Woman finds opportunity in new climate

September 18, 2005 

Lily Lu was born in 1976, the year Chairman Mao Zedong died.

At 28, she has no memories of Mao’s brand of communism. Instead, her life has coincided with Deng Xiaoping’s “open-door” policy, which opened China to the free market.

Lu personifies the new Chinese entrepreneur, taking for granted the rags-to-riches possibilities that were anathema during the communist regime. One thing she likes about herself is that she is not timid. That’s one reason she has been successful, she says.

Fashionably dressed and confident, Lu is speaking in an office on the 25th floor of the Press Building in downtown Shenzhen, southeast China’s boomtown of new wealth.

Shenzhen’s population increased from 70,000 to 7 million since 1980, when Deng Xiaoping declared it China’s first “Special Economic Zone” and invited foreign investment.

It’s a long way from where Lu grew up, a village of about 350 people in China’s Heilongjiang province, between North Korea and the Russian border. Her village, which she said even most people from the province would not recognize, is Jie Fang, which means “Liberation Village.”

Lu belongs to the Oroqen ethnic group, a tiny Chinese minority of about 6,500 people. Her heritage gives her special status, she says, and some special privileges. For one thing, she’s exempt from China’s one-child policy.

“I can born two – if I marry,” she says, quickly adding that marriage is something she has no interest in at the moment. Her career comes first.

As a child, Lu lived with her parents and two sisters in a house with a dirt floor and a thatched roof. Until she was 8, she said, her family had little to eat besides corn cake and corn soup.

In the wintertime, they slept on top of a stone oven to stay warm. The snow was deep. “Sometimes up to here,” she said, pointing to the middle of her thigh. Unless the snow had a hard crust, she said, “My parents cannot let me out because if you fell through, you will die.”

Life improved quickly after Deng’s reforms, she said.

“Before, you work hard or you work slow,” she said, “you get the same money.”

Lu did so well in the little elementary school in Jie Fang that her parents sent her alone to school in a bigger town nearby where she lived in a dormitory. At 18, she moved still farther away to attend college.

“I am the first girl (who) studied that much in my village,” she said.

That’s because her parents’ attitudes about girls and education were different from most others in the village, she said.

“Most parent say even if study a lot, you marry man, have to do housework. Why waste time study that much? For my parents, girl or boy, must study.”

In college, Lu majored in Russian, thinking that would be the best way to get a good job.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, she gave up on moving to Russia. Instead, she went alone to the coastal city of Dalian. It was 29 hours away by train, she said, but she didn’t care.

“I knew I had a future,” she said. “I don’t know why. I just feel it.”

She found a job selling water-sports equipment, then branched into selling beauty products. Her mentor was an older woman whom she credits with teaching her important lessons about business and life.

“You always try to help people from deep in your heart,” she said. “You must really help them, then you make money. I use this for my philosophy.”

Doing business the other way, she said, is a sure road to failure.

“In China we call it ‘black heart.’ You sell to cheat the person. I am not that kind of people.”

At 22, Lu started her own beauty salon in Dalian and hired five other women to work for her. She was the youngest among them. The salon was a success, she said, but “I always feel I have more potential.”

“Once you know more, you feel you need more,” she said. “I feel I need to see a bigger world.”

At 25, she moved to Shanghai, where she worked in a salon and taught herself English and computer skills. She spent her evenings reading aloud to herself in English.

Her new skills got her a job as an assistant to the general manager of a German software company. When the SARS outbreak hit, the Germans went home, leaving her as their company’s China representative.

In her work, Lu recognized a strong demand among foreign business people for learning the Chinese language and customs.

This year, she started her own business, Consultation & Translation Co. Ltd. Her niche: flexible scheduling of language lessons to meet the schedules of busy business people.

“Business people don’t have much time,” she said. “Lots of translators work for me part time. Already we can handle six or seven languages.”

From the Press Building, a forest of high-rise offices and apartments is visible below, their tops poking through a brown haze of pollution. None of these buildings was there 20 years ago. Is the change a good thing?

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Living quality much better. We have beef, seafood, even nice oranges. Sunkist. You know Sunkist oranges? We can eat that daily. Life changed a lot.”

“My father couldn’t even afford a bicycle,” she said. “In two years, I will buy a car.”

Something else will be different, too.

Lu has decided her given name, Lily Lu, sounds too soft to be taken seriously. She is changing it to Tracy Lu.

“It has a harder sound to it,” she says, “more businesslike.”

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