VON-FONG LAM 林允方(1891-1987)


By York Lo


V. Fong Lam (Class of 1916, Naval Architecture), aka Lam Chi Ching 林志澄, (Mandarin pinyin Lin Yunfang and Lin Zhicheng), Lam was amongst the first 6 Chinese students to graduate from MIT with a B.S. in naval architecture with his thesis entitled A Study of the Launching of a Submarine Torpedo-Boat.  

  V. Fong Lam,   The Technique, 1916.  Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.

V. Fong Lam, The Technique, 1916. Courtesy MIT Archives and Special Collections.


The son of a Chinese merchant who migrated from Xinhui in Guangdong province to Canada, Lam was born in Canton (Guangdong) in 1891. In 1909, he  came to America to further his studies, first at the Heffley Institute, a preparatory school in Brooklyn, New York before entering MIT in 1911 to enroll in a special five-year course in Naval Construction, a course similarly offered by the Institute to graduates of the Annapolis Naval Academy. Allegedly Lam was sponsored by his grand uncle, the prominent diplomat and politician Wu Ting-fang, who had served as Minister to the US for the Imperial Chinese regime and later as Premier of the new Republic (Wu’s elder sister was Lam’s grandmother). During his time at Tech, Lam was active in the Chinese student community and served as the business manager of the Chinese Students’ Monthly, the official publication for Chinese students in America at the time, which operated out of 156 Huntington Avenue in Boston. He was also director of the Welfare School run by the Welfare Association of Boston and Vicinity which provided instruction in math, English and Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) and operated a Chinese library.

After graduation, Lam worked as a naval engineer on the East Coast for three years, employed at three different shipbuilding firms - Fore River Shipbuilding Co., the New London Ship and Engine Co., and the New York Shipbuilding Co. He was an associate member of the Institute of Naval Architects of London and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers of America. On June 2nd 1917, he married Mae Chan, a student at Lasell Seminary in a simple ceremony at the Somerset Hotel in Boston, with MIT classmate S.S. Kwan (Class of 1918) as his best man.


In 1919, the 28-year-old Lam co-founded Lam Glines & Co (允元實業), a pioneering Sino-American engineering venture which involved many MIT alumni in Shanghai. The American interests in the venture were represented by individuals with close ties to Stone & Webster (hereafter refer to as S&W), one of the leading American civil engineering firms at the time founded by 2 MIT graduates, which Lam Glines modeled itself after. In addition to co-founder Earle Stanley Glines who was head of the drafting department at S&W, two S&W representatives (Frederick Pratt and George England) served on the board of Lam Glines and S&W co-founders Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster were also investors.  Lam, as the president of the firm, recruited at least seven other Chinese graduates from MIT to work for the firm (in order of graduation year) – Long LAU (劉朗, BS mining engineering 1914) and Takang KAO (高大綱, BS mechanical engineering 1915) who had worked under Lam at the Chinese Students’ Monthly as advertising and circulation manager respectively; Chen TAN (譚真, BS civil engineering 1918 MS 1919) who was manager of Lam Glines’ Tientsin branch; Chi-Yen HUANG (黃季巖, BS civil engineering 1919) and Kuang-Piao HU (胡光鑣, BS electrical engineering, 1919), members of Lam Glines’ Engineering department who had both worked at S&W in Boston; Yun-Hsiao SUN (孫雲霄, BS electrical engineering 1920) and Kuo-chou LI (李郭舟, BS mechanical engineering 1921). Other returned students who worked at Lam Glines included Penn School of Architecture graduate Robert Fan, Harvard Business School graduate Loy Chang and Columbia mining graduate H.F. Wang (nephew of famous diplomat C.T. Wang). According to Hu in his memoir Six Decades of Riding the Waves, civil engineering in China was dominated by Western firms and engineers at the time and Lam and his fellow returned students were determined to change that situation with their new venture. It did not hurt that Lam and Wang also had family political connections which gave them an edge when bidding on public works contracts.

Like S&W, Lam Glines was a vertically integrated engineering concern that was a contractor, architect and trader rolled into one, and by the early 1920s, it had offices in Peking, Tientsin, Hankow, Swatow, Hong Kong and Canton in addition to its head office on Peking Road in Shanghai. One of the projects they completed was the library building of the newly established National Southeastern University in Nanking. They were also awarded the contract to build the first airport in Shanghai in Hongqiao (although it did not materialize due to non-payment) and bid for the Yellow River Bridge project in 1921. Sadly the political instability in China at the time with warlords fighting each other and the KMT made it a very difficult environment for firms like Lam Glines which relied on stable infrastructure contracts and in 1926, the firm collapsed. Although this pioneering enterprise only lasted for 7 years, many of its employees went on to successful careers in the public and private sectors and continued to contribute to the modernization of China. 


As the head of Lam Glines with his name on the door, the firm’s collapse took the heaviest toll on Lam, who returned to Canton (Guangdong) and even changed his name to Lam Chi-Ching to start a new chapter in his life. During the 1930s, he worked in the public works and marine department of the Guangxi provincial government before teaching engineering at the Kwok Man University and Whampoa Naval Academy in Canton. When the Japanese occupied Canton in 1938, he moved to Macau before settling in Taishan where he lived with his nephew ZHAO Yuanhao (赵元), who was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and became exposed to leftist ideology. After the War was over, the founder of the Hip Tung Wo Machinery (協同和機器廠,founded in 1911, now Guangdong Diesel Engine Factory), a leading diesel engine manufacturer in South China asked Lam to join as managing director to help restore its operations in Canton. Under Lam’s leadership, Hip Tung Wo managed to restructure its debt and also launched one of China’s first diesel-engine powered vessels.

In 1948, Lam’s youngest son, who was a freshman at Lingnan University in Canton, was murdered by KMT operatives as a suspected Communist. This tragic event influenced his decision to formally switch sides and help facilitate the Communist takeover of Canton (refer to as Guangzhou hereafter) working in conjunction with his nephew Zhao who was working as a Communist operative in Hong Kong. He became a political and business leader under the new regime. In 1950, he was asked to head up the organizing committee of the Guangzhou Federation of Industry and Commerce (GFIC), culminating in its formation in 1952. The Federation remains the leading chamber of commerce in the city today. In 1954, Hip Tung Wo became one of the first batch of companies to adopt the public-private partnership model with Lam as vice-chairman. He was elected a delegate to the National People’s Congress and in 1955, he was appointed deputy mayor of Guangzhou and was personally received by Premier Chou En-lai. Although Lam was sympathetic to the Communist Party, he never became a member and instead was a long time member of China Democratic National Construction Association (CDNCA), which he served as vice-chairman for seven terms and helped organized the Jian Lian Middle School in 1962 (renamed Guangzhou No 97 School in 1969) in conjunction with the GFIC. He spoke up in defense of his fellow red capitalist Chen Zupei who was purged in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and in 1958, he criticized the Great Leap Forward movement and also denounced the party’s purge of Marshal Pang Dehuai. His outspokeness and his background did not serve him well during the Cultural Revolution during which he was paraded through the streets and publicly humiliated. His house was ransacked 13 times and he was incarcerated. Despite the harsh treatments he received and his family ties which provided him the option of immigrating to the US or Canada, Lam refused to leave China after his release in 1973. He lived to see the early fruits of the market reforms after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, but by then he was too old and too ill. On August 15, 1987, Lam died in Guangzhou at the age of 96.

SOURCES: Lasell Leaves, July 1917, Stone & Webster Journal, July 1919, The Rotarian, Feb 1924, p 12, Who’s Who in China: biographies of Chinese leaders, 1936, p. 160; 吳翎君, “美國大企業與近代中國的國際化”, 聯經出版事業公司, 2012, Leaders of Commerce, Industry and Thought in China, 1924, p. 209, brochure of Hip Tung Wo, http://www.gzzxws.gov.cn/gzws/gzws/ml/56/200809/t20080917_8722.htm, http://www.97ms.com/a/xuexiaogaikuang/xiaochangjiyu/2012/1220/2372.html,, Chinese Students' Monthly, November 1913, Chinese Students' Monthly, 8.3, January 1913, 223, Hu Guangbiao, Six Decades of Riding the Waves.