THAT former flight attendant Courtney Chong Cheng-lin is now self-employed, teaching English privately and selling arts and crafts from home hardly tells the extent of the sweeping changes to her life since being grounded by Cathay Pacific. On Thursday, after a five-year battle to win damages for defamation from her former employers, Ms Chong revealed her out-of-court settlement totalling $4.4 million by Cathay, less than three weeks before the case was to begin. Ms Chong claimed Cathay, her employer of 14 years, had brought trumped-up charges of petty theft against her - publishing the accusations in a company newsletter and a press release - because of her firm union stance. The Cathay charges came only months after Ms Chong played a prominent role in a crippling three-week strike in 1993. Airline management accused the former vice-chairman of the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants' Union of stealing macadamia nuts, a bottle of water and an in-flight magazine. 'They wanted me out of the union because I was too good,' she said yesterday at the Harbour Plaza coffee shop in Hung Hom. Now vindicated, the settlement Ms Chong has accepted from Cathay represents $3 million in libel damages and $1.4 million in legal costs . The amount would appear a handsome sum for the 41-year-old Singaporean - now a permanent Hong Kong resident - whose income fluctuates from 'nothing' to about $1,000 each month. She currently teaches English to two students, charging $100 an hour, up to twice a week. Income from selling her crafts varies too; most are sold to friends and former colleagues, who encouraged her to pursue her hobby. But the settlement is scant compensation for what she had to endure, she says. 'I know $3 million is a lot of money to a lot of people. But $3 million to me is not a lot because it can't buy back my reputation, it can't buy the five years of frustration I went through, and it can't buy the career I had,' she said. Ms Chong had rejected Cathay's initial offer of $500,000, which she described as an attempt to 'shut me up'. She regards the $3 million as the apology that Cathay has never officially issued. Announcing the latest dent to its battered financial bottom-line in a one-paragraph statement, Cathay added only that, acting on legal advice, it had no further comment to make. Subsequent calls to the company's public relations department went unanswered. Victorious, Ms Chong held a press conference, then released her own one-page statement which, in part, read: 'Clearly this settlement does not mean a victory [only] for Ms Chong, but for all union members and representatives against victimisation and discrimination for participating in union-related activities.' It also detailed the events that followed the 1993 strike. These, according to her statement, included not being allowed to operate any flights for two-and-a-half months; having her salary cut ; and being dropped from a promotion course a week before training began. She also says she was told not to fly, then later accused of neglecting her duties, despite not having been instructed to resume flying service. She was accused of theft, and complained that both her defence and appeal were placed in the hands of the same people who sought to remove her from the company. The final insult, she said, was being publicly humiliated when Cathay issued its press release about the alleged theft. The airline then printed the same accusations in the internal cabin crew newsletter. Eager for the public to know her story of injustice, including her years of struggle before the settlement, she has responded to calls for media interviews with a vengeance, appearing on three television stations, and radio, besides being inundated by newspapers and magazines. 'Cathay knew I would speak to the press, because they destroyed everything for me,' she said. 'I want to tell people I'm innocent. I'm clean, and I want everyone to know that what Cathay said about me was wrong.' Most people will remember the 17-day strike that started Ms Chong's ordeal. It was called by the 3,700 member Flight Attendants' Union on January 13, 1993, for the sacking of three first class pursers, over their refusal to work as junior flight attendants. The following day Kai Tak was in chaos: 13 of Cathay's 41 scheduled flights were cancelled and five aircraft as well as crew had to be chartered from other airlines. During the dispute, management admitted to losing between $10 million and $15 million a day. At one point during the negotiations, the management even offered to donate a week's profits - about $35 million - to the Community Chest if the flight attendants agreed to go back to work. The union referred to this as 'emotional blackmail.' The breakthrough came 14 days into the strike, when a central figure in the negotiations - an executive member of the Flight Attendants' Union - resigned from the committee to return to work, undermining the industrial action and setting a precedent for others to follow. However, the union's three main conditions which prompted the strike were ultimately met: the three first class pursers were reinstated; staffing levels were reviewed; and salaries increased. It was against this backdrop that, four months later, Ms Chong found herself sacked. Asked why she thought she had been targeted, she said that firing other key players might have made Cathay's real motives even more obvious. Of the union's five other executive members, some remain flying, others have left for personal reasons, or moved to management level, she says. Following her dismissal, Ms Chong applied for jobs that would use her skills, but with no luck. In 1995, she was recommended for a job at a department store, teaching staff the skills needed in the service industry. She says the English-language interview went well, until the manager saw her ID card, read her Chinese name, and realised she was involved in a court dispute with Cathay. 'He told me to settle everything, and then to come back and talk to him,' she says. The last of three interviews with a US-based airline also ended in failure. A Hong Kong woman in the interview room recognised Ms Chong, and enlightened her American counterpart as to her identity, she says. News of the strike had reached the US, and rejection followed. Ms Chong was crushed. 'I went, 'Uh, there goes my job.' Those were the only two jobs I wanted and that I knew I would do well in,' she says. Eventually, the Confederation of Trade Unions, who have consistently backed her in her dispute, arranged a job for her teaching an English-language class for adults, which lasted a year. Later, wanting to focus her energy on the court case, she turned to private tuition from her 700 square foot Hung Hom flat, and borrowed money from a sister in Singapore. 'My family was very supportive. My brother said: 'Forget about looking for a job. What is the purpose of staying in Hong Kong if you don't fight for your name? You're not there just to find another job'.' She stuck it out, and her endurance paid off. She can now pay back her sister's loan - an amount she declined to disclose. She can also treat the friends who stuck by her throughout the saga, including former students who, on monthly salaries of less than $4,000, insisted on taking her out for meals during her hard times. A brother in the US has encouraged her to join him there, an offer she says she is considering, along with the possibility of studying marketing and starting a new career. 'I don't want to fly any more. The time for that has passed.' She is considering other options too, such as writing a book about the strike, as was once suggested by a Singaporean publisher. The final, ironic twist appeared in a newspaper advertisement of congratulations, placed by the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants' Union, which Ms Chong said made it appear as though both Cathay Pacific, and the Union were congratulating her separately. 'Isn't that great?' she laughed. Despite her traumatic struggle, the damage done, and the battle finally won, she remains surprisingly unmarked by bitterness, and says she would still fly on Cathay. 'Why not? I'm not against them. Cathay Pacific is a good airline. It is the way management dealt with the matter. If I were to fly now and I saw the management, I would smile at them. And they would be upset, not me.'