephews through university.
In 1993, Maha underwent a heart-valve replacement. The life-saving operation gave her 12 more years of zestful living. There were frequent jolly gatherings at her house, where Baha indulged his hobby of cooking and baking, while she merrily "yakked." In early 2005, they reached 50 years of marriage; we gave them a banquet with some 75 relatives from around the world as guests. She was ecstatic.
Maha was a person of great generosity and loyalty. However, she could be contemptuous of those who fell too far short of her values. Through her life, she helped numerous people with quiet acts of kindness and material support. She made Friends easily, but her closest relationships were reserved for her family in which she was always a favourite central character. She loved her family, she loved her work, and she loved life.
Winfred JHU is Mary CHENG's nephew.
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