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Queen of the button empire: the commercial legend of China's first private business owner

By Kou Jie| People's Daily Online| Updated: May 10, 2022 L M S


Zhang was the nation's first licensed private business vendor after the "Reform and Opening Up" policies were adopted 42 years ago.

Punctilious and humble, 59-year-old Zhang Huamei is not the most arresting of characters at first glance. In her face, one discerns a sharp blend of the mildness of an ordinary Chinese housewife and the sophistication of a persistent businesswoman forged by decades of commercial endeavors.

China's economic miracle started with her: she was the nation's first licensed private business vendor after the "Reform and Opening Up" policies were adopted 42 years ago. In the past decades, she has founded a business empire selling buttons in her hometown Wenzhou. She, along with other local business leaders, produce over 60 percent of the world's buttons.

"My life is like a button: small, but not insignificant. A tiny button can make a big difference on clothes, an ordinary woman like me can also take the lead in the business arena," said Zhang.

Opprobrium, struggle and success


The date on Zhang's business permit: 30 November, 1979 

"I dropped out of elementary school because of poverty. I was born into a family with seven kids, and I had to find a way to survive, and doing business was the only option then," said Zhang.

Following her neighbors, the teenaged Zhang became a street vendor selling small commodities such as buttons, memorial medals and watch straps. She could only make one or two yuan per day, but that was almost enough to meet the entire family's daily expenses.

Zhang's biggest fear back then was that she might be detained for conducting "speculative activities." Back in the 1970s, the term "businessman" was equivalent to "petty criminal" in China, as the country strictly forbade private-owned businesses, even if this so-called "business" was nothing more than an outdoor table piled with knick-knacks like buttons and zippers.

"I had to endure contempt and fear as a business owner. Society looked down on people like us, and I had to set up my stall outside my house, so that when the officials came, I could wrap up everything and flee as fast as I could," she said.

Zhang had no idea that a dramatic transformation was on its way and that she would soon be jumping on the bandwagon to become China's first entrepreneur. In 1978, the debate on whether the country should adopt private business ownership was heating up. It was eventually settled in the affirmative in December at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

Hearing the news, Zhang quickly applied for a business license by submitting her personal information, two photos and a description of her business. In 1980, she became the first of more than 2,000 vendors in Wenzhou, and upgraded her table-shop into a one floor store. The buttons that she sold were now displayed on counters.

"I felt really relived when I received my license. With a legal paper in my hand, I was no longer a speculator, and my children would not be teased because of my occupation," said Zhang.

In the years that followed, Zhang tried her hand at a number of different businesses, but buttons have always been the heart of her enterprise. She came to the brink of bankruptcy twice, once when her brother was badly injured and she had to cover the medical bills, and the other when an unsuccessful investment in leather shoes incurred tens of thousands of yuan in debt, a devastating amount at that time.

"At the most critical moment, buttons saved my business. I decided to start again from where I began, only focusing on buttons, but with my own design of the latest fashions," said Zhang.

The twists and turns of her business ventures have turned Zhang into an astute businesswoman. She founded her button empire in 2000, with 200 square meters of shop floor in Wenzhou's commercial center, along with design, sales and stockpile divisions in addition to several assembly lines. She makes millions of yuan in revenue every year, and has become a legend and role model for women with dreams of making it big in business.

But she has also found it hard to balance her role as a businesswoman with that of a mother. Zhang had to get up early to get her son ready for school, and then rush to her store to welcome the first batch of customers at dawn. Many times, she had to work until midnight and had to sleep on her store floor. She joked that though people call her "lady boss," she was actually a "boss" with no vacation and endless stress from both business and family.

In 2019, Zhang decided to retire, handing over her business empire to her son. She kept nothing but her license, with which a shy girl witnessed China's rapid economic development and progress over 40 years.

"After all, we are all small buttons, but don't forget, buttons will always be needed and will always have their place on clothes," added Zhang.

Press the right button


Wenzhou's businesswomen are representative of modern women in China, fully capable of competing with, and even outperforming, their male counterparts. [Photo by He Zhuoyan]

Today, Wenzhou, the city where it all started for Zhang, has become one of the most famous commercial hubs in China, whose success in business is arguably unmatched by any of its counterparts. Many young people, especially women, have embarked on a journey to wealth by starting their own business, expanding their business reach worldwide.

"For the past four decades, China has continued to open to the world, giving people like us more opportunities to explore new possibilities. There might be problems and difficulties, but I think young people nowadays are well-equipped with knowledge, and as long as they are courageous and hardworking, I see no reason why they cannot be more successful than I am," said Zhang.

According to Zhang, courage and hard work are the core values of the Wenzhou business spirit, but now, with the development of technology, creativity, innovation and knowledge have become the new characteristics of modern Wenzhou businessmen.

"Prepare for the best, seize the moment, and at the right time, press the right button," concluded Zhang.

Zhang also noted that Wenzhou's businesswomen are representative of modern women in China, fully capable of competing with, and even outperforming, their male counterparts.

According to local statistics, in 2008, only 8,638 women registered companies in Wenzhou, while the number soared to 59,014 in 2019, accounting for 33.79 percent of total new business owners that year. Currently, there are over 326,000 female business owners in Wenzhou, who have stimulated growth in the so-called "She-economy", and leading to many business streets and shopping malls with the "Woman power" theme springing up around the city. Female business leaders have also formed their own business unions, helping young women realize their business dreams and pursue their desired careers.

"It's not your gender but your talent that makes you a successful business leader. Women in modern times are equipped with knowledge and a hardworking spirit, and our success and achievements have proven that women are just as good as men, and we can also become prominent business leaders," she said.