Possessing a perfect butler, similar to Mr. Carson on “Downton Abbey,” is fast becoming a top status symbol for China’s new legion of 569 billionaires, who now top the United States’ 537 billionaire titans.
According to News China magazine, the amount of wealth possessed by China’s nouveau riche climbed to $2.1 trillion in 2016. The “must-haves” for the class-conscious, super-rich in Communist China’s “classless” society include a luxury mansion, a Rolls-Royce or two, a couple of bodyguards, a yacht and a private jet. But the new gold standard for the super hotshots is a Western-trained butler, preferably answering to the name of Mr. Carson.
The hottest of these hotshots is real estate developer Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group. With a fortune valued at roughly 86 billion yuan ($14.1 billion), he tops Forbes List of the 400 Richest People in China. In addition, some 67,000 people there have assets worth more than 100 million yuan ($16.4 million) and 1.09 million people have a net worth exceeding 10 million yuan ($1.6 million).
Is this Communist China or Western capitalism?
Among those to sit up and take notice is Christopher Noble, a graduate of the Amsterdam-based International Butler Academy (TIBA). Noble was working as a butler in a swanky social club in Chengdu — an affluent city in Sichuan Province where the food has long been known as the most sophisticated in China — when, to his amazement, he discovered that the fashionable socialites were fascinated by English butlers. Noble assumed the demand for private butlers among the Chinese elite would continue to expand. So he decided to establish, for the first time in China, a Butler Academy.
TIBA’s Chengdu campus, headed by Noble, opened in July 2014, with the hope that China’s elite would follow in wealthy Western footsteps and hire butlers to manage their growing estates.
Noble plans to win over potential clients through the academy’s cooperation with real estate developers. Butler hopefuls are both Chinese and foreign. Among those who paid the tuition fee of 40,000 yuan ($6,176) for the concentrated 42-day training course are a railroad engineer, a software programmer and a state-owned enterprise employee. Perfect Butler graduates earn annual salaries of up to 1 million yuan ($154,400).
Besides learning Western etiquette from books, the students master the art of silver service and folding napkins into the shape of swans, as well as setting a royal British table with four kinds of crystal wine glasses and a confusing variety of porcelain plates and assorted silverware to match each menu.
They must also take hats and coats and bartend while welcoming a dozen or more dinner guests, who may arrive at a moment’s notice. In some cases the butlers are also required to demonstrate Western manners to their Chinese employers, including the use of knives and forks, the sipping of soup discreetly and the art of polite conversation as on “Downton Abbey.”
Although the Chinese elite have traditionally employed highly skilled servants and gourmet cooks, the idea of a dignified, Western-trained butler makes them feel special — like British aristocrats who hire Chinese cooks. Some clients have even asked the academy for blond butlers to ride horses around their properties. Others wanted to hire them as janitors. Of course, these kinds of demands have all been rejected.
Pu Yun, marketing director for TIBA’s Chengdu campus, told News China, that China’s high-end real estate market has recently encountered a bottleneck in development, making it ripe for the butler status symbol. “Materially we don’t know what else we can do to improve properties,” he said, “The only thing left to do is to cover each brick with gold. So breakthroughs are needed in other areas.”
The idea is to show the Chinese elite that they can upgrade their estates further by hiring Western-trained butlers. Pu says, “These new home-buyers will become our target clients.”
Noble believes that knowing Western customs will be a necessary undertaking for China’s newly rich, whose businesses and lifestyles have all become increasingly globalized. In the last four years alone, The compound growth rate of China’s overseas investments has reached 72 percent.
While the lives of prosperous Chinese are becoming more international, it is still too early to say whether or not the British butler in China is a fad. As long as “Downton Abby” continues to be a popular show in China, Noble’s Butler Academy will probably stay in business.