Huang Hung thought she knew what women want. So she jumped at a chance to run a women's magazine.
A high-flying businesswoman with experience as a consultant, commodities trader, and venture capitalist notched on her belt, she leapt at the chance, as she puts it, to influence a new generation of Chinese consumers.
"It's rare to get a project that is heart and soul, as well as brains," she says.
But as it turned out, her ideas and her readers' were different. In short order, Ms. Hung, like many successful entrepreneurs, quickly learned to adapt.
Women like Hung make up almost 20 percent of the country's entrepreneurs, according to the China Association of Women Entrepreneurs. They're attracted, experts say, by an atmosphere that measures them largely by results rather than gender, by the allure of calling the shots, and by the chance to put their stamp on everything from Beijing's skyline to discovering new artists.
These self-made women have risen from the ranks of an urban workforce that is now 42 percent female, according to a Chinese government white paper. While their status has improved considerably in the past five decades, women are still concentrated in lower-end jobs. Rapid economic reforms have offered new opportunities for women in private enterprises, but they have also meant layoffs from state enterprises.
Starting a company can mean circumventing such constraints - though the challenges can be daunting.
"Women like to put their love into their products and services. They're determined," says Shi Qingqi, executive vice-president of the women entrepreneurs association.
Like so many Chinese, women entrepreneurs are leaving behind any qualms about capitalist enterprise. Many have studied abroad. And as they set up shop, they're acutely aware of their role in shaping a new China - changing corporate culture, encouraging creativity, and striving to operate by international standards in a country where a weak legal system means that copying is rampant and business figures are often fuzzy.
Few have a sense of limitation. "I believe knowledge is power," says restaurant owner Zhang Lan, echoing the sentiments of many businesswomen. "I don't have people to rely on, so I have to be self-sufficient."
What follows are the diverse experiences of four women who are shaping things for themselves in Beijing.
After Hung took over the fledgling I-Look in 1999, its pages reflected her own passion for social justice.
As it turned out, women reared amid deprivation - the forced relocations, frenetic political campaigns, and drab Mao suits of the Cultural Revolution - had other ideas. "They wanted the dream," Hung says. "Chinese women are hungry for fashion and lifestyle."
Surveys of readers revealed such a disconnect with her own values, she says, that they made the confident, no-nonsense publisher cry. But she swallowed hard, pulled herself out of day-to-day editorial decisions, and redirected her efforts. Today, 80 percent of the magazine's 50,000 readers are individual subscribers - a point of pride for Hung, who says subscriptions are still relatively rare in China. In the next two years, she expects 60 to 70 percent growth of the three magazines she oversees.
Today, Hung, who is CEO of the China Interactive Media Group, oversees three magazines, all licensed: I-Look, Seventeen, and TimeOut Beijing, a listings and city-culture franchise that has counterparts in other major cities.
For Hung, the challenge has been to understand a culture that she left at an early age and returned to fully only in 1991. In the early 1970s, she was selected by Mao as one of 28 young teens to study in the US - the goal apparently being to create a future generation of savvy diplomats. "Oops," says Hung, smiling wryly.
Instead, a budding capitalist was born. After studying at the Little Red Schoolhouse and attending high school in New York, she returned to China more rebellious teen than revolutionary future diplomat. After less than a year, she headed back to the US and enrolled at Vassar College.
Now, she says, the challenge is balancing her Western perspective with the desires of Chinese consumers.
"With my education, you tend to come away with values that don't exist in China," she acknowledges, speaking in flawless English and revealing a deep understanding of American perspectives. "You tend to look at desire as greed, and to find an overwhelming amount of possessions [as] gauche," she says as she sits in her office, which is perched above a warehouse space chockablock with some 60 employees. "But the true lesson is that you have to cater to the market, not yourself."
Hung admits it's hard to resist some tipping of the scale - teaching Chinese women about Estee Lauder, for example, who built her own cosmetics empire. "That is very inspirational, and that's the fun part. This is the kind of story women need to hear about," Hung insists.
At the same time, she understands that her readers - upscale working women with an average monthly income of $2,500 - are driven by a world of newfound opportunity. "We are so concerned with our own self-development," Hung muses, "what it's like to dress well, go to parties. Materialistic wealth and its enjoyment has been suppressed, and so there's been a burst of enthusiasm."
One thing that's not a problem, she says, is being the boss. "Because of the obligatory equality of the sexes in China, women here have it easier than women in Korea or Japan," she says, emphasizing that she is talking only about urban women. "Women are used to working - the housewife is an exception. So they're used to competing with men."
If Hung has one concern, it's where the current consumer state of mind will lead her country. "For a long time, China had a very feudal tradition. That was overthrown by communism. Then that was abandoned for commercialism," she says. "It's the first [way of life] that hasn't had a code of behavior. Commercialism is a code of acquisition, not ethics. The challenge is to find a new voice that's not a revival of traditionalism."
Bing Bing lives up to her name. She fills the room, talking a mile a minute, smiling, laughing. Her favorite word is "beautiful." Her life seems to be a source of fascination even to her - witness "Scratch More, Itch More," the autobiography she published and gave to all her friends. She's the kind of person who's hard to keep up with - and whom you probably wouldn't want to cross. She's not shy about her success as a gallery owner in one of the city's trendiest art communities - or about how much work it took to get there.
"People tell me, 'Oh, Bing Bing, you have a beautiful life!' " she exclaims. She raises her eyebrows, frowns - and pauses dramatically. "But they have no idea what goes on behind the facade."
A few years ago, Yan Gallery was just a gleam in Bing Bing's eye. She had already cut her teeth in entertainment, starting what she says was the first live-band bar in Beijing in 1997. But the bar was torn down for new construction.
"Every day I told myself, 'You have to keep kicking the ball before the referee blows the whistle." It's a motto that continues to guide her as she develops her gallery and a restaurant that opened in March in Beijing's fashionable Houhai area.
With its wide-open space and skylights, Yan Gallery could as easily be in New York's Soho as Beijing. It's tucked into Factory 798, a famed hangout for artists on the prowl for cheap, big spaces. Today, her businesses are profitable overall, though the gallery still has to see a profit. It was a risky move, she says.
"When I opened here, people thought that I was crazy because it looked poor. I cried four times in the first eight months!" she says, sounding somewhat shocked. "Even though I had a beautiful gallery, no one was in the habit of coming to 798 to see art works or performances."
But Bing Bing - who says she was once "one of the craziest people in Beijing" - was undeterred. "I have a punk heart - this means breaking old styles," she says. Then she contradicts herself: "I live with my mother, and my love," referring to her husband of six months, a Frenchman whom she credits with being able to handle her fast-paced life and its social demands which often cast him in a supporting role. "Most women like me live alone. Outside, I'm fashionable, but inside, traditional."
Now in her mid-30s, Bing Bing says women have to work harder to achieve. "They experience pain, but it's worth it," she says, pressing a well-manicured hand to her chest. "Every woman must know what she wants, and what she's willing to pay for it."
For her, the price has been long days of business decisions and evenings of entertaining. But she's happy with her choices. "Most people define success as money, getting something big. For me, it's to do what I like." She sees herself as part of a larger movement. "The things we are doing can push Chinese culture step by step - and that's worth it," she says. "My generation has this responsibility - to bring this kind of life to more Chinese."
Zhang Lan grew up in Beijing without her father, a professor at Tsinghua University. By the time she was born in 1958, he had been discredited as a rightist and forced to live in a shed. A decade later during the Cultural Revolution, her mother, a state official, was labeled an intellectual. That meant a one-way ticket to the countryside for "reeducation" - and a hardscrabble life that included foraging for bird eggs and frogs to survive.
As she sits in her high-rise office, she's almost matter of fact about an odyssey that took her from rural Hubei Province to Beijing Business College, to a cousin's restaurant in Canada and, eventually, back to Beijing with her young son. Ironically, the decision to return was driven by the fact that Canada, like other Western countries, was experiencing a record wave of Chinese asylum seekers in the wake of Tiananmen Square. "I thought this kind of immigration would be a humiliation for me and my country," she says. "It's as if you have to abandon your mother country and judge it negatively."
Instead, she decided it was time to invest in its future. So in 1991, armed with $20,000 in savings, she opened a restaurant. "I had a strong belief that I could be successful in China," she says, and indeed, once she plunged in, she felt at home. "I realized I was born for this."
Zhang says few people, and even fewer women, had their own businesses at the time. But within three months of opening, she had recouped her investment. "At the time, not that many people were eating out. People were quite conservative in their concept of dining," she says. "So I focused on the cleanliness of the restaurant and the quality of the dishes. That was a big difference from others."
Five years ago, Zhang started her now well-known chain of South Beauty restaurants, which brought a new cachet to Chinese dining with knowledgeable waiters, upscale decor, and dramatically presented Sichuan-style dishes. She now oversees 18 South Beauty outlets - 12 in Beijing, five in Shanghai, and one in Chengdu. The business, which employs more than 3,000 people, she says, had revenues of $24.6 million, and it just announced plans to open restaurants in Milan, Rome, Paris, and Berlin. Her son is in charge of the international market.
Like most entrepreneurs, she knows how to get what she wants. "Though I'm female, I have a male personality," she laughs. "If a chef doesn't listen, I'll tell him to move over and I'll do it. So I set up a strong model from the start."
But it can be hard for women, she says. "If a woman wants to survive in the restaurant business, she needs extraordinary will," she says. "I think my suffering and labor from my childhood in the countryside helped me survive."
She says she looks out for employees. Top managers - she hires only people who have experience in other top hotels or restaurants - get cars, and she says she provides career training for waiters who stay with the company.
Driving her too, she says, is her desire to operate by international business standards. But she'd like to see more of those standards around her. In a country known for copying others' products, fake South Beauties are cropping up - she learned about some of them from customers who complained of a poor meal. So Zhang is addressing the problem in international style. She's heading to court - where she just won her first lawsuit.
To Xu Tiantian, Beijing is essentially one vast construction site. In fact, it might as well be her sandbox.
A Harvard-trained architect and single mother of two young girls, she is intent on playing a role in building the city from the ground up. She got her first on-the-ground experienceworking with an architect in Boston - "I learned how she dealt with a lot of pressure" - then headed to Rotterdam to work with Rem Koolhaas. Now she's back in Beijing at the helm of her firm DnA, whose six employees work from a spartan white office in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
If starting a business hasn't been easy - she used her own money and also attracted investment - it's also taught Ms. Xu that nothing is impossible. "But it's really difficult at times," she says. "In the US, projects are really structured. A lot of things here are not well prepared, and so things start out optimistically but then fall apart."
At the moment, she has her hand on four projects: two galleries, one retail space, and one entertainment space. She's planning another in Inner Mongolia. It's a great time to be an architect in China, she says - but the momentum in the country also presents perils.
"People don't know that a good design comes with time," she says quietly. "Sometimes people want a design in three days - it's why there's not a lot of great design in the city."
But Xu has no trouble wrangling with the largely male world of contractors and engineers. She'll be told she isn't well-versed enough in elements of engineering. One structural engineer wasn't buying when she goaded him to deliver on what she calls an "unconventional" design. "I had to push rather hard," she comments, "But I got what I wanted - relatively."
Xu says all that counts is that she's learning. "Their point is, I won't be interested. I have to challenge that," she asserts.
Most of the time, she says, she doesn't think about being a woman in a male-dominated profession. "But sometimes I get comments like, 'Your projects don't look like a woman's.' " She thinks for a minute. "They think they're being complimentary, but they're not."
• Weiwei Wang contributed to this report.