A uniform style of clothing without a hint of nonconformity was the norm for mainlanders during the country's political campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. But the late 1970s finally saw an end to the 'any colour as long as it's blue or black' attire as the mainland's opening and reform began. Many dramatic changes have taken place since, among them the first beauty pageant. In 1985, Guangzhou's comparatively open-minded Communist Youth League officials decided to hold a beauty contest in response to directives to 'construct the city's socialist spiritual civilisation'. It was the first beauty pageant on the mainland since 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. More than 600 contestants signed up to try something new from the outside capitalist world. Xie Ruoqi , a 21-year-old woman representing Guangzhou's White Swan Hotel, the nation's first five-star hotel in which Hong Kong billionaire Henry Fok Ying-tung had invested, went on to win the title. 'At that time, Guangzhou's youth loved anything new - Coca Cola, jeans, discos, Hong Kong movies. We were like sponges that absorbed whatever experiences were fresh to us,' Ms Xie said. 'I was sent by my boss to represent the hotel. I didn't think of the result too much. I just happened to be young and had the courage to try new things.' Since the early 1980s, Guangzhou has been at the forefront of economic development, giving its residents great opportunities to be the first to try anything new. 'Guangzhou was to China what New York was to America at that time,' Ms Xie said. 'Our sense of style was a barometer of fashion among China's youth. The first beauty contest was held here. Right place, right time.' The government took pains to hold a contest with socialist characteristics, emphasising that it would be different to a beauty pageant held in the west or Hong Kong. 'We didn't have a swimsuit competition or glittery evening gowns,' Ms Xie said. 'The Youth League officials told us that appearance would not be the deciding factor, that the judges would choose someone healthy and talented to represent China's image of the ideal, modern socialist youth and to teach the young what socialist aesthetics were all about.' The candidates, 260 male and 350 female, first had to take a written test, answering 50 questions covering politics, patriotism, economics, history, culture and science. 'The questions were fun, looking back now,' Ms Xie said. 'Such as 'what is Newton's law of gravitation?', 'who is the president of the United States?' and 'what is the nationwide official movement of five stresses [a focus on decorum, manners, hygiene, discipline and morals]?'' About 140 people made it to the semi-final in late February and the contest captured the public's imagination. But conservative Beijing leaders seemed not to endorse it. 'They asked to stop the contest, saying it typified capitalism and would spread undesirable influences among young Chinese,' Ms Xie said. After a debate in Beijing, the contest was allowed to continue but Beijing instructed the organisers not to publicise it. People's Liberation Army soldiers were sent to the final to prevent foreign and Hong Kong reporters covering the event, and a videotaped recording of it was sent to Beijing for review before it could be shown in public. Ten men and 10 women made it to the final in Guangzhou's Marriott China Hotel on the night of March 6, with Ms Xie one of the candidates tipped to win. After the finalists performed the customary song-and-dance routines and were graded on their physical appearance, Ms Xie, draped in a blue dress, sang a Japanese song that seemed to captivate the judges and won her the title of Miss Canton. Her reward was a trophy and a lamp. After taking the title, she said, people flocked to the hotel to take a closer look at her and she received hundreds of letters from admirers all over the country. Miss Canton and the runners-up were supposed to tour major cities to promote Guangdong's economic achievements. 'But the plan was cancelled as Beijing feared the tour might have a bad influence,' Ms Xie said. It was believed that such activities would not be organised in the future due to a lack of support from the central government. But two years later, the beauty contest idea was revived by Guangdong TV and, since then, pageants have become accepted and even normal on the mainland. After winning the contest, Ms Xie quit working at the hotel and devoted herself to public relations, trade and then property development. 'Now young people on the mainland are free to chase their dreams. I'm happy to have been the 'pioneer' and to see the changes after the opening,' she said.