Li Lienfung

Singapore Infopedia

by Chua, Alvin


Li Lienfung (李廉凤) (b. 1923, Shanghai, China–d. 3 August 2011, Singapore) was a chemist and writer. She worked in the Wah Chang group of companies started by her father, Li Kuo Ching, with her husband, Ho Rih Hwa, a prominent businessman and former ambassador. As a writer, she was known for Bamboo Green, a column in the bilingual section of The Straits Times, which ran from 1979 to 1984 and 1993 to 1998. Li also wrote plays in English and Chinese.1

Early life and education
Born in 1923 in Shanghai, Li grew up learning to speak Hunanese, Mandarin and Shanghainese. Her father, an engineer, had left to work in the U.S. in 1914, leaving Li’s mother and elder sister in China. He eventually started a new family in America, when Li’s mother did not accede to his request to join him there. Because of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Li moved to Hunan in 1937, and subsequently left for Hong Kong with her mother. In 1940, she left for the U.S. to study at Mills College in California, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.2 

Li then studied chemistry as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before switching to a master’s course in English literature at Cornell University in New York. At Cornell, she met Ho Rih Hwa, a fellow student whom she married in July 1946.3 She also reconciled with her father, who had then become one of America’s wealthiest Chinese businessmen.4 After marriage, Li and Ho embarked on a few business ventures that were unsuccessful. She then worked briefly as a chemist with American Cyanamid, a dye manufacturer in New Jersey.5

Working life
In late 1947, Li and Ho began working for Wah Chang Trading Corporation, which was established by Li’s father. Her father was the first in China to discover tungsten, and the discovery earned him his reputation and wealth decades later. The corporation’s main businesses were related to tungsten trading between America and China, as well as engineering. At the request of Li’s father, Li and Ho moved to Bangkok in 1948 to work in Thai Wah, a company under Wah Chang.6

In Bangkok, Li worked in Thai Wah’s laboratories, before moving to Rangoon (presently Yangon), Myanmar in 1949, where her husband was expanding Thai Wah’s tungsten trading business. There, she gave birth to her first child, Minfong, in January 1951.7

The couple also started a factory producing mung bean vermicelli in Rangoon, before expanding to Bangkok in 1952 by setting up a larger vermicelli factory called Walon. In the same year, Li went to Hong Kong to give birth to Kwon Ping, her second child.8

Upon her return to Bangkok in late 1952, Li resumed her work in both Thai Wah and Walon, using her training as a chemist to introduce modern methods of production and resolve quality issues.9 She eventually became vice-chairman of Wah Chang.10

Between 1967 and 1971, Ho served as Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand and Li fulfilled the duties of a diplomat’s wife. That aspect of her life continued from 1972 to 1974, when Ho was Singapore’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Economic Community. The family, including Li’s third child Kwon Cjan, had settled in Singapore in 1971, but Li continued to travel often due to her husband’s professional obligations.11 

Literary career
Li’s first foray into publishing was a collection of essays on life in China when she was 13.12 While working as a chemist, she translated Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape into Chinese, and had her short stories and travelogues published in newspapers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.13

In 1954, Li wrote The Sword Has Two Edges, a play in English based on a minor character Cicada (貂蝉; Diaochan), from the Chinese classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). The play was initially written for Li’s friend who had a theatre group in Honolulu, but it was not staged by the group.14 About 20 years later, D. Murugan, a member of the Experimental Theatre Club got to know about the play. With Li’s permission, the play was produced by the club and ran for four performances in August 1977.15 It was also performed in November 1990 at the TheatreWorks’ Festival of Singapore Plays.16 In addition, the play was published in print in 1979, and reprinted in 2004.17

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 Singapore Ministry of Culture’s Play Competition in 1978.18 It was subsequently performed as The Late Storm (晚来风急) by the Singapore Creative Dramatic Society in 1981.19

Between 1979 and 1984, Li wrote Bamboo Green, a weekly column in the bilingual section of The Straits Times, which featured traditional Chinese stories and personal anecdotes. Her columns were compiled in two books, Bamboo Green (1982) and A Joss Stick for My Mother (1985).20 The latter received a high commendation from the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986.21

The column Bamboo Green had another run in The Straits Times from 1993 to 1998, and this time it centred more on stories of Li’s family and her childhood. Li’s popular columns were known for connecting English-educated readers to Chinese culture.22 She also wrote a column for the local Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) between 1998 and 2009.23

During the 2000s, Li had several of her works published. These include two guides to classical Chinese literature – Only a Sandpiper (2003) and Battle at the Red Cliff (2004)24 – and her memoir on her parents’ relationship and family life, 两片灵芝 (Two pieces of lingzhi; 2010).25 She translated the memoir into English, which was published as A Daughter Remembers (2011).26

Advocacy and philanthropy
Li advocated a number of causes in Singapore, including women’s rights and the arts. 27 She chaired the Singapore Totalisator Board Arts Fund Committee between 1994 and 2002.28 In 2001, Li donated S$500,000 to the Singapore Management University (SMU) to establish the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series.29 Two years later, she donated S$500,000 to set up and run Lien Fung’s Colloquium at SMU, a lecture and talk series on societal and cultural issues.30

On 1 August 2011, Li went into a coma after suffering from a massive brain haemorrhage. She passed away at the National University Hospital, with family members at her side, two days later on 3 August.31

Father: Li Kuo Ching, founder of Wah Chang Trading Corporation32 
Mother: Luo Bu Ge33 
Husband: Ho Rih Hwa, former ambassador and prominent businessman
Sons: Ho Kwon Ping, founder of Banyan Tree Group, and Ho Kwon Cjan, architect34
Daughter: Ho Minfong, writer and Cultural Medallion recipient35

1954: The Sword Has Two Edges
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
2010: 两片灵芝
2011: A Daughter Remembers


Alvin Chua

1. Li Lienfung, A Daughter Remembers (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 371–72. (Call no. RSING 338.04092 LI)

2. Li, A Daughter Remembers, 102, 107, 117, 371–72.
3. Ho Rih Hwa, Eating Salt: An Autobiography (Singapore: Times Books International, 1991), 113–16. (Call no. RSING 338.092 HO)
4. Ho, Eating Salt, 115; Li, A Daughter Remembers, 371.
5. Ho, Eating Salt, 119–21.
6. Ho, Eating Salt, 121–24, 156.
7. Ho, Eating Salt, 159, 162, 170.
8. Ho, Eating Salt, 182–89.
9. Ho, Eating Salt, 189–92.
10. Lee San Chouy, “Li’s Personal Glimpses,” Straits Times, 26 July 1993, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Ho, Eating Salt, 256–87.
12. Dana Lam, “Sword Point,” Straits Times, 18 October 1990, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Li Lienfung, Bamboo Green (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1982), v–vi. (Call no. RSING 070.442 LI)
14. Lam, “Sword Point.”
15. Gretchen Mahbubani, “The Woman Behind ‘The Sword,’”  Straits Times, 8 March 1980, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Lim, “Sword Point.”
17. Li Lienfung, The Sword Has Two Edges (Singapore: Times Books International, 1979) (Call no. RSING 828.995957 LI); Li Lienfung, The Sword Has Two Edges: An Original Play (Singapore: SNP Editions, 2004). (Call no. RSING S822 LI)
18. Mahbubani, “The Woman Behind ‘The Sword.’
19. Fan Yi Fu, “Play Highlights Problems of Aged in Modern Society,”  Straits Times, 17 December 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Lee, “Li’s Personal Glimpses.”
21. “16 Authors Honoured,” Straits Times, 6 September 1986, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Lee, “Li’s Personal Glimpses”; Melissa Sim and Hoe Pei Shan, “Writer Li Lien Fung Dies at Age 88,” Straits Times, 5 August 2011, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Sim & Hoe, “Writer Li Lien Fung Dies at Age 88.”
24. Li Lienfung, Battle at the Red Cliff: A Guide to Three Kingdoms (Singapore: SNP Editions, 2004) (Call no. RSING 895.1346 LI); Li Lienfung, Only a Sandpiper: Appreciating Classical Chinese Poetry (Singapore: SNP Editions, 2003). (Call no. RSING 895.11009 LI)
25. Li Lienfung 李廉凤, Liang Pian Lingzhi 两片灵芝 [Two pieces of lingzhi] (Beijing: People's Literature Publishing House 人民文学出版社, 2010). (Call no. Chinese RSING 338.04092 LLF-[BIZ])
26. Li, A Daughter Remembers.
27. “Prolific Writer Li Lienfung Dies at 88,” Channel NewsAsia, 4 August 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
28. Lea Wee, “Performing Arts Groups Here Can Cash In on New Fund,” Straits Times, 12 November 1994, 16; Robert Yeo, “Stepping Down…,” Today, 22 November 2002, 65. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Rachel Ong, “Standing Tall in the Shadows of Time,” Business Times, 15 May 2001, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “大寿捐50万元给新大 廉凤讲座基金成立” [Donates $500,000 on her birthday to Singapore Management University, a fund for Lien Fung’s colloquium is set up], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 9 May 2003, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Sim & Hoe, “Writer Li Lien Fung Dies at Age 88.”
32. Li, A Daughter Remembers, 4.
33. Li, A Daughter Remembers, 4.
34. Sim and Hoe, “Writer Li Lien Fung Dies at Age 88”; “Corporate Governance,” Banyan Tree Group, accessed 6 October 2023,
35. Lynn Seah, “Opera Artist and Author Recognised,” Straits Times: Weekly Overseas Edition, 6 September 1997, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of October 2023 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.

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