Thursday, Mar 23, 2017, 4:13 PM CST – China

Society

Butlers

The Next Big Thing?

A new butler school and its students bank on China’s legion of millionaires, hoping that hiring a butler will become the next symbol of wealth amongst the country’s nouveau riche

Students at the Chengdu branch of The International Butler Academy study all aspects of the art Photo Courtesy of TIBA

Table setting is an important aspect of buttling Photo Courtesy of TIBA

A TIBA student serves tea to a guest Photo Courtesy of TIBA

The US-dollar billionaire’s club welcomed about five new Chinese members every week in 2014, according to the Hurun Research Institute. Those 242 newcomers outnumbered their 2013 peers three to one. They also brought China’s total number of billionaires to 596, superseding the US’s 537. The amount of wealth possessed by Chinese billionaires, meanwhile, climbed to US$2.1 trillion.

As the ranks of China’s super-rich swell, other industries are quickly expanding beneath them. In the realm of education, finishing schools and elite private academies are just some of the institutions that are beginning to receive new students in the mainland’s richest cities. Recently, another school has opened its doors – The International Butler Academy (TIBA).

Located in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, the school is the Amsterdam-based institution’s first overseas campus, as well as the first Western butler school in China. Its fourth programme ended on November 28, 2015. Among those who paid the 40,000-yuan (US$6,176) tuition fee for the 42-day training course are a railroad engineer, a nanny, a programmer and a State-owned enterprise employee, to name a few. Each one, along with the school’s founder, is banking on the hope that China’s elite will follow in wealthy Western footsteps and hire butlers to manage their growing estates.

Dinner

Liu Kecheng (a pseudonym) was one of two students in the November class who were the first to graduate from the course with a distinction. Before enrolling in TIBA, he had just turned down an offer to be a butler at a private home with an annual salary of over 1 million yuan (US$154,400). Although Liu had provided private tourism services to wealthy clients in the past, he had never worked in domestic service. He decided to go to TIBA to train properly.

Christopher Noble heads up the Chengdu campus. The American is himself a TIBA graduate, class of 2012. During a visit to China that same year, he was amazed by the affluence he saw. “It’s just unbelievable,” he told NewsChina. Noble noticed all sorts of luxury cars in the second-tier Chinese city, more so than anywhere else he had ever traveled. High-end buildings were rising one after another. “It’s unimaginable in the US. China has an enormous market,” he said.

One day last fall, Noble’s students were learning the art of silver service. They were preparing to welcome 24 dinner guests the next day. Each of the eight students used only four fingers to carry golden trays laden with a heavy porcelain plate that held two ping-pong balls. Their thumbs could not touch the trays, and they had to maintain the position for 15 minutes.

“They are not coming to the school to be comfortable,” Noble said. He told NewsChina that when these students get hired, their employers won’t think about how long they have to stand with a heavy tray. “They would just think that ‘I paid you for the work and you shouldn’t fail.’”

He Pinglian (a pseudonym) learned to fold a napkin into the shape of a swan in a recent class. She’s 51 years old. Before coming to TIBA, she worked as a nanny for a wealthy family in Henan Province for six years.

“I’m kind of behind the times now,” she told NewsChina. “I want to change and improve my life.”

Liu and He worked together to set the table for the event. The Western-style dinner they were told to prepare had been changed to a Chinese banquet with just one day’s notice. The original table setting, for which the students used a ruler, a bow compass, a laser pointer and even an infrared ray to measure the distances between settings, was completely removed. Everything had to be redone. More than 50 people spent an entire afternoon preparing for the dinner.

The next day, when the guests came, the napkin He folded was the first to be unfurled. Holding the golden tray, she smiled professionally. In total, the guests opened up 24 bottles of wine, five bottles of Moutai baijiu (one of the most expensive Chinese spirits), and a number of bottles of Shaoxing yellow rice wine. Amid the merriment, the guests may not have realized that the butlers-to-be had readied four kinds of glasses to perfect the meal or had waited stiffly at the gate for latecomers, standing unnaturally straight for more than an hour in the cold night wind.

The New Rich

The idea of founding a butler school in China popped into Noble’s head during his second year in Chengdu, when he was consulting for deluxe hotels, training sales teams for real estate companies and working as a private butler for a luxury club in one of Chengdu’s most expensive residential communities.

That was in 2013, when Wanda Group’s board chairman Wang Jianlin became the richest person in China on Forbes’ China Rich List with 86 billion yuan (US$14.1bn) in net assets. Also, some 67,000 people in China had assets worth over 100 million yuan (US$16.4m) and 1.09 million people had a net worth exceeding 10 million yuan (US$1.6m).

Yet after nearly a year of market research, Noble and a colleague found that actually, it wasn’t wealthy families driving demand for private butlers, rather it was China’s luxury hotels and real estate agencies that were seeking out these services. The pair decided to look for opportunities to cooperate with real estate developers.

TIBA’s Chengdu campus opened in July 2014 in the swanky residential community where Noble worked as the club’s butler. The floor space of the smallest apartment in the community is no less than 240 square meters and the largest is 630 square meters.

The wealth of China’s richest is largely reflected by the property they own. In the first half of 2015, 420 units in Beijing were sold for more than 20 million yuan (US$3.1m). In China’s first-tier cities, 2,685 houses with a price surpassing 60,000 yuan (US$9,264) per square meter were sold in the second quarter of 2015, a 444 percent year-on-year increase.

But China’s high-end real estate market has recently encountered a bottleneck in development. “Materially, we don’t know what else we can do to improve [properties] – the only thing left to do is to cover each brick with gold,” said Pu Yan, marketing director for TIBA’s Chengdu campus. “So, breakthroughs are needed in other areas.”

The idea is that Chinese elite can further upgrade their estates by hiring a butler. “These [home buyers] will all become our target clients,” said Tang Yang, assistant to the board chairman of Langji Real Estate, developer of the community in which TIBA’s Chengdu campus is located.

Noble believes demand for private butlers among China’s wealthiest will flare up soon. His plan is to locate potential clients and win them over through the school’s cooperation with real estate developers.

“A luxury house, luxury car, bodyguard, yacht and private jet are the five current must-haves for China’s super-rich,” said Pu Yan. “A butler will be next.”

But still, having a butler is a fairly new concept on the mainland and few Chinese know much about the customs of Western nobility. In Langji’s ritzy residential community, which also provides butler services to home owners, some clients have asked for blond butlers to ride horses around the residences, or have simply treated butlers as janitors. “We rejected all of these kinds of demands,” said Tang Yang. However, once they find employment in private homes, butlers may not be able to reject their new employers’ unusual requests so easily.

“We hope that China’s nouveau riche may become a new nobility one day through our efforts,” said Pu Yan. “But it’s very, very difficult.”

Therefore, these butlers-to-be face a task unmatched by their European peers – teaching Western manners to their future employers. Thus, part of their training is to master using knives and forks to eat their meals in an extremely polite way, whether it’s Western or Chinese cuisine. This means TIBA students are often slicing stir-fried green beans into dainty pieces or practicing sipping soup without slurping.

Nonetheless, Noble and the rest of the team behind TIBA believe learning Western habits is a necessary undertaking for China’s newly rich, whose businesses and lifestyles have all become increasingly globalized. In the past four years, the compound growth rate of China’s overseas investment reached 72 percent. In 2014, the amount invested hit over US$10 billion. Currently, Chinese students make up more than 38 percent of the 26,000 foreign exchange students in UK private schools. At least 80 percent of China’s wealthiest families plan to send their children to study overseas, while only 1 percent of Japanese families do the same.

While the lives of affluent Chinese are becoming more and more international, it is still too early to tell whether or not the wealthy will adapt the custom of having butlers from their Western peers. A few months after graduation, Liu Kecheng, He Pinglian and their classmates may be earning annual salaries of up to 1 million yuan (US$154,400), or sifting through unemployment ads, looking at the same vacancies they did before.

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