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March 24, 2011

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Queen of club is always busy

AT her Mural nightclub, a phone to each ear, holding dual language conversations with staff and friends who constantly buzz about, Flora Li is in total control. Despite the chaos, she brims with energy and magnetism.

She's a Shanghai success story.

Li, exuberant in her early 50s, is the owner of a top nightclub and gallery, property in Hong Kong, factories in Sichuan Province - and she has a family.

In the foyer of her apartment complex, designed by the renowned architect Melvin Villarroel, I sit on a sofa too grand to be comfortable and await Li. She sweeps through the door, shaking off the morning drizzle, rushed but not flustered.

Bolt upright and dressed in black, she takes her place, her eyes darting between me and her most essential possession, a mobile phone. It's apparent that she rarely sits still, she's addicted to interactions, demands, problems and solving them.

"Shanghai is very international, an open door... When you meet problems here, it's easy to find solutions."

In 2003, Li opened Mural nightclub, a well-known cave-like basement lounge with Buddhist murals, stalactites and stalagmites.

Many famous names have staged there and it was the scene of Shanghai's first open bar night.

Li isn't content.

"I still don't feel satisfied. I hope and plan for more international events, more famous names. I want to take Mural further, it's my baby, I love it," she says.

"In my eyes, there is no problem Flora can't solve," says Lin Wei, her trusted assistant since Mural opened eight years ago.

There's no problem getting bands to play, despite her low public profile and aversion to advertising. On Wednesday night, the rising rock-and-roll band Roan from Holland played tracks that secured their place in the 2011 Eurovision final concert and make them regulars at festivals across Europe.

Mural attracts an eclectic mix of performers and genres: funk, reggae, jazz, hip-hop, even Harvard University's famed a cappella group Din and Tonics.

She's at the club 24-7, fielding problems and taking calls, it seems, every 10 minutes or so.

Was she always so adept in dealing with problems?

Apparently so, she laughs.

"When I worked for Hitachi, the Japanese men did not feel comfortable with me. They felt awkward in negotiations. But this was not a big problem in China. I always say, 'You are my buyer, this is not a favor - we are on the same level. I help you, you help me!"

Chinese women may hold up half the sky, but true equality has yet to dawn. Li acknowledges the old constraints and the fact that she and others like her are exceptions.

"Men and women have the same chances, but women have more responsibility - family, children - it's so very rushed and there's always hard work. Men can enjoy life. Women have a big responsibility with business and family. Always feel busy, busy, busy."

For Li and all Chinese women, the duty to family is overriding and a one-way system. Women often assume the heavier responsibilities of household and rearing children. I press the question, keen to know how one combines business, being a wife and being a mother.

In characteristic style, with a shrug of the shoulders, I am told this is of no concern. "Jerry, my husband, never calculates. If I can't find a solution, then I feel bad, but the next day I will find a new idea. Tomorrow will be bright."

So was motherhood difficult?

"No, not really," says Li. "When my daughter Florence was young. I had to take her home to put her to sleep at nighttime, and then I went back to work. But that's my responsibility."

She speaks proudly of her daughter who is learning Latin and English, in addition to Mandarin and Cantonese.

With women like Li leading the way in China, there is reason to be hopeful, and no reason not to succeed.


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