Weekly Local Biography

  Molly Phua-Ngam-Prasert

You’ve probably seen her about town, riding her bike and delivering little packages to the local bakeries. You’ve probably even tasted her Molly Maid jams, those delicious little jars of mango or passion fruit or roselle. But if you think she’s just a sweet lady with a talent for cooking, think again. Molly Phua-Ngam-Prasert is indeed a sweet lady, but she has a story that is much more complex, much more interesting to tell. An hour with Molly was not enough, and here’s why.

Molly was born in the southwest midlands of England, a fruit growing area. Her father was a cherry grower, but that still doesn’t explain the jams. When his children went off to boarding school during World War II, he would cover the fruit-laden cherry tree branches with sacks to preserve the fresh cherries for them. It’s a fond childhood memory.

By the time the war was over, Molly knew just what she wanted to do with her life. She studied occupational therapy at Oxford, and then worked in a psychiatric hospital for six and a half years. Like many people who are exposed to the tragedy of mental illness and the destruction it wreaks on families, she had a lot of questions. Those questions continued to plague her and she eventually decided to go to theological college in search of answers. As she remembers, she “wanted the answer to some big questions”. She found many of them, enough to decide that there was a world to be helped and people and places to discover.

She took an intensive summer course at the Institute of Linguistics, and was certified as a linguist. Then she joined the China Inland Mission and went abroad to Singapore. The mission was both international and interdenominational, and she says aside “denominations are irrelevant”. As an occupational therapist, she was interested in working with lepers, although she had never met anybody with Hansen’s disease. She believed that she could help them develop skills that were marketable. She understood how disenfranchised the disabled were after working with people who had mental illnesses. She understood the stigma. The mission sent her to Singapore for orientation, and then to Thailand to a small Christian hospital in Chainat Province to work on the leprosy team.

She was there for ten years, working her dream. She started a vocational training school that taught carpentry, shoemaking, toy making and embroidery, all marketable skills. The shoemaking department specialized in making orthopedic shoes for patients and former patients who had lost parts of their feet to leprosy. Many of the trainees worked at home. The women were able to hire someone to harvest their rice while they embroidered, creating two jobs where there had been none. Molly also taught adult literacy, and she is especially proud of all the children she taught to read Thai. A very fine USA educated woman laboratory technician taught her laboratory skills, and she became a lab tech in addition to an occupational therapist. She says that she “never worked so hard in my life”.

She met Teng, who was in the first group of trainees in the shoe department. She was impressed with his intelligence and eagerness to learn and help. He had been a self-taught village doctor before he became ill with Hansen’s disease himself, but quickly learned to make shoes. He became department head of the orthopedic shoe department. The two of them taught hand and foot care for people with leprosy who had “anesthetic feet”. Teng, who had converted to Christianity, preached in little country churches in the area. They married, and moved to Chiang Mai to work at McKean Leprosarium. Although the person who asked Teng to come to Chiang Mai left before they even arrived, they stayed here and worked. They again focused on teaching hand and foot care, and Molly taught craftwork to severely disabled people who had leprosy. Learning marketable skills, she says, helped some of her patients to become independent for the first time in their lives. One man who had almost no digits remaining on his hands learned to make wooden puzzles. Molly tried to teach him how to change the blades in the jigsaw, but her way was not his way. So she discreetly left the room, and “left him to find his own way”. He succeeded.

After six years at McKean, Molly moved to AUA where she taught English for the next twenty years. The director of AUA suggested that she and a colleague form a team and teach a TOEFL preparatory course. Despite her protests that an English woman may not be a good choice to teach an American preparatory course, they enjoyed great success. Molly retired from AUA when she was 72, but continues to take private students.

Along the way Molly and Teng became foster parents to a little six-year-old girl whose mother had died. Like many families, the course of that relationship has been complicated, but they loved her and her husband and child, and later her husband’s second wife and children. That would become important to Molly Maid jams.

About eight years ago, Molly began making jams for her family and friends. At a friend’s urging, she began to sell the little jars at the international school’s sala sales. Now she and her “widowed daughter in law” make jam together. The product depends on the season - passion fruit, orange and lime marmalade, mango, tamarind, strawberry, and Roselle jams with their label. They only work on Saturday, and produce about 25 pounds of jam a week. Other days she teaches English. She loves to talk about her students. She thrives on their accomplishments.

Molly is a very active, young 76 year old. I ask her if she has plans to retire. “Retire?”, she says, “what would I do?” We both laugh. Does she think about going home to England? “I am home”, she tells me, “I only miss the British Guardian Weekly”. Can somebody help with that?