[Marxism] Rich Chinese, Inspired by ‘Downton,’ Fuel Demand for Butlers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 15 10:42:10 MST 2017

NY Times, Jan. 15 2017
Rich Chinese, Inspired by ‘Downton,’ Fuel Demand for Butlers

Liu Janmin, left, and Zhang Ling, students at the International Butler 
Academy China in Chengdu, checking the alignment of glasses on the table 
for a formal dinner. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
CHENGDU, China — Mao once said that a revolution was not a dinner party. 
But with the communist revolution turning into opulent capitalism, 
China’s rich are now making sure the dinner party settings are 
immaculate and the wine is poured just right.

Inspired in part by the “Downton Abbey” television drama, the country’s 
once raw and raucous tycoons are aspiring to old-school decorum, fueling 
demand for the services of homegrown butlers trained in the ways of a 
British manor.

“What they would like to say to their friends is, ‘Look, I have a 
butler, an English-style butler in my home,’ to show how wealthy they 
are,” said Neal Yeh, a Chinese-born Briton living in Beijing, who for 
over a decade has helped train and find jobs for butlers.

“The country now with the biggest trend in butlers is China,” said Mr. 
Yeh, whose English accent would be at home on “Downton Abbey,” the 
television series about a blue blood family in England, which was avidly 
watched in China. “I dare say I have played a part in starting this trend.”

Butler training schools and agencies have been doing business in China 
for more than a decade, but the number of recruits has grown sharply in 
recent years, according to those in the business. Most are Chinese and 
many are women. The International Butler Academy China opened in 2014 
here in Chengdu, a haze-covered city in southwest China, and offers a 
six-week boot camp on dinner service, managing homes and other minutiae 
of high living.

“The Chinese are vacationing more now than ever in history, and so 
they’re being exposed to the West more and more,” said Christopher 
Noble, an American trainer at the academy who previously ran bars in 
Cleveland. “But Chinese people see that, experience top-class personal 
service abroad, and they want to experience it here.”

A boom in butler service might seem incongruous as President Xi Jinping 
campaigns zealously against corruption and extravagance, and an economic 
slowdown undercuts lavish spending. But China’s rich continue amassing 
ever greater fortunes and want what they see as the trappings of 
respectable refinement. Even under Mr. Xi, butlers are finding growing 
work as symbols of good taste, according to people in the business.

“You read about an economic slowdown, but China’s wealth is still 
growing,” said Luo Jinhuan, who has worked as a butler in Shanghai and, 
most recently, Beijing, after learning the job in Holland. “Old money 
has passed from one generation to the next. But the new money doesn’t 
have the same quality. You need to help them improve.”

If butlers symbolize maturing Chinese capitalism, the somewhat awkward 
status they have here also reflects how the rich in China must play by 
different rules than the wealthy in many other countries.

It often comes down to a lack of trust. Wealth in China, where a 
cutthroat business culture is pervasive, comes with insecurity about 
being brought low by resentful employees, rivals, and officials, 
especially with the continuing crackdown against corruption. That 
wariness discourages many millionaires from hiring their own Jeeves to 
run their homes, people in the business said.

“Some of them discover that in reality they can’t trust an outsider to 
manage the household,” said Tang Yang, a marketing director at the 
butler academy. “They’re unwilling to have a butler who knows all the 
information about the family.”

Relatively few graduates of the academy end up as traditional household 
butlers. Instead, many work in high-end clubs, housing estates and 
executive floors, serving several clients at the same time — not with 
the same intimacy as a personal butler.

Promoters of butlers in China often point out that the country has its 
own tradition of high-end service, and the classical Chinese novel, 
“Dream of the Red Chamber,” features traditional butlers, called 
“guanjia,” or “domestic manager,” in Mandarin. But “Downton Abbey” 
helped rekindle a new romanticized interest in old-school service in China.

Many student butlers here said they had watched and rewatched the show 
as an instruction video on the self-effacing unflappability of domestic 

“I only began to grasp this profession of butlers after watching 
‘Downton Abbey,’” said Xu Shitao, a 34-year-old Beijing native studying 
at the Chengdu academy. “I think that in the future this profession will 
be quite popular and will have a market.”

But Ms. Xu and her classmates have found that, in reality, being a 
butler is strenuous work.

On a recent morning, they practiced for hours, learning to serve wine 
and water the proper way. Again and again, the class of eight clasped a 
wine bottle near its bottom and stepped forward in unison around a 
dinner table to dispense just enough wine to reach the widest part of a 
wine glass.

Not a drop was to splash the tablecloth or, heaven forbid, a guest.

“Stretch, pour, up, twist, back, wipe. Try to extend your arm,” Mr. 
Noble commanded, using his ever-present translator. “You want to be able 
to extend your arm as much as possible. You’re doing a ballet.”


Christopher Noble, a senior instructor, keeps watch as Sun Qian pours 
champagne during an exam dinner. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
Students also take classes on serving formal dinners, packing luggage, 
cleaning house and countless other details of managing life for the rich.

“You have to get the details right to do your job right,” said Yang 
Linjun, a 22-year-old student in the class. “Your arms get sore and your 
hands hurt, but this is a lifestyle.”

After they graduate, many hope to attach themselves to China’s growing 
number of superrich. In return, they may earn monthly wages of $2,800 or 
much higher as personal butlers, depending on experience and luck — more 
than for many service jobs.

By 2015, China had 400 billionaires and billionaire families, an 
increase of 65 from just a year earlier, according to Forbes’ annual 
list. The country’s richest 1 percent own about one-third of household 
wealth, a share similar to the concentration of wealth in America.

Manners can be rough in China, sometimes in a warm way, sometimes less 
so. But that has been changing as people grow richer, travel and live 
abroad, and bring back a demand for polished, attentive service.

“A decade ago, very few Chinese people stayed in five-star hotels,” said 
Yang Kaojun, a property manager with the Summit Group, which employs 
teams of trained butlers who are at the beck and call of residents. “But 
now many people have, and that’s given them some understanding of what 
good service is.”

As well as the Chengdu academy, the Sanda University, a private college 
in Shanghai, has incorporated butler training into its hospitality 
program. Many Chinese also learn how to be butlers in Europe. And Sara 
Vestin Rahmani, the founder of the Bespoke Bureau, a British company 
that finds domestic staff members for wealthy employers, said her 
company planned to open a school for butlers and domestic staff people 
in China this year.

The number of butlers in China is hard to determine. There may be 
hundreds or thousands, especially in Beijing, Shanghai and the 
prosperous south. Ms. Rahmani said that in 2007 her company found 
positions in China for 20 butlers; by 2015 that number had grown to 375, 
including 125 with families. Others reported similar growth.

“We are in actual fact exporting to China a trade which was once their 
own,” Ms. Rahmani said. “With communism, everything that was refined, 
unique and upper-class became a distant memory.”

But Chinese employers often treat butlers as expensive all-purpose 
flunkies who should be on call 24 hours a day. That violated the 
traditional idea of a butler as a respected manager of the household and 
above most menial tasks. Ms. Luo, the butler, said her work was far more 
hectic than she imagined. Her daily routine included overseeing the 
sauna, cinema, bowling alley and other rooms in a 32,000-square-foot home.

“I feel that when work starts, there’s no time at all to stop and rest,” 
she said. “It’s a lot harder than working in a hotel.”

The pressure is compounded by employers’ fears that household servants 
could exploit sensitive information. Butlers are supposed to have a deep 
knowledge of their employers’ every foible, traditionally recorded in a 
book. But the worry that information could be used to rob, extort or 
prosecute them has discouraged many rich people from taking butlers into 
their confidence.

“Many of our wealthy are the first generation to be rich, and they don’t 
have a long accumulation of family history,” said Mr. Yang, the student 
at the butler academy in Chengdu, who works for a real estate company. 
“You need trust and a long period of adjustment to have another person 
suddenly by your side.”

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