BALBINA WONG ENTERS the room with an elegant swish - no easy feat for a woman with a walking stick. But then the woman who conquered China's luxury market is used to pulling off the improbable. 'I had surgery on my foot,' she says. 'I have broad feet and they sometimes cause me trouble.' They have also brought her great wealth. In 1988 a search for a more comfortable pair of shoes led the woman who is now chief executive of ImagineX, Hong Kong's leading management and distribution group, to Ferragamo. The Italian shoemaker led her to luxury and that led her to the Asian distribution rights for brands such as Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs ('I love Marc,' she says. 'He makes you look sexy, cute and younger.') DKNY, Tumi and Coach. 'She is a great innovator,' says Robert Duffy, the president of Marc Jacobs. 'It took her half a second to see how well Marc's clothes would do in Hong Kong and China. Nobody has a better understanding of the Asia fashion market.' Wong was born in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. She was the sixth of seven children. Money was scarce, food was scarce. She had to leave school to find work. 'I will never forget those years,' she says. 'We were hungry most of the time.' In Gone with the Wind, the feisty Scarlett O'Hara, mired in post-civil war poverty, vows to 'never be hungry again'. One can imagine Wong making a similar oath in war-torn Singapore. Since then her life story has read like a study in guts and determination. Wong brought both Gucci and Prada to China but began her career as a makeup artist behind the counter at Elizabeth Arden. 'I liked beauty products and I had lots of ideas about how to make them better,' she says over tea in her headquarters at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. 'The cosmetics industry is about selling hopes and dreams. Asian women have always had a different approach to skin, valuing purity and translucence. I saw growth opportunities.' And she took them. After 25 years in the beauty business she had risen to be the regional sales and marketing director for Estee Lauder in Asia. But her shoes pinched - figuratively and literally. 'I still had lots of ambitions and I wanted a new challenge,' she says. 'And I needed some shoes that wouldn't hurt my feet.' She found what she needed in the soft, buttery leather of Ferragamo's loafers and court shoes. 'I was taken with its products, they were so well made,' she says. 'There was something about them that captured the essence of luxury.' Wong noticed that Ferragamo's products had a unique cachet in Asia and set out to market them in Hong Kong and China trading on the Florentine company's reputation for making products of impeccable quality. 'I went to Florence and met the mother and all six brothers and sisters,' she says of her first encounter with the Ferragamos, who have become her firm friends. 'These days I like to travel with Fulvia [Ferragamo] and her sister Giovanna. We hunt for art and antiques in places like the Beijing market. But it's Wanda Ferragamo, Salvatore's wife, who has been my mentor and my guide.' Wong's indomitable efforts established Ferragamo in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and mainland China. It became one of Asia's first luxury brands and Wong laid the foundation for one of retailing's first luxury conglomerates. 'No one else combines her knowledge of fashion with a real knowledge of the territory,' Michele Norsa, CEO of Ferragamo told Time last year for a profile of Wong in which the magazine portrayed her as the person in Asia to talk to about doing business in China. 'When she enters a room, you see all her jewels and you feel her power.' This energy is apparent even when Wong is engaged in conversation. Her eyes have the sharp focus of a predatory bird and they seem to be constantly looking for new angles. One senses she can see an opportunity from miles away and has the speed of purpose to get there before her competitors. That's what the numbers suggest. ImagineX (part of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group) now represents 23 high-end fashion, lifestyle and beauty brands and has more than 360 points of sale in Greater China. Wong also gave Prada and Gucci their entree into mainland China and she is still their landlord, both having a presence in her Walton Brown Group shopping malls. Not that it has all been easy. In April 1991 she became director of US retail operations for Ferragamo in New York but she left the post less than a year later. And it took eight years from 1992 to 2000 for ImagineX to make money. During that time she also ran Lane Crawford, from 1994 onwards, until retiring in 2003. 'I wasn't too concerned about ImagineX's profitability,' says Wong. 'One has to take a long-term view of China. There are at least 100 cities in China with more than one million people. China's spending on luxury goods will exceed America's within the next five years. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg.' Making a splash in China's market seems easy to many entrepreneurs. They are seduced by the country's size, its economic boom and its population, which seems to have an insatiable appetite for luxury products. But it's not that easy. 'Doing business in China is tough. There is so much emotion. Face value is crucial - if somebody likes you they will want to do business with you. If not, you have a big problem.'