As Jane Zhang grew up in Shanghai 25 years ago, her family ate dumplings made of corn husks and lived in one room. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Once, Ms. Zhang helped her illiterate grandmother, accused of having a "bad political attitude," paint signs saying: "I support Mao. I hate capitalists."
These days, Zhang is an unabashed capitalist, which, surprisingly, does not make her a rarity among Shanghai women. She opened China's first temp agency several years ago, quitting a secure job as a mechanical-drawing teacher against the advice of her friends. Diminutive and peppery, Zhang says her women employees show flexibility and focus "in the new business world of Shanghai."
This city's cosmopolitan climate has long made it a mecca for women looking for job opportunities. Now, female secretaries, translators, and accountants are the backbone of the privatizing economy, as Shanghai becomes China's commercial hub.
"In the foreign joint ventures coming to Shanghai, there are a great many Chinese ladies working and advancing," Zhang notes. "If you deal with state-owned companies, it is mostly men. They had nearly closed the door on us."
Anecdotal evidence indicates that for the first time, females outnumber males as midlevel managers in Shanghai.
"The Shanghai girl is a little more capable and independent, in general, for reasons of history," says Hong Yu of MacKenzie Co., a consulting firm. "But part of this is due to the Shanghai men, who are more obedient to their wives. That is what is said, and I think it is true."
"Strong" Shanghai woman are a stereotype. True or not, girls here tend to be valued on a slightly higher scale, and their birth rates are higher than in the rest of the country.
"Unlike much of China, parents here don't care whether they have a son or daughter," says Nie Mengxi, head producer of Sun TV, a new Hong Kong-based station. "My friends even prefer a daughter, since she is more likely to stay close to the family."
Such attitudes date to Shanghai's identity as China's first international city, experts say. Strong missionary schools and strong-minded foreign women introduced ideas of female education and equality at the turn of the last century.
"Shanghai was the first city to form an 'anti-foot-binding league,' " notes Tess Johnston, a writer on Shanghai's cultural history, referring to that ancient painful practice.
Yet, even today, the female influence is often deliberately hidden, a nod to tradition.
"In good families, the woman does not want to be seen as running the front show," says Eva Ho, an executive at the new Four Seasons Hotel.
"I would prefer to be the assistant to the big boss," says Ms. Ho, a fourth-generation Shanghaier educated in the US. "Friends ask why I introduce myself as my husband's wife. But as a former stockbroker in New York, with white males as my competitors, I'm very confident with who I am."
In its glory days, Shanghai was the only place from Hong Kong to Moscow where people could buy American lipstick, German cameras, or English shoes. It rose from a fishing town with 100 foreigners in the late 1840s to a city growing faster than Chicago in the 1880s. A dozen movie theaters were filled every for every show and, until the 1940s, Hollywood studios each kept an office here.
Aspiring women came from around China, looking for kindred spirits. A Shanghai type emerged, captured in classic calendar-girl portraits: slender, perfectly coifed women drinking Coca-Cola or relaxing under a parasol. Yet, in ugly numbers, the girls often fell into exploitative sexual trades.
Perhaps most famously, Shanghai's liberal climate produced the Soong sisters - arguably the three most important women in modern China. Ai-Ling Soong was the first Chinese female to enroll in a US college. Mei-Ling Soong married Chiang Kai- Shek, the nationalist leader. Ching-Ling Soong married Sun Yat-Sen, called the father of modern China. The latter Soong's Shanghai residence is now a national museum and displays her correspondence with such figures as Jahawarlal Nehru, Zhou En-Lai, Stalin, and Edgar Snow. Mao visited her regularly, calling her the "mother" of China.
Shanghai women still fill many top slots in the country. Examples include China's education minister, Chen Zhi Li, the former president of Shanghai TV, who is one of two female vice-mayors, the head of the Shanghai Congress, and all five of Shanghai's winners of a recent all-China competition for the most-influential media figures..
Still, some women complain about aggressive new female attitudes. "You can be an executive, a manager; you've got a hunger for knowledge, you can learn English, get a foreign boyfriend - that's all true; that is the state of mind among females," says an Asian woman who's an executive at an international firm. "But this drive used to be tempered by a civility.... [Now] it's all 'get-ahead,' 'get money,' and the feeling is mercenary and deeply manipulative."
One Western woman who owns a local consulting agency says she assumed an esprit de corps among her female staff. Yet, two of them who had worked for her six months were found writing to the company client list, on company letterhead, saying they were setting up on their own.