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Around the world in 80 years

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 chem-

the bulk of payment immediately, rather than waiting months

ist—or rather, the only chemist, since Bangkok in 1948 was still

for payment to be received after their ores had been shipped

short of skilled workers,” Ho says wryly.

overseas and verified by labs on the receiving end.

Working conditions were rough: Although the lab had been

At her husband’s suggestion, Ho then set her sights on

stocked with American equipment, there was no electricity or

another local product: tapioca flour. “I would never have both-

gas to run the burners. Ho built her staff from the ground up as

ered with this product because my head was full of unwritten

well. “I had 12 girls under me, but none of them even had pri-

poems,” says Ho. “But a challenge was a challenge, so I set my

mary school education,” she recalls. “They were anxious to learn

mind and thought about it.” In the end, the Hos built 12 modern

and do well, and before one knew it, I had a wonderful team.”

tapioca factories to supply American and European consumers.

The accuracy of their work allowed local ore exporters to receive

She also went on to devise industrial production of bean starch


M i l l s Q u a r t e r ly

Mills Quarterly spring 2011  

Spring 2011 Mills College alumnae magazine

Mills Quarterly spring 2011  

Spring 2011 Mills College alumnae magazine