She is something of a rarity, Karen Wang Qiong. The only woman chief executive of a major Chinese company, one of the few female multi-millionaires in the booming country, and a crusader for ecologically sound business in the great dust-bowl of pollution that is the Chinese economy.
So I didn't quite know what to expect as I made our appointment in London's glitzy Park Lane Hilton last week, where Wang is staying while she meets potential investors in her company, Bodisen. Images of the Empress Cixi (the last adult representative of the Manchu dynasty) played in my mind for a while, mixed with stereotypical Suzy Wong glamour, maybe?
As it turned out, I was not far off. Wang has an imperial loftiness in her manner, and, like the empress, has succeeded in a world dominated - almost to the point of exclusion - by men. 'Be a real man - that is how to succeed in Chinese business,' she says, with the finality of a decree from the Forbidden City.
But she looks very much like a modern Chinese lady riding the crest of the country's economic boom, with all the trappings of the post-punk Shanghai-chic mode: distressed hairstyle, polka-dot top and designer spectacles - the very height of fashion in the ostentatious world of Chinese haute couture. All that is appropriate for a woman who is worth something approaching $70m (£39m) through her holding in Bodisen, and who has made it to the glossy rich-lists of the American business magazines. (Forbes recently placed her company at number 16 in its Top 100 list of Chinese growth companies).
But her style also masks a serious entrepreneurial career in the less-than-glamorous world of organic fertiliser, and a determination to extend modern, ecology-friendly farming methods in the world's most populous country, where throughout history the need to feed ever-increasing numbers of people has put a great strain on the land. 'The government wants to reduce the polluting effects of old farming methods, and we can help do that,' says Wang.
The authorities in Beijing have a bolder long-term aim as well. They want to make China self-sufficient in food. The country has been able to feed itself throughout long periods of its history (though always prone to flooding, drought and subsequent famine - some 20 million Chinese are estimated to have died in 1959 in a man-made famine during Mao's Great Leap Forward), but agricultural production has not been able to keep pace with the population and economic growth of recent decades. China is a net importer of food, including, ironically, rice.
Farmers have traditionally tried to increase their crop with modern nitrate-based fertilisers, manufactured according to Western agri-business formulae, but this has had the inevitable and damaging side-effect on run-off and soil erosion. As only 15 per cent of China's huge land mass is arable, the problem is now critical. Just last year, Beijing abolished all agricultural taxes, in an effort to stimulate farm efficiency and stop the drift away from the land and into the booming (and polluting) cities.
Wang's background gave her some unique insight into these problems. She graduated in 1986 in agronomy, and later did a masters in environmental protection. After an early career in agricultural import-export, she was in the right place to catch the first wave of the modernisation of Chinese business.
'The government began to reform state-owned enterprises and encouraged employees to start their own business, so I began a liquid fertiliser business,' she says, through an interpreter. (Like many Chinese entrepreneurs, she has not felt the need to learn English, though her aides say this may change.)
She became president of the Yang Ling Chemicals Company, based in the town in Shaanxi province where Bodisen currently has its headquarters. Shaanxi, bang in the middle of China's great bread-basket area between the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, has traditionally been a dynamic farming economy, and Yang Ling was chosen by the government as an area for research and development in modern farming methods.
It was here, too, that she met Chen Bo, the 48-year-old president of Bodisen who is credited as a great innovator and motivator within the company. They were original shareholders of the new Bodisen group, formed in 2001, which listed its shares on the Amex market last year, and they still have 24 per cent each.
The next phase of the company's development is to list its shares on the London Alternative Investment Market (Aim), raising £10m of new money to upgrade its facilities in Yang Ling, and invest in new manufacturing and distribution. Hence the whirlwind round of meetings with investment institutions in the City over the past few days, leading up to the beginning of trading on 6 February - a date which is, apparently, auspicious for new enterprises, according to Chinese astrology.
She is bringing her company to Aim because, she explains: 'There is a lack of funding for smaller-sized companies in China. There is not much access to capital from the banks or sophisticated markets unless you are a large company.'
Wang and her entourage were obviously feeling the pace of all those back-to-back meetings when we met last week, at the end of another long day explaining to the financiers exactly why they should put their money in a fertiliser company from the Chinese boondocks. What exactly is Bodisen's unique selling point?
'We produce fully organic products, designed to maximise, in a non-harmful way, the efficiency of the land,' she says. All very well, but what are they made from? If they are organic, there can only be one main source, I think to myself, but find it difficult to raise this tastefully in the lobby of the Hilton hotel in mixed company. 'They are not manure,' she says, obviously reading my thoughts via her interpreter. 'Fertilisers can come from animal products, fishmeal or lots of other natural sources, but we have found some special constituents.'
She and her interpreter lean forward on their seats, as though preparing to share a secret with me. I shuffle forward too - I am about to hear the agri-business equivalent of the formula for Coca-Cola.
'Fossilised mineral deposits,' she whispers. 'We have a mountain of it near the factory, Tong Chuan mountain. We have the rights to exploit the mountain for 100 years, and there is enough there to keep all the farmers happy for as long as that,' she says with a little smile of pride. There are grins of satisfaction all around her entourage.
The stuff from Tong Chuan (presumably some sort of prehistoric potassium deposits) is mined and injected with other, eco-friendly chemicals that encourage bacteria to develop in the soil. 'It even reverses the damage that's already been done,' says Wang triumphantly.
From there, Bodisen products, running to some 60 lines, are sold to a network of 150 wholesalers, and then on to individual farmers. With a farming population of 800 million, the Chinese market is potentially huge; the export possibilities have not been explored yet.
If Wang gets her £10m from the Aim market - and the reception she has received in the City suggests it is a comfortable target - she will use it to modernise the Shaanxi facilities, which employ 530 people, and open two new centres, in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang and at Xinjiang in the north west. Both are huge, but under-exploited farming areas, and their climate would represent a new challenge for Bodisen.
But Wang is certainly not shirking the challenge. She sees herself as a standard-bearer for women in Chinese business, and would like to encourage others to follow her example. 'It takes more determination for a woman to succeed in business in China. Men have to be focused and forward-looking and give 100 per cent all the time. Women have to do all that too, but have to give 200 per cent to be successful.'
Name Karen Wang Qiong. 'Karen' is her chosen English name
Born 1965, Wugong Xian, Shaanxi province, People's Republic of China, to a farming family
Family divorced, with two children at college in Britain hoping to go to Cambridge University. 'She values British education,' says an aide
Job chairman and chief executive of Bodisen, the fastest growing agri-business company in China. It is listed in New York with a market capitalisation of about $240m. In 2001, she was named China Newspaper Association media personality of the year