A photo with legs

CHINA - A 1991 news picture of a miniskirted mom makes new waves after a Dalian newspaper went looking for the bright-eyed, confident subject, Zhu Chengpei and Zhang Xiaomin report.

A photo taken 22 years ago made ripples in the tranquil life of Chen Xiaolu in Dalian.

It is one of the old photographs released by Xinhua News Agency to review the history of China's reform and opening-up progress. In the picture, a beautiful woman wearing a miniskirt looks back over her shoulder with a smile. She looks very eye-catching among pedestrians on the street.

"It is really good luck for a woman to have such an impressive photo," says the now 50-year-old Chen, who retains her trim figure and enjoys seeing her beauty as a young woman captured in time.

Bordered by the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea, Dalian is a major port city in Northeast China's Liaoning province. It has experienced rapid development since China's opening-up to the outside world in 1978.

The photographer, Zhang Xiaolong, says he was trying to take some pictures reflecting the change in common citizens' clothing during the Dalian Fashion Festival in September 1991.

As a reporter with Xinhua, Zhang had travelled across the world. He expected people in Dalian to be much more fastidious about their clothing, compared with residents in other domestic cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

"But in fact, miniskirts were not uncommon in Dalian at that time. It is the infectious smile of the miniskirt lady that endowed the picture with vitality," Zhang says of the vigorous, confident and stylish woman.

After a decade of development, people's income increased by a large margin, greatly improving their living standards. They became open-minded and started to wear colorful clothes.

The local newspaper Dalian Evening News recently appealed readers to find the "miniskirt lady".

"After 22 years, there are many uncertainties. We were not sure whether she is still living in Dalian," says Zhao Zhenjiang, chief editor of the newspaper.

When the story was published, a reader called the reporter, saying he was an old neighbour of the miniskirt lady.

Chen was quite surprised to find that her image was regarded as a typical representation of the time.

"I have loved to dress up since I was a little girl. When I started to earn money, I always pursued fashion. It made me get many second glances walking on the street," she recalls. "But I'd never thought that I could become the focus of a photographer."

At that time, Chen was 28 years old and mother to a 4-year-old girl.

An enlargement of the photograph is on the wall of Chen's living room.

"It is the right image of that period. Look at my eyebrow tattoos, how interesting! That was very popular at that time," Chen recalls.

Chen was a cashier at the Wangfangdian branch of Dalian Foreign Trade Company. After work, she often went for a stroll around Tanjin Street, the most prosperous commercial street of the city then.

She bought her miniskirt there. It cost her 15 yuan (S$3), nearly a third of her monthly wage.

"The average income was greatly improved. When our company reorganised from the previous foreign trade bureau, we got more bonuses than before. So I had a little extra money to buy nice clothes," she says.

Miniskirts had started to pop up. With her husband's encouragement, Chen became one of the few who dared to wear one.

"We knew each other in our teenage years. She is good-looking and wears it well. I'm proud of her," says Su Renjie, Chen's husband.

In the late 1990s, many State-owned enterprises in China underwent restructuring and had to streamline their working team. In 2000, both Chen and Su were laid off. With a lump-sum severance compensation, Su started to do business. As he earned enough money to support the family, Chen did not need to work outside. She became a full-time housewife.

Several years later, they moved to a new house of about 200 square meters, almost triple the size of their previous apartment. Today, their only daughter is 26 years old and a university graduate.

"This is the life I like," Chen says, smiling.

"When I was a kid, I helped my parents with housework, and they bought beautiful clothes for me as a reward. Now, beautiful clothes and housework are still my favourite things," she says, leaning back on the sofa.

The 100-square-meter living room is kept in excellent order. Potted plants, decorative paintings and a swing chair - everything is warm and clean.

"You just met in a good era," says Chen's mother, Meng Qingzhen, who was sitting beside her. "In our time, both your father and I had to work. Otherwise, we could not bring up three children."