IF you come across housewife Deng Ying today, she appears a lively soul with a flat in a public housing estate, nine children, and a life of her own in the bustling, urban sprawl that makes up modern Tuen Mun. Yet behind the 49-year-old Hakka woman's everyday appearance and cheerful manner, lies a life of immense hardship in a feudal world which seems centuries old, yet existed in Hong Kong less than 40 years ago. Now she's a champion of women's rights in the New Territories but in earlier years, it seemed as if she would never have a life of her own, let alone have a chance to fight for others. In 1958 the 12-year-old Deng, born in Sun Long Wai village in Yuen Long, was sold by her family for just $880. The young girl was bought by a Hakka farming family in Fei Ngo Shan to be a mui tsai, an unpaid servant, with the intention that later she would marry the son of her new family - and become his unpaid servant for the rest of her life. Life had never been easy for Deng. Seven brothers and sisters had died of illness and when her father fell sick with cancer, the family circumstances became desperate. 'Since there were no sons to protect the family, neighbours looked down on us and would come to hit me and my mother when our pigs and chickens trespassed on their fields,' Deng said. There was no money to spare to take her father to hospital. He died soon after leaving the young girl and her mother with another worry: how to pay for his funeral. A goldsmith took pity on them and gave them a coffin but when they tried to put her father's body in it, it was too small. 'We had to hammer at his knees to bend his legs to fit him in,' Deng recalled. Despite being given the coffin, her mother still didn't have enough money to bury him and relatives were only prepared to lend them the money. The memory is still so upsetting, it makes Deng cry to think about it. It was then that Deng realised her family were going to sell her to repay the loan. A cousin introduced her to the family at Fei Ngo Shan and a deal was struck. Her own attitude was resignation. 'I wasn't happy to be sold, but I knew we had to pay my uncle back for my father's funeral and this was the only way.' At her new home, Deng's life became even harder. The master of the house told the 12-year-old child she must earn her own living and not expect any help from them. Her days started at 2am when she would feed the pigs. She then ploughed the fields and every other day, walked for two hours to Kowloon City to sell wood for hammer handles. From this she would earn $30. On the way back she had to draw water and carry it back to the house. In 1962, 16-year-old Deng married the family's only son. Her husband, a dustcart driver working for the Urban Services Department, was 12 years older. 'He didn't like me and would call me 'ugly girl'. He lived in the city and would rarely come back to Fei Ngo Shan - once every three months or six months. 'There was hardly any communication between us as he would not talk to me. He only came back for sexual needs,' Deng said. Even though marriage should have brought Deng into the family, her status as a mui tsai didn't change. Her parents-in-law were still severe towards her and her mother-in-law would often lash out at her. In the year she married she gave birth to her first son, delivering the child and cutting the umbilical cord herself. A girl followed two years later. Despite all her efforts to put aside her hardships and get on with whatever life Deng could make for herself and her children, she could not escape depression. At one point she became so miserable that she contemplated suicide. She tied a rope around a branch in an attempt to hang herself. But the branch couldn't carry her weight, it snapped, and she fell to the ground. When she gave birth to her third child in 1966, her parents-in-law forced her out of their house. 'My father-in-law gave me three bowls of rice and three pairs of chopsticks, meaning he didn't recognise my third child, and sent me away,' Deng said. Her father-in-law owned three houses and Deng was allowed to live in one. She had two more daughters in 1968 and 1970. 'I worked very hard. It was a piece of wasteland but I cultivated the soil, growing flowers, sweet potatoes and oranges. I raised more than 80 pigs. I even built the pig pen,' she said. In 1971, Deng finally learned that her husband was seeing another woman. That year, Deng, who was still only 25, left Fei Ngo Shan, taking her five children to live in Kowloon. She spent $500 renting an old two-room apartment in Kowloon City and found a job as a cement worker. Through this job she met her second husband Mo Kwai-hung, who is three years younger than her. 'I think he took pity on me and my children. He didn't mind that I already had children and married me in 1976. 'All the time I was living in Kowloon, my first husband did not come back once to visit us,' Deng said. She had four more sons with her second husband, who has treated his wife and all nine children well. 'I'm living a much happier life now. I have much more freedom to do what I want to do,' Deng said. 'Before I was just a servant about the house, abused by my mother-in-law. My previous husband never cared about my well-being and he had another woman in the city.' In her new life, Deng is determined to improve the rights of other women. She has become one of 15 members of the New Territories Female Indigenous Residents' Committee which helps village women with inheritance claims and rural voting rights. 'I believe women are much better off today than before. Their status is much higher. They can go to school and don't have to rely on men so much,' Deng said. 'But I want to help other poor, oppressed women in the New Territories who dare not speak up.'