From the chemistry lab to the writing desk, Lienfung Li Ho ’43 has forged successes throughout her life’s journey.
By Sarah Stevenson, MFA ’04
“My lifelong work is still what I learnt in the chemistry building at Mills, but literature has encouraged me to write in my spare time,” Lienfung Li Ho ’43 says with typical modesty. After fleeing her childhood home in Shanghai following the Japanese invasion of 1937 and pursuing her education at Mills, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Cornell University, Ho has conquered several careers on three continents and raised three successful children. “Mills and MIT taught me how to use my head and my hands,” says the woman who turned a rag-tag warehouse with untrained workers into a respected chemical analysis lab—and followed her passion for literature to write books and newspaper columns in both English and Chinese.
After graduating from Mills, Ho worked briefly as a laboratory assistant in an aluminum smelting plant in New Jersey before pursuing a master’s degree in organic chemistry at MIT.
“One year later, I realized my heart was elsewhere—my interest was not in chemistry, but in literature,” she says. But instead of balking at the idea of a change in vocation, she transferred from MIT to Cornell University, where she acquired a master’s degree in literature in 1946 and a lifelong love of writing. She also soon acquired a husband—Ho Rih-hwa, who was then a doctoral student at Harvard. “I personally think it might have been easier to stick to chemistry at MIT, but I had so much more fun reading poets and essays,” Ho says, a bit mischievously.
It was chemistry, though, that paid the bills. Her father soon sent Lienfung and her husband to Bangkok, Thailand, to buy tungsten and other ores being exported from that country. The Hos also set up a lab to analyze the ores. “I became chief chemist—or rather, the only chemist, since Bangkok in 1948 was still short of skilled workers,” Ho says wryly.
Working conditions were rough: Although the lab had been stocked with American equipment, there was no electricity or gas to run the burners. Ho built her staff from the ground up as well. “I had 12 girls under me, but none of them even had primary school education,” she recalls. “They were anxious to learn and do well, and before one knew it, I had a wonderful team.” The accuracy of their work allowed local ore exporters to receive the bulk of payment immediately, rather than waiting months for payment to be received after their ores had been shipped overseas and verified by labs on the receiving end.
At her husband’s suggestion, Ho then set her sights on another local product: tapioca flour. “I would never have bothered with this product because my head was full of unwritten poems,” says Ho. “But a challenge was a challenge, so I set my mind and thought about it.” In the end, the Hos built 12 modern tapioca factories to supply American and European consumers. She also went on to devise industrial production of bean starch vermicelli, which previously had been made only by hand.
“I spent a whole year studying this process, separating superstition from facts, and came up with a modern factory by pure logical reasoning,” Ho says proudly. “This factory is still operating; the packaging department alone employs 1,000 workers. This is probably my proudest achievement . . . and it certainly pays well!”
In 1967, Ho’s husband was appointed Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand. He went on to serve as ambassador to Belgium, the European Common Market, Switzerland, and Germany, leading the couple to live in many of the great capitals of Europe. Despite the gravity demanded at state receptions, palace dinners, and other official business, Mrs. Ho retained her sense of mischief and humor.
“As an ambassador’s wife, I was a total wash-up—I knew nothing of diplomatic spying,” she jokes. But she was certainly a hit among their diplomatic friends. “I was just myself, making a lot of my ambassador friends laugh. It was said that they all liked to sit next to me at a banquet because I could crack more jokes than the protocol officers allowed.” They remained in Europe until the early 1970s, when the couple returned to Singapore for good and Mrs. Ho started her writing career in earnest.
She published her first collection of short stories in 1965 and, in 1979, began writing weekly columns in Chinese and English for two Singapore newspapers. By now, she has more than ten books under her belt—the most recent a semi-biography about her parents titled A Daughter Remembers. She wrote the story in Chinese, and then translated it into English.
Her daughter, Minfong Ho, an accomplished fiction writer her-self, retains vivid childhood memories of her mother writing late at night, under the lamplight, after she thought her children were asleep. It was “a rare moment of quiet and solitude that she must have treasured,” says Minfong. “What did she write? Chinese poems? Letters to her mother? Short stories? I never knew, but the sense of her immersed in a vibrant, mysterious world apart from us—and yet so integral to her—came through strongly. Her writing was a bridge to her ‘other’ life.”
Lienfung’s two other children, sons Kwonping and Kwoncjan, jointly lead the Banyan Tree Hotel group, with resorts in more than two dozen locations worldwide.
For 67 years after her graduation, Ho had been in the Bay Area often, but never returned to campus. “I did not want to lose the Mills I loved,” she says. “I realized that changes were inevitable and told myself: ‘Let the future generation have their own memories, but let me keep mine.’”
But during a family reunion in San Francisco last summer, Lienfung’s three children and their spouses, along with six grandchildren, persuaded her to make a long-overdue visit to the College. Minfong says this may have been Lienfung’s first real homecoming after a lifetime of peregrinations, adventures, and achievements. “She left her Shanghai home at age 15 and didn’t go back until decades later, to find it burnt down and replaced by a bank building. Her home in Bangkok has changed so drastically that she only visited once,” says Minfong. “But coming back to Mills was quite a revelation to her: she was able to return and find the room she used to live in, and show us how she climbed out the window of Mills Hall to the ledge outside. ‘Nothing has changed!’ she kept saying, and this was a source of visceral satisfaction to her.”
Upon returning to her old stomping grounds, Mrs. Ho admitted, “I am glad that my children insisted. It was heartwarming to look at Mills Hall and to be in my old dormitory room, listening to the chimes once again.”