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Literary Arts

Li Lienfung

Bilingual writer and playwright.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I felt free and happy. My mood and personality changed as well. Before I switched to studying literature, I would often pick fights and lose my temper like a spoiled brat. Now I had become calmer and steadier, simply because I was learning what I love.

– A Daughter Remembers, 2011.

Li Lienfung was a well-known bilingual columnist at The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, an award-winning bilingual playwright and writer, a successful businesswoman and achemist. She is the mother of writer Ho Minfong and wife of the late Ho Rih Hwa, Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand in the ’60s. With works such as her English and Chinese-language Bamboo Green columns and her English-language guides to classical Chinese literature, she helped to bridge English and Mandarin-speaking communities in Singapore. Her 2011 memoir, A Daughter Remembers, depicts a life lived fully and in lively tandem with the region’s colourful socio-political history.

Li Lienfung was born in Shanghai in 1923 to a traditional Chinese family originally from Hunan and grew up speaking Hunanese, Shanghainese and Mandarin. Her father, Li Kuo Ching, an engineer, left China to work in the USA early on and left Li and her mother behind to live with his parents. While in America, he sent money home twice for Li’s mother to join him, but his own mother took the money on both occasions to send his two brothers to America instead. Li’s father subsequently stopped sending money and started a new family in America.

Supported by a loving mother, Li was an avid reader and writer from a young age. At age 13, she wrote an essay which was chosen for inclusion in famous novelist and China’s then Minister of Culture Mao Dun's One Day in China, a selection of essays by contributing writers from all over China.

The following year in 1937, during the Japanese invasion of China, Li and her family moved back to Hunan. There, she attended Zhounan Girls' Middle School for a year before relocating with her mother to Hong Kong where she finished high school. In 1940, her mother returned to Shanghai while she left to study in the USA. After graduating from Mills College in California with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry, she embarked on postgraduate studies in Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, she switched to postgraduate studies in English Literature at Cornell University in New York, and graduated with an MA in English Literature. While in New York, she began her reconciliation with her father.

In 1946, Li married her Cornell University schoolmate Ho Rih Hwa. Her father—who had become one of America’s wealthiest Chinese businessmen—asked Li and her husband to work at his Wah Chang group of companies, and they moved to Bangkok in 1948 then to Myanmar in 1949 where he had factories and offices. While working for Wah Chang/Thai Wah in the ’50s, Li and her husband set up their own business in Bangkok and Myanmar, manufacturing mung bean vermicelli.

During this period, Li gave birth to a daughter, Minfong, and two sons, Kwon Ping and Kwon Cjan. In 1954, amidst her busy schedule, she also managed to write an English play A Sword Has Two Edges, based on the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At the same time, she developed Wah Chang/Thai Wah and her husband’s and her own business with new production processes, innovations and quality control measures, her chemist’s training coming in handy. Her successes led to her becoming the vice-chairman of Wah Chang.

In the early ’70s, after her husband finished a four-year posting as Singapore’s ambassador to Thailand, Li and her family relocated to her husband’s home country, Singapore, which became their permanent home. Here, Li’s play A Sword Has Two Edges found a presenter, more than two decades after it was written. The Experimental Theatre Club staged the play in 1977, and A Sword Has Two Edges would be performed again at the Festival of Plays in 1990. After the first staging of A Sword Has Two Edges, she wrote a Chinese play æ��æ�¥é£ï¿½æ�¥ (Trials and Turbulence of the Twilight Years), which won a Ministry of Culture playwriting competition in 1978 and was staged in 1981 by the Singapore Creative Dramatic Society.

In 1979, Li began her career as a newspaper columnist, writing a weekly bilingual English and Chinese column for The Straits Times titled Bamboo Green. Featuring Chinese folktales and personal anecdotes, the column became very popular with readers. Bamboo Green ran from 1979 to 1984 and, it was compiled in two publications—1982’s Bamboo Green and 1985’s A Joss Stick for My Mother, which received the Highly Commended award by the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986. Bamboo Green had a second run in The Straits Times from 1993 to 1998, this time focusing on stories of her family and childhood in China. Following that, she wrote a column for Lianhe Zaobao from 1998 to 2009 that focused on her travels and life as a diplomat’s wife.

In the 2000s, Li wrote English-language guides to classical Chinese Literature. Only A Sandpiper was written in 2003 to help the everyday person appreciate the beauty of traditional Chinese poetry, featuring 40 poems by more than 10 poets explained in loving detail. 2004’s Battle at the Red Cliff described and analysed key episodes of Luo Guanzhong’s seminal Romance of the Three Kingdoms, offering fascinating insight into the work’s historical background.

Besides being an avid literary advocate, she was also an ardent arts supporter, and served as the Chairperson of the Singapore Totalisator Board Arts Fund from 1994 to 2002. She was also a champion of women’s rights who regularly voiced her views on television forums ’70s and ’80s

In 2011, she completed her English translation of her memoir A Daughter Remembers, originally published in Chinese in 2010, in which she wrote about her memories of her parents, her father’s abandonment, and their tenuous reconciliation and fragile relationship.

Li passed away the same year just before A Daughter Remembers went to press. The book was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival that year, with her sons, daughter, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter reading passages from the book in memory of her.

Timeline

8 May 1923

Born in Shanghai, China.

1937

Moved to Hong Kong.

1940

Attended Mills College, California, USA. Graduated with Bachelor's degree in Chemistry.

1948

Moved to Bangkok, Thailand with husband Ho Rih Hwa.

1954

Wrote play The Sword Has Two Edges.

1961

Published 打抱不平.

1978

Received 1st Prize at Play Competition (Chinese Three-act Play category), Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

1979 to 1984

Columnist, Bamboo Green, The Straits Times.

1981

Published 晚来风急.

1982

Published Bamboo Green.

1985

Published A Joss Stick for My Mother.

1986

Received Highly Commended Award by National Book Development Council of Singapore for A Joss Stick for My Mother.

1993 to 1998

Columnist, Bamboo Green, The Straits Times.

1994 to 2002

Chairperson, Singapore Totalisator Board Arts Fund Committee

1998 to 2009

Columnist, Lianhe Zaobao.

2001

Donated $500,000 to Singapore Management University to establish the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series.

2003

Published Only a Sandpiper: Appreciating Classical Chinese Poetry.
Donated S$1 million to set up and run Lien Fung’s Colloquium at Singapore Management University.

2004

Published Battle at the Red Cliff: A Guide to ‘Three Kingdoms’.
Published The Sword Has Two Edges.

2010

Published 两片灵芝.

2011

Published A Daughter Remembers. Book launched at Singapore Writers Festival 2011.

3 Aug 2011

Passed away at age 88 in Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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