Current Milpitas City Councilmember and former Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) Board Member Hon Lien has announced that she is running for mayor. Lien sat with The Beat on Friday for an exclusive interview, during which she shared her mayoral campaign’s ambitions as well as some of her personal story…
Lien was 12 years old when her family left Vietnam. “We escaped by boat,” she shared, describing how she, her 11 siblings, and their parents were crammed together on a ship that seated 179 passengers. They sat knee-to-knee with all the passengers beside them, for three days and three nights, before the boat grew close to shore in Malaysia.
By then, they’d run out of food and water. Before the boat docked, it began to sink. Hon did not know how to swim. But one of her brothers took her on his back, swimming them both to shore over the course of around 20 minutes. When they made it, the family was housed in a tent, within the fences of a refugee camp, for 13 long months.
Lien described the period as “very sad,” and the camp setting as like “a prison.” She explained, “My job every day was to stand in line to get food” and carry the tray back to her family.
Three of her brothers left Malaysia sooner than the rest of the family, however, as they’d each applied to live in a country other than the U.S.: Finland, Holland, and Sweden. For them, their refugee camp stays totaled between four and six months. But Lien’s father was stubborn about transporting most of his family to the United States of America. And so they waited for over a year. As they did so, they saw a procession of other families leaving for America.
Finally, it was the Lien family’s turn. The 11 of them who’d remained in Malaysia filed aboard an airplane. It was a direct flight to San Francisco.
When they arrived at the airport in America, Lien’s father had a stroke.
He never even made it to their dwelling. He was taken to a hospital, where he passed away. Lien explained movingly, “I felt that his mission was to deliver the whole family to a country where we would have freedom and democracy. And so by the time he landed, he goes, ‘You know what? My mission’s accomplished.’”
Her father was 60 years old.
Being 14 upon arriving in America, Lien, like her two younger siblings, attended school while the rest of the family found jobs. She did, however, go to work; she recalls having one job where her task was deboning chickens.
In 1987, though, when Lien was 19, things began to turn around…
Lien and one of her brothers started Sunnyvale Seafood, a wholesaler that supplied its products around the Bay Area and the nation. Back in Vietnam, near the south, on the delta, their dad had run a small seafood business in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Their American business was not an overnight success; they started in a 2,000-square-foot building with tanks for live fish, lobsters, and crabs then evolved into a trading and wholesale operation that functioned out of a van. Lien and her brother would get in the van every day to pick up goods from other wholesalers and deliver them to markets.
Hon Lien stayed in the seafood business for 18 years.
In time, she bought a supermarket in Mountain View – 23,000 square feet in size. She also opened a manufacturing plant back in Vietnam – that building was 80,000 square feet. But in 2007, she sold her businesses. Since then, although she’s technically been retired, Lien has remained very active.
Lien had moved to Milpitas in 1999. After her first home in the hills was burglarized, her family resettled down on Park Victoria Drive. Over the years, she became an active member of the Milpitas Rotary Club. She credits local leaders including Bob Nuñez, Marsha Grilli, Eric Emmanuelle, and Denny Weisgerber with encouraging her to run for MUSD School Board in 2016 after having observed her leadership skills in action through the Rotary. Already, at the urging of former Mayor Jose Esteves, she held a seat on the Milpitas Planning Commission.
In 2016 and 2020, Lien handily won two school board elections. She said to The Beat, “I loved what I did on the school board. I loved serving the students. I loved serving the community. The school board gave me this very satisfying feeling of serving young kids, because they are the future of our world.”
In 2022, she ran for Milpitas City Council, winning first place for a seat that she is slated to hold until 2026. Regarding the city council, she explained, “I wanted to bring a different leadership, a different experience, a different look to gain reputation and to take back the respect from the community.”
Having served as a councilmember for a year, Lien now seeks to win the mayor’s seat. “I think Milpitas has great potential,” she said. “Great city, great people – and we just don’t reach our fullest potential.” She pointed to a “lack of transparency, lack of continuity in leadership.”
“If you look at the past two administrations,” Lien continued, “we’ve had almost all the key leaders leave City Hall. Public works director, City Manager, Assistant City Manager; now we have two of the HR directors that left. So if you’re continually replacing the key leaders, there’s going to be a delay in the process of getting things done. What’s worse is the morale in City Hall…”
Lien unpacked her own leadership style: “I don’t just let go of people because I have the power. I don’t let go of people because I feel like I can get somebody else. And mind you, I had staff that started with me in my business on Day One, until the day I sold my business. I treat them well. I give them direction. I don’t micromanage them…And if they don’t deliver, let’s sit down and talk.”
Lien chose not to single out her opponents or prospective opponents by name (as of now, former Mayor Rich Tran has announced that he is running and current Mayor Carmen Montano is expected to run for re-election, as well). “I am focusing on running,” she said. “I’m here for the Milpitians. I’ll let the voters decide on the other candidates.”
Meanwhile, she highlighted her classy, even-tempered disposition: “I don’t argue left and right,” she said. “I don’t make scenes in public. I had great experience running my successful business. And that’s why I stepped up.”
In addition, Lien would like to nurture stronger relationships between the City of Milpitas and surrounding city and county governments, as well as the state government. “To me,” she said, “I feel that it is very very important to have that working relationship, because you do need to secure that piece of the pie when it comes to allocation of funding.” She cited an example from 2018, when Cisco donated $50 million toward homelessness. “Did Milpitas get a penny of it? No.”
If elected mayor, Lien would go after a piece.
Her leading campaign priorities are public safety, affordable housing, and homelessness. On the public safety front, she seeks to equip our officers with what they need to be successful at their jobs. On the affordable housing front, she seeks to streamline the permit process, support developers, and not make permitting or development too hard; rather, she wishes to encourage developers to come here and build. Said Lien, “Because if they don’t build, housing prices will go up, and our kids will not be able to live here; they’re going to have to move elsewhere.” On the homelessness front, she highlighted the work of Milpitas nonprofit Hope for the Unhoused (H4U, with which she has worked in the past) as one example of an entity that models practical solutions for alleviating homelessness, ones that she hopes to replicate and build upon if elected mayor.
Lien knows that City leadership involves a lot of push-and-pull, as well as drawing from one’s wisdom and compassion at the same time. Citing the recent city council vote whereby the council rejected the building of a house in the hills, Lien explained why she abstained: “It’s very impressive for immigrants like us to have that kind of dream house. But that doesn’t mean that yours is everything and you disregard others’ dreams. We have to look at the whole of Milpitas, at large.” She would like to see modifications to the building plan before weighing a future vote.
Hon Lien married her husband Andrew, an engineer with Applied Materials, in 1991. They have four children – three daughters and one adopted son – all of whom are now in their 20s. It’s a big group, but Lien said with a smile, “I’m from a family of 12. I’m the 10th. So this is nothing.”
Election Day will be on Tuesday, November 5, 2024.