Li Lienfung


Li Lienfung (b. 8 May 1923, Shanghai, China – d. 3 August 2011, Singapore) was a chemist and author. She worked in the Wah Chang/Thai Wah group of companies started by her father Dr Li Kuo Ching, and eventually became vice-chairman of Wah Chang. As an author, she is known for Bamboo Green, a column in the Bilingual section of The Straits Times which ran from 1979-1984 and 1993-1998. Li also authored plays in English and Mandarin, and published guides to classical Chinese works.

Early life and education
Born in 1923 to Hunanese parents, Li attended the Hui Qun primary school and later the Nanyang Middle School. She moved to Hong Kong in 1937 before going on to study at Mills College in California in 1940, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Li then studied chemistry as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before switching to a masters course in English literature at Cornell University. At Cornell, she met Ho Rih Hwa, a fellow student whom she married in July 1946. Li then worked briefly as a chemist with a dye manufacturer in New Jersey.

Working life
In 1948, Li and Ho moved to Bangkok to work for Thai Wah, a company under the Wah Chang group established by her father Dr Li Kuo Ching. Dr Li, an engineer who was the first to discover tungsten deposits in China, had founded Wah Chang in the United States to trade in tungsten and other commodities.

In Bangkok, she worked in Thai Wah’s laboratories before moving to Rangoon in 1949, where her husband was expanding Thai Wah’s tungsten trading business. There she gave birth to Minfong, her first child, in January 1951.

In Rangoon, the couple also started a factory producing mung bean vermicelli before setting up a larger vermicelli factory in Bangkok in 1952, named Walon. In July that year, she went to Hong Kong to give birth to Kwon Ping, her second child.

Upon her return to Bangkok at the end of 1952, Li resumed her work in Thai Wah’s mineral and agricultural commodities businesses, with Thai Wah becoming a major producer and exporter of tapioca starches. With both Thai Wah and Walon, Li utilised her training as a chemist to introduce modern methods of production and solve quality issues. She eventually became vice-chairman of Wah Chang.

Between 1967 and 1971, her husband Ho was Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand and Li fulfilled the duties of a diplomat’s wife. That aspect of her life continued from 1971 to 1974, when Ho was Singapore’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Economic Community. The family, including Li’s third child Kwoncjan who was born in 1956, had settled in Singapore in 1971, but Li continued to travel often.

Literary career
At the age of 13, Li was published in an anthology of essays on life in China, titled One Day in China. While working as a chemist, she had short stories and travelogues published in newspapers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and also translated the Desmond Morris book The Naked Ape into Mandarin.

In 1954, Li had written The Sword Has Two Edges, a play in English based on a minor character from the Chinese classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The play was initially written for Li’s friend who had a theatre group in Honolulu, but was not staged by the group. In 1976, the play was read by D. Murugan, a member of the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC). With Li’s permission, the ETC produced the play which ran for four performances in August 1977. The play was also performed at the TheatreWorks’ Festival of Singapore Plays in November 1990 and published in book form in 2004.

Encouraged by the response to her first play, Li wrote another play titled Trials and Turbulence of the Twilight Years. The play won first prize in the Chinese Three-Act Play category of the Ministry of Culture’s Play Competition in 1978, and was performed as 晚来风急 by the Singapore Creative Dramatic Society in 1981.

Li wrote Bamboo Green, a weekly column in the Bilingual section of The Straits Times between 1979 and 1984, which featured traditional Chinese stories and personal anecdotes. Her columns were complied in two books, Bamboo Green and A Joss Stick for My Mother, with the latter winning a Highly Commended award from the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986.

Bamboo Green ran again in The Straits Times from 1993 to 1998, and this time was more focused on stories of Li’s family and childhood. Li’s columns proved popular and were known for connecting English-educated readers to Chinese culture. She also wrote a column for Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao between 1998 to 2009 that featured experiences from her travels and life as a diplomat’s wife.

In the 2000s, Li published Battle at the Red Cliff and Only a Sandpiper, both guides to classical Chinese literature. In 2010, she published 两片灵芝, a memoir on her parents’ relationship and family life. The book was translated into English by Li and published as A Daughter Remembers the following year.

Li advocated a number of causes in Singapore, including women’s rights in the 1970s and promotion of the arts. She chaired the Singapore Totalisator Board Arts Fund Committee between 1994 and 2002, sat on the Censorship Review Committee and the Drama Promotion Board. In 2001, she donated S$500,000 to the Singapore Management University (SMU) to establish the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series. Two years later, she gave S$1 million to set up and run Lien Fung’s Colloquium at SMU, a lecture and talk series on societal and cultural issues. Li also donated copies of her books to the National Library and various school libraries.

On 1 August 2011, Li suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and went into a coma. At 11.30pm on 3 August, she passed away at the National University Hospital with family members at her side.

Father: Dr Li Kuo Ching, engineer and founder of Wah Chang group.
Mother: Luo Bu Ge.
Husband: Ho Rih Hwa, former ambassador and prominent businessman.
Sons: Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of Wah Chang International Corporation and Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts; and Ho Kwon Cjan, architect and head of Architrave Singapore.
Daughter: Ho Min Fong, writer and Cultural Medallion recipient.
Sister: Li Lien Ming.
Brother: Li Lien Yan.

1961 : 打抱不平
1981 : 晚来风急
1982 : Bamboo Green
1985 : A Joss Stick for My Mother
2003 : Only a Sandpiper: Appreciating Classical Chinese Poetry
2004 : Battle at the Red Cliff: A Guide to ‘Three Kingdoms’
2004 : The Sword Has Two Edges
2010 : 两片灵芝
2011 : A Daughter Remembers

Alvin Chua

Fan, Y. F. (1981, December 17). Play highlights problems of aged in modern society. The Straits Times, Bilingual, p. 1. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Ho, R. H. (1991). Eating salt: An autobiography. Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 338.092 HO)

Lam, D. (1990, October 18). Sword point. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Lee, S. C. (1993, July 26). Li’s personal glimpses. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.  

Li, L. F. (1982). Bamboo green. Singapore: Federal Publications.
(Call no.: RSING 070.442 LI)

Mahbubani, G. (1980, March 8). The woman behind ‘The Sword’. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Mother of two wins top prize for play. (1978, August 12). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Ong, R. (2001, May 15). Standing tall in the shadows of time. Business Times Singapore. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from Factiva.

Prolific writer Li Lienfung dies at 88. (2011, August 4). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from Factiva.

Sim, M. & Hoe, P. S. (2011, August 5). Obituary; Gifted and generous. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from Factiva.

Sim, M. & Hoe, P. S. (2011, August 5). Writer Li Lien Fung dies at age 88. The Straits Times. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from Factiva.

Yeo, R. (2002, November 22). Stepping down…. TODAY. Retrieved August 5, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Women chemists--Singapore--Biography
Li, Lienfung, 1923-2011
Bilingual authors--Singapore--Biography
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature

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