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The Grand Life of Dr. Irene Cheng:
She passes away at 102
Joshua Philipp, The Epoch Times
3/17/2007

Born into a Privileged Family in Hong Kong

Irene was born in Hong Kong on October 21st, 1904, during the final years of the Manchu Dynasty. Hong Kong had just become a British colony in 1842, and both Irene's parents and grandparents were of British and Chinese descent. As the daughter of Sir Robert Ho and Lady Clara Ho Tung, she was born into the top family in Hong Kong.

Her father, one of the first Eurasians to be knighted, had been made a Knight Bachelor by King George V in 1915, and later, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.) at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. Her family lived atop the exclusive Victoria Peak, a community in which Chinese were previously not allowed.

Her father lived in one home with his staff, while two other homes were for her mother, grandmother, and 8 siblings. "While they were from a very wealthy family, her mother had the family eat the same kind of rice as the servants. She didn't want to give them anything better. She didn't want them to get used to luxury so that when things weren't so good, they wouldn't miss it." said Cooper.


First Woman to Attend University of Hong Kong

In September 1921, at the age of 17, Irene Cheng became the first woman to attend the University of Hong Kong. A young girl attending school with over 300 men made a few people a little concerned, but Irene was always focused on what was most important and would not let herself be moved from her goals. After obtaining her degree in 1925, she toured throughout Northern China, then received teacher's training at King's College in London. After obtaining her Master's degree in 1929, she headed to Lingnan University in Canton, China, to teach.


Presented to Queen Mary

At the age of 28, in 1932 she decided to go to London to work as her father's secretary, and in the same year, she was presented at Buckingham Palace to Queen Mary. She obtained her PhD from the University of London in 1936, and finally, in 1940, she married a mining engineer named Cheng Hsiang Hsien.

Cheng Hsiang Hsien was the great-great-grandson of the famous Lin Tse-Hsu, the governor of the Hu-Kuang Provinces in central and southern China during the mid-1800s, known for his great loyalty. Lin was sent by the Emperor in March 1839 to stop the illegal trade of opium. Later, he was banished by the Emperor to Yili in northern China, after Hong Kong was lost to the British in 1842 during the first Opium War.

Unfortunately, their marriage was cut short. After having been married for just over a year, Cheng Hsiang Hsien suddenly fell ill, and died just 27 hours later. Cooper recalled a story which Irene had told her. "At those times, in China, when a couple got married, they'd customarily have two candles burning at the wedding; one candle for the bride and one for the groom. If they both burned at the same time, it was a good omen. If one burned faster than the other, it was an ill omen. She said that at her wedding one burned faster than the other, and she was a bride, a mother, and a widow, all in 20 months."

Irene and her child lived in a very difficult situation when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong during WWII. She lived in poverty during those years, but still managed to get by with the support of her deceased husband's brother. It was an old Chinese custom that if a woman's husband died, the husband's brother would take care of her and her children. It was also a custom that a woman would not re-marry. Thus Irene never re-married, but she didn't mind as she didn't feel that she had time for a husband.

When the war was over, Dr. Irene Cheng became the principal of a Confucian Tai Shing school, and became the first senior woman education officer, the highest post for a woman in the Hong Kong education system. From 1956 - 1959, Irene also became a member of the Executive Board of the World Federation for Mental Health with Dr. Margaret Mead, a leading anthropologist at the time. Then in 1961, after retiring from Hong Kong, Irene moved back to London to study educational psychology and mental health.


Appointed by Queen Elizabeth II

That same year, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) by Queen Elizabeth II. When Irene's daughter, June, graduated from Cambridge University in 1968 Irene decided to move to San Diego, California, so that she could be near her daughter and subsequent grandchildren. It was at that time when Irene met her goddaughter-to-be, Gwendalle Cooper, who was working as a professor at SDSU.


Founded First Chung Hwa School in San Diego

Retirement in no way meant slowing down to Irene. After moving to San Diego, she founded the first Chung Hwa School of San Diego, which was an after-school program to teach children Chinese language and culture. She also taught many adult education and university extension courses.

Cooper recalls, "Irene would never let the world upset her, she had a mentality of, 'that's the way it is, and we must move on.' She didn't expect opposition either, and she wouldn't put up with it. To her, things made sense or they didn't make sense, and if it didn't make sense, you made it right."

In 1972, after the Cultural Revolution and the Bamboo Curtain was dissolved, Dr. Cheng returned to China to visit and again in 1988 she took with her Gwendalle Cooper and a group of professional people who worked with the physically challenged.

Cooper remembers that trip as her most treasured time with Irene. "Irene considered herself to be a Confucianist, but her mother had been a devout Buddhist and had even built a Buddhist Temple. When we were going through China, whenever we encountered a Buddhist statue, she would always get on her knees and bow." said Cooper. "And everywhere we'd go these older people would come up and go, 'Oh, Irene!' and embrace her."


Used an Abacus as an Income-Tax Preparer

After their return to the United States, Irene worked as an income-tax preparer, and used an old-fashioned abacus to add the figures, and in her 80s she started an English as a Second Language class for the local Chinese senior citizens.

She spent some of her last years writing two books, Clara Ho Tung: A Hong Kong Lady, Her Family and Her Times (1976), the story of her mother's life, and Intercultural Reminiscences (1997), the story of her life experiences, people, and culture.

In the Editor's Introduction of her book, Intercultural Reminiscences, Frank Murdoch and Ian Watson wrote, "Dr. Cheng's subsequent academic achievements provided the foundation for her to become a noted teacher and educator. But it was the humanitarian side of her nature that led her to become a champion of the underprivileged, an advocate for women's equality, and an active supporter for international understanding."

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