Tracy Chen proves appearances can be deceptive.
By day she is a smartly-dressed executive at a company in the World Trade Centre, a prestigious location for international investors in Beijing.
But when evening falls, the 27-year-old swaps her business suit for a tank-top, shorts and boxing gloves.
In the basement of a luxury hotel, she joins other women who have taken up the sport of boxing.
"I feel prettiest when I fight fiercely in my boxing outfit," she said.
A growing number of urban Chinese women, who appear demure and well-coiffed, are turning to combative sports in their spare time.
About 20 young women in Shanghai have even gone one step further by training to become professional boxers.
While many merely see the sport as an exciting way to keep fit, the professionals are struggling to make ends meet and often rely on financial support from their parents.
A dark, rundown gym without heating or air-conditioning in a remote suburb of Shanghai is the chosen place of work for the professional women boxers.
"Girls' punches are not always weak like people usually think. We get bruised on the face, and a teammate once had her nose broken," said Shi Hongning, captain of Shanghai Sports College Women's Boxing Team.
"But you stop feeling as much pain the more you get hit."
Shi was one of the first women to join the group and it now boasts 20 members. It was set up by boxing coach Wang Lianfang in 2000, and he originally hoped women boxing would be included in the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games.
"If the game is included in the 2012 Olympics, however, I will take my girls there," he said with a broad grin.
"If I cannot fight at that time, I will train students to go," said Shi Hongning, the eldest member of the team, who has won three national titles and was runner-up in the 2003 Women's World Championship.
"All the efforts will be worthwhile if I can fight at the Olympics," said Dong Cheng, the 19-year-old national champion of 2005 in the 60 kilogram-weight.
According to Wang Lianfang, the sport just missed being eligible for the Games in Beijing but could be included in the 2012 London Olympics. "As women boxers can usually fight from their late teens to early 30s, most of my girls will still be able to fight in six years."
He added that as the sport was only introduced to the country 10 years ago, it still needed time to gain more support, especially as governments or enterprises do not usually support those not listed in the Olympics.
After years of effort, Wang Lianfang was finally able to get the college to pay the girls a regular allowance and cover the costs of attending contests, though the basic monthly allowance rate is only 180 yuan (US$22).
Boxers who win championships, however, are awarded 2,500 yuan (US$300) for the year.
Wang has tried, but failed, to attract corporate sponsors.
"No one comes to watch us practising and boys tend to shudder at the mere mention of a woman boxing," joked Shi Hongning, 24. She played basketball before joining Wang's team.
The women train six days a week, except on Sundays, leaving little time for the pastimes most people their ages enjoy.
Their most frequent companions are 20 male boxers who share the small gymnasium at Shanghai Sports College with them.
"Most of the time, we are just by ourselves," said 22-year-old Zhang Ying.
"And our coach forbids us having boyfriends before graduating from university."
Wang is determined to take an active role in all aspects of their lives. "When they finish their studying, I will do the matchmaking,
"The same rule applies if I have a daughter.
"I hold the traditional Chinese idea on love and marriage."
"But even if he permits us, we won't have time for that," Shi Hongning said.
Most of the women come from sporting backgrounds, including athletics, swimming and judo.
"Boxing is cool and fun," said 18-year-old Zhu Liping who joined the team recently. She previously practised judo.
"It is not as cruel and bloody as some people think," said Zhang Qin, two-time national champion, who entered boxing seven years ago.
Zhang had her nose broken in a bout once.
"Boxing demands skills and tactics with a mixture of feints and attacks which are comparable to those in military training," she told China Daily while sparring in the ring, looking graceful rather than brutal.
"We are not muscular or mannish as some imagine," Shi said.
"Instead, it helps keep women fit."
While several of the boxers have short hairstyles similar to last year's Super Voice Girl Huang Yali, others, like Zhang Qin, have long, curly hair.
"Girls here are as diverse as in any other workplace," said one boxer nicknamed Niuniu.
Shi said some people's preconceptions that women boxers wore tight, sexy shorts in the ring were very wrong.
"We wear baggy shirts and regular boxer shorts in fights, and we are very serious and passionate about the sport."
Dong Cheng and 22-year-old Zhang Qin, both from Wuhan, Hubei Province, became boxers seven years ago when Wuhan Sports College was recruiting a team, and they came to Shanghai when the group was disbanded.
"I think I want to spend my whole life on it. The longer I am in it, the more I love it," said Dong.
"If one day I cannot fight any more, I hope I can be a coach."
At present, there are more than 200 registered women boxers in China, according to Wang. Many train at sports institutes in Shanghai and Zhejiang Province.
Meanwhile, boxing courses are increasingly being offered at gyms in Beijing, Shanghai and middle-sized cities such as Quanzhou of Fujian Province.
Back to Beijing
Those who attend these gym courses are mainly white-collar women aged around 30, according to Zhu Liang, chief trainer of the Yao Wu Bo Yi Boxing Club, which is one of the largest of its kind in Beijing.
"Actually, the number of women in my club has grown so fast in the past two years that they make up nearly half of the total membership," he told China Daily.
"I have dozens of women students now."
Tracy Chen, who joined one of the eight branches of Zhu's club at the fitness centre of the four-star Jianguo Garden Hotel, said she fell in love with the sport at first sight.
"I was on the jogging machine when I saw these women holding back their long hair in ponytails or bandanas and starting to practise punching and dodging punches," she said.
"I envied them so much at that moment. I was just running on the boring machine, but decided that one day I would look as fit and flexible as those women were.
"I can achieve an absolute command of my body in the sport.
"I have never had that feeling before."
Tracy Chen has also reaped a perfect waistline since she began her boxing training last summer. "Boxing can reduce fat in some parts of the body which rarely have a chance to exercise, such as the waist, the hips and the inner sides of upper arms," she said.
Her boyfriend, a lawyer in his 30s, has been enthusiastic about her love for boxing. He watches her fight and drives her home after class whenever he has time.
(China Daily 04/18/2006 page1)