IRON BUTTERFLIES These powerful Asian businesswomen break down barriers with charm rather than militancy. Many were born to wealth, but don't underestimate their ambition.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – DRESSED in delicate batik or colorful silk, most Asian women act charmingly deferential to men. But don't be fooled by outward appearances. A seemingly demure, fluttering creature may actually be an iron butterfly -- a powerful businesswoman. Growing numbers of Asian women, well educated and internationally sophisticated, flourish as entrepreneurs. Even in Japan, a culture so traditional that the word ''wife'' means ''inside the house,'' 41% of the work force is female. And nearly half of Korea's workers are women. Most Japanese and Korean women, however, fill factories and secretarial pools, rarely becoming managers. In Southeast Asia, where family firms still predominate, many women get ahead because they are the brightest business people in their clans. In such Buddhist countries as Thailand, the large role of women in business has cultural roots: Many men believe they will reach a higher level in the next life by shunning materialistic pursuits, so they leave crass commerce to wives -- or mistresses. Singapore, which is short of skilled labor for its fast- growing economy, uses tax incentives to encourage educated women to work. The women profiled here have made it in a variety of fields. They share an affinity for hard work. Though ambitious and independent-minded, they all grew up obedient to their parents. Most of them manage high-powered careers while raising children. Above all, they are feminists who break down traditional Asian barriers by charm rather than militancy. A Southeast Asian support group called WOW (Women for Other Women) encourages aspiring female managers, albeit in a gentle Asian way. Says Jannie Tay, an entrepreneur who serves as president of the Singapore chapter: ''You can never be successful without your husband's support.'' She should know. Her husband quit his medical practice to work for her chain of watch boutiques.

TAIWAN EMILIA ROXAS, 37 She runs a $5 billion empire for a tough boss -- her dad

Emilia Roxas took over as chairman of the 1,057-room Asiaworld Plaza Hotel in Taiwan in 1979 with at least three handicaps: She was a woman, she was an outsider from the Philippines, and she was only 25 years old in a society that values age and experience. But on the job, Roxas won the confidence of her boss -- and father -- Tan Yu, a demanding Overseas Chinese real estate tycoon. Three years ago she rose to chief executive of the family's Asiaworld Internationale Group, a privately held empire worth an estimated $5 billion. Totally dedicated to work, Roxas cloaks her will in velvety manners. ''I do not have to be ruthless,'' says she. ''I only have to charm men with my competence, tenacity, and unfaltering sense of commitment.'' She oversees big property ventures in both Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as financial institutions, hog farms, textile mills, and hotels in Southeast Asia, plus real estate in the U.S. In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, Emilia shuttles among three offices in a chauffeured Mercedes -- issuing orders along the way via her car phone. Says one subordinate: ''She's very demanding -- you feel the pressure.'' The second oldest of 14 siblings, Emilia adopted the surname of her godfather, investment banker Sixto Roxas, when she was baptized into the Protestant faith as a teenager. Friends call her Bien Bien, her Chinese name. A woman at the helm is a family tradition. Her grandmother started the corporate dynasty with a copra business and raised Emilia. A few years before her death in 1986 at age 92, the matriarch recommended that Emilia take charge. She had already worked her way up through the family businesses, starting at 15 as a telephone operator and file clerk. To sharpen her skills, she took a three-week course at the Harvard business school last summer. Roxas, who is single, shares a penthouse apartment in Taipei with her mother and elder sister, Elizabeth, the group controller. Sounding like a female chauvinist, Roxas says: ''Women are usually better organizers, whether in business or family affairs. They are patient, resilient, and more attentive to detail.''

TAIWAN CHARLENE WANG CHIEN, 42 A billionaire's daughter makes it on her own in computers

True, Charlene Wang Chien is the daughter of billionaire Y. C. Wang, founder of Formosa Plastics. But she established her highly successful computer company on her own. Says she: ''I was too independent-minded to accept any gifts from my father.'' Instead, with $25,000 in savings, Chien started First International Computer as the Taiwan agent for Prime minicomputers in 1979, then diversified into manufacturing personal computers. She has just sold 10% of the company on the Taiwan Stock Exchange -- establishing its total market value at $180 million. Striking it rich -- or richer -- does not excite Chien. ''Any personal wealth we may have on paper is secondary to the financial power we now have to expand the company,'' she says. As president, Chien has a growth monster on her hands. Last year she roughly doubled both sales (to $115 million) and profits (to $6.4 million). Her flinty father, who values his own spartan upbringing, packed Chien, then 15, off to boarding school in England about the time his plastics company began to prosper. Except for a summer, she stayed away for 15 years, earning a math degree from the University of London and a master's in applied math and statistics from the University of California at Berkeley. Chien began her company upon returning to Taiwan. Through the years, her father had kept up a steady stream of long letters that she says were ''full of instruction'' about his big imperatives: Work hard and never squander money. The lessons stuck. Many of her friends drive Mercedes, but she prefers a Yue Loong, Taiwan's version of the Nissan. Chien met her husband, Ming, an electrical engineer, when both were graduate students at Berkeley. While he finished his doctorate, she worked as a quality-control engineer at Rockwell International, gaining what turned out to be invaluable industrial experience. When Ming came home in the late 1970s to teach at National Chiao Tung University, she launched her little computer company. Her initial reason, she says, was ''to give me something to do.'' Within two years First International was doing so well that Chien's husband joined it to oversee technology. In addition to being a math whiz, she has a talent for maintaining rapport with her 800 employees. She remembers their birthdays, visits them when they are sick, and delights in playing matchmaker -- so far bringing together 14 couples who later married. Her reward: fierce loyalty from workers in a tight job market. Chien and her husband, who own the majority of the company, have given their employees a 20% stake.

THAILAND CHANUT PIYAOUI Rejection from Columbia led to a fabulous career in hotels

With little initial capital and endless determination, Khunying Chanut Piyaoui has created Thailand's leading hotel chain, which is now moving abroad. In addition to eight hotels in Thailand, Khunying (an honorary title given to outstanding women by the Thai King) Chanut manages others in Indonesia, is setting up a Thai restaurant in Tokyo, and is shopping for American hotels. Asiamoney, a regional magazine, ranks her Dusit Thani Group among the 100 best-managed companies in Asia, accurately describing it as ''run from the top by steel-edged Mrs. Chanut, Bangkok's most famous businesswoman.'' Chanut, who calls herself ''chairperson,'' says, ''I didn't have a good education, but I like for work to be done properly.'' She owns 40% of the chain. After World War II she went to the U.S., hoping to attend Columbia University. When she failed to get in, she traveled around the country, becoming fascinated with hotels. When she got into the business back home, hotels in Thailand had a somewhat unsavory reputation as ''places of entertainment,'' in her delicate phrase. She busted the paradigm: ''I wanted a hotel like the ones I stayed at in America,'' she says. A self-made entrepreneur, Chanut struggled upward without the male financial support enjoyed by many Thai women who enter business. Wealthy Thai men often have minor wives, as mistresses are respectfully described, whom they set up in small businesses. This system of near-polygamy inspires prudent Thai wives to persuade husbands to back their own business ventures as insurance against being abandoned. Says Chanut, who went into the hotel business before her marriage: ''Thai women are trained to walk behind men, but in the rice fields you see them working side by side. I have no patience with the old attitude that women are the hind legs of the elephant.''

THAILAND SUPALUCK UMPUJH, 36 Working harder than men, she helped mall Thailand

Family firms in Southeast Asia often give daughters opportunities to flourish. Says Supaluck Umpujh, executive vice president of the Mall Group, a diversified retailer and manufacturer in Bangkok: ''To get accepted in business, a woman has to work harder.'' No mere figurehead, Supaluck helped her family bring to Thailand megamalls that include everything from shops and a disco to the kingdom's first ice-skating rink -- all thriving on a growing middle class. Then she created manufacturing ventures that supply her company and other markets. She plays a starring role in the grand design of her father, Supachai Umpujh, who made his money in the freewheeling world of Bangkok nightclubs and related enterprises. Says Supaluck: ''He doesn't want his children to work in that business.'' Starting just 12 years ago, the family has built the Mall Group into a retail business with $194 million in annual sales. Supaluck, whose mother died when she was 8, grew up with a streak of self-reliance. As she puts it, ''My father worked very hard when I was young, so I had to take care of myself.'' Shy at school in Bangkok, she got through by studying diligently and smiling a lot. Says Supaluck, who graduated from Mahidol University with honors in pharmacy: ''At first I wanted to be a doctor, but realized it would be miserable having lives depend on me.'' Instead, she decided to set her sights on manufacturing cosmetics and drugs, earning a master's degree from Purdue University in physical and industrial pharmacy along the way.

Just two days after returning to Thailand, Supaluck was inducted into the Mall Group, then just getting started. She gained business acumen from trial and a lot of errors. ''I started from zero,'' she says, ''and had to learn everything step by step.'' She discovered that being a woman gave her advantages in business, especially in dealing with suppliers that had exclusive arrangements with rival Thai retailers. Says she: ''Everything depends on negotiations. Feminine charm can help you negotiate with more tact and less aggression.'' To be taken more seriously in her home country, Supaluck became a part-time university lecturer in pharmacy -- because the Thais traditionally respect teachers. Driven by a sense of family duty, she works ten-hour days. Says she: ''Being single, I can devote more time to my work,'' adding, ''I like it that way.''

SINGAPORE HELEN CHEN, 33 A young architect restores the glory of the Raffles Hotel

When Helen Chen first started working as an architect in Singapore eight years ago, managers at construction sites assumed she was a secretary helping her boss. Says Chen, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard: ''Smaller contractors find it difficult having a lady order them around.'' But nowadays even the biggest contractors listen closely to Chen. She is coordinating architect for the highest-profile project in Singapore -- restoration of the Raffles Hotel. Chen, who helped draw up plans for recapturing the grandeur of one of Asia's few remaining 19th-century hotels, now makes certain that contractors carry out every detail. While Singapore encourages women to enter professions, few of them are practicing architects. The joy of being an architect, she says, ''comes from seeing your dreams materialize.'' Monitoring work on the $92.5 million Raffles project, she works 12 hours a day -- and plainly thrives on what she describes as ''a harrowing experience.'' Says Chen: ''It's very exhausting because there are so many layers of authority, all the way up to the President and the Prime Minister.'' The top-level attention is inevitable: The government has declared the venerable building -- where the last tiger killed in Singapore supposedly was shot under a billiard table in 1902 -- a national monument. Behind her soft exterior is a will with the tensile strength of the steel supporting beams of the refurbished Raffles. Says Chen: ''I feel my destiny is in my control. When I work hard enough, anything is possible.'' A native of Kelantan, in northern Malaysia, she grew up meeting the high expectations of her father, a high school teacher. Applying to U.S. schools that offered scholarships, she chose Princeton without realizing that ''it was such a big name until I got there.'' Chen took a B.S. in engineering with a major in architecture -- cramming the work into just three years and emerging in the top 5% of her class. That won her a scholarship (from the American Association of University Women) to Harvard, where she earned her master's in 1983. With a high energy level, she manages both a demanding career and a family -- two daughters, 5 and 3, and a physician husband. Her ultimate ambition: ''to take control'' of Architects 61, the firm for which she now works.

SINGAPORE KIMIKO KASUYA, 50 A woman on her own turns to rebuilding machinery

''I could never have done this in Japan,'' says Kimiko Kasuya, the Japanese founder and chief executive of Horiguchi, a Singapore company that does precision engineering, such as rebuilding marine engines and production equipment for electronic factories. Most remarkably, Madam Kasuya (as she calls herself) started out as a housewife but has flourished like a tropical orchid in Singapore, this year winning a national award for entrepreneurial excellence. Recently she took public her little company, which expects $13 million in sales this year. Lively and open in manner, Kasuya insists, ''I'm not a brave or gutsy woman.'' Her experiences, including the sudden breakup of her marriage to a European, belie such modesty. She admits, ''When people say I will never succeed, I want to prove that I can. It's my character.'' After eight years of marriage, Kasuya says, her Spanish husband left her with two young daughters. Kasuya had just started her Singapore firm with a Japanese partner and capital from an earlier venture. After a six-year struggle, her company took off. Every morning at 8 she begins a 12-hour workday by doing calisthenics with her staff and dispensing tough-minded managerial wisdom. An example: ''One failure is okay, but if you make the same mistake again, you're stupid.'' Her autobiography, A Storm and an Orchid, was published in Japan last year.

HONG KONG CHENG MING MING, 51 Selling beauty and cosmetics can be a lovely business

Starting with a small hair-styling shop in Hong Kong, Cheng Ming Ming, chairman of the Monita Group, has built an international chain of beauty schools and salons that extends from Southeast Asia and China all the way to California. She uses that network to distribute her own brands of beauty products, Fair Lady cosmetics and C Ming body-slimming potions. Lots of Asian women break into business with hair salons, but Cheng has an exceptional flair for turning the quest for beauty into renminbi, rupiahs, and hard dollars. She even exports cosmetics to Eastern Europe. Her private company expects annual sales of about $30 million this year, buttressed by assets such as company-owned real estate and a business that packages cosmetics for other companies. An intuitive businesswoman, Cheng diversified into cosmetics because of problems that she encountered distributing French products. Says she: ''I discovered that we were at the mercy of brands that kept increasing prices. It was not very profitable, so I decided to have my own brands.'' Cheng lined up a French company to concoct her products, designed for Oriental women in subtropical climates and including a gel that supposedly helps firm up breasts. Monita packages the products in Hong Kong and Shanghai and sells them through its beauty schools and salons. The cosmetics business is growing so fast that her husband, Robert Chen, has quit his family business (mining precious stones) to handle exports, and Fred Chen, her nephew, pitches in as deputy general manager of the group. A devout Christian, Cheng puts Biblical quotations on her cosmetics brochures. Sample: ''The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it'' (Proverbs 10:22). She has also established an organization for entertainers called Home of the Artists, mainly to help them cope with the stress of fast-fading fame. Turning glamour into a solid business has at least spared her that trauma.

HONG KONG ANNIE WU, 43 She serves 8,000 meals a day to travelers in China

Like many Overseas Chinese entrepreneurs, Annie Wu has used a family business to launch her own remarkable career -- creating a string of profitable ventures in China. Says Wu: ''Being so-and-so's daughter opens a lot of doors in Asia.'' James Wu, her father, runs a highly successful chain of restaurants called Maxim's in Hong Kong (no relation to the one in Paris) and encouraged Annie to build her own business. She found a market in the People's Republic, catering meals for airlines operating from Beijing and Shanghai. Plunging into China in 1979, Wu signed the very first foreign joint venture with the People's Republic -- and then began learning the difficulties of making an airline catering operation work. While still waiting for official approval of the deal, Wu went ahead and ordered kitchen equipment from the U.S. Says she: ''You either do it Chinese-style and take a risk, or you sit and wait for approval the Western way.'' By starting boldly, Wu got Beijing Air Catering up and running within nine months. It took a while longer to persuade Chinese workers to put in a full eight- hour day. Says Wu: ''People from Hong Kong and China look alike but certainly don't think alike.'' She claims that working side by side with partners from abroad has opened their ''mental block'' about putting in full days -- and spurred productivity. The Beijing company, which required a $3.9 million startup investment, now serves 8,000 meals a day. She has parlayed that success into a similar air-catering operation in Shanghai. Her hands-on management has produced a joint venture that does better than most in China, earning what she terms ''reasonable profits'' -- that is, comparable with the hefty ones typical in Hong Kong. Wu, who as a child in Hong Kong learned discipline from Italian nuns, claims that she decided on a business career at the age of 8. She studied business administration at Armstrong College, a small private institution in Berkeley, California, but got a lot of practical training by helping out in her father's restaurant chain. On her own, she serves as managing director of the World Trade Center Club in Hong Kong, one of 235 such centers worldwide, which promotes international commerce.

PHILIPPINES LILIA C. CLEMENTE, 50 This wonder woman doesn't mind being called cute

The wonder woman of Wall Street. That's how the press in the Philippines likes to describe Lilia C. Clemente, a Filipina who runs Clemente Capital, an investment firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She manages funds totaling some $7.5 billion, and has an eye for spotting growth stocks in the Pacific Rim. Though based in Manhattan, Clemente spends a third of the year on the road, traveling an average of 300,000 miles annually ''to smell what's cooking'' in emerging markets. Beating out 178 competitors last spring, Clemente won a contract to manage some $50 million of New York City's pension funds. Says she: ''This honor makes me -- who stands at four feet, eleven and three-quarter inches -- feel like I'm ten feet tall.'' Clemente also helps invest for the big French bank Credit Lyonnais and American Family Corp., a U.S. insurance holding company with substantial assets in Japan. While she struck it big in the U.S., Clemente's roots remain in Manila. She spent the first 19 years of her life growing up in a large household as the eldest of seven children. Her father, a prominent lawyer, served on the boards of large mining companies, while her mother was the first woman to own a seat on the Manila stock exchange. Lilia earned a master's in economics from the University of Chicago. In 1966 she joined CNA Financial Corp. in Chicago as an economist, but got paid less than men doing comparable work. Instead of complaining, Clemente put in longer hours and made herself invaluable. ''In the East,'' says she, ''we call this the act of stooping to conquer.'' Her breakthrough came in 1969 when the Ford Foundation hired Clemente, then 28, as its first female research director and co-manager of its $3 billion investment portfolio. She wound up internationalizing Ford's portfolio long before global diversification was popular. She set up her own firm in 1976. Clemente, an avowed feminist, sees nothing wrong with using charm to further women's rights. ''Some men I meet in business remark that I'm small and cute. I don't care so long as a deal is closed. Because of my size, I get away with a lot.''