an a newspaper really be ironed, and what for?” asked Pei Yuchen, an office clerk at a State-owned enterprise, after reading about a school for butlers in Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The 30-something’s second question was: “Can a butler really make 1 million yuan ($152,000) a year?”
Pei, who grew up in a rural family in East China’s Shandongprovince, isnowconsidering quitting her job, which she describes as “boring and predictable”, because she believes working as a butler for a wealthy family will not only fatten her purse, but also provide an eye-opening experience.
Tang Yang, public relations manager for the International Butler Academy in Chengdu, said she often received phone calls from people such as Pei, after the media reported the opening of the school, the first of its kind on the Chinese mainland, in July 2014.
The academy is affiliated with the original academy, headquartered in the Netherlands and run by veteran butler RobertWennekes, whowas born into a butlering family. Wennekes established the academy in 1999 in a 14th-century castle, after recognizing the great difficulty of finding high-quality, professional butlers for his clients.
As more billionaires appeared in China, Wennekes opened the Chengdu school in 2014, in cooperation with a local businesswoman in the real estate industry.
Forbes magazine’s 2015 edition of the China Rich List, published on Oct 28, identified a record 335 billionaires from the Chinese mainland, second only to the United States, a rise of 93, or 38 percent year-on-year. In the past two years, China has added about three to four new billionaires every week.
“After mansions, cars, yachts, jets and bodyguards, wealthy Chinese families need butlers. Higher-end property projects are also in dire need of senior butlers to improve the quality of their services,” said Pu Yan, the school’s marketing director.
“The level of butler service directly indicates the taste of the masters. And China’s new rich will pursue higher tastes of etiquette and higher-quality family lives, which entails quality butler services,” she added.
The Chengdu school has two teaching sites — one in a luxury villa in the city’s suburbs, the other in a private club in a high-rise in an up-market residential community inthe city, with a grand viewof the Jinjiang River.
Owned by Wennekes’ Chinese business partner, the two sites provide real-life household environments in which to instruct students.
After paying 40,000 yuan ($6,000) in tuition fees — enough to pay for eight years of college tuition in Sichuan— the trainee butlers receive six weeks’ “intensive and professional” training from instructors from the US, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, in addition to three meals a day and a butler’s suit.
The first few days of training are the most interesting, according to Vincenzo Matarrese, an Italian instructor and former bartender at a five-star hotel in Europe.
He said that in the first few days, the Chinese students become familiar with a whole range of Western etiquette and protocols, from personal grooming to laying tables and pouring wine. He displays different kinds of grapes on the table and explains the differences between various types of wines.
“In Europe, people have an understanding of wine. But in China, that knowledge is new,” he said.
Liu Kecheng, former manager of a five-star hotel and now a travel consultant for wealthy Chengdu residents, attended the training sessions through his company’s cooperation with the school.
“I learned that it takes about two hours to clean a pair of shoes through 12 procedures. I realized how considerate, meticulous and good at handling multiple tasks a successful butler should be,” Liu said. “It’s a life-changing experience, because the training not only gives me new status, but also a new angle to see hospitality work.”
Christopher Noble, director of training at the Chengdu school, graduated from the academy intheNetherlands in 2012. He said China was one of the first civilizations in history to have butlers, called guanjia, or “housekeeper”.
“What we are reintroducing here already existed for hundreds of years,” said the Ohio native.
But the cultural differences between the West and China constitute a major obstacle for the instructors.
Before joining the academy, Noble worked as a consultant and a trainer for salespeople in the expensive residential community where the club is located. He noted many differences between serving a Western employer and a Chinese one.
“Chinese businessmen and businesswomen tend to hold their household staff at arm’s length. In the West, they give the butlers trustandthe butlers are in the inner circle. Butlers sometimes even know more about their masters than the other family members do,” he said. “I shouldknoweverything about you, and your personal life, not because I am nosy, but because the knowledge can helpmebetter serve you.”
Although the Chengdu academy instructs trainees in Western standards, most of the students have to adapt to the practical circumstances in their future Chinese employers’ homes.
Noble said it is unfortunate that serving staff are looked down upon in traditional Chinese culture: “It’s a career, and there should be mutual respect between the butler and the employer.”
Tang, the public relations manager, is optimistic that the relationship between butlers and employers will likely improve gradually, as China becomes more open to other cultures.
“That the TV series Downton Abbey is popular on the Internet with Chinese audiences, especially the young who are fluent in English, proves that there is a lot of space for Britishstyle butler servicesamongChinese employers, and their attitudes to servants will change gradually,” Tang said.
Although the tuition fees are expensive, the school attracts many Chinese students, who are lured by the potential of a high salary.
He Lianping, a 51-year-old babysitter from Henan province in Central China, paid the fees for the expensive training sessions herself. “I felt I would have been left behind by the times if I continued towork as a babysitter like before,” she said, to explain why she traveled fromHenan to Chengdu.
So far, about 40 four-term Chinese students have graduated from the academy. A new term for 10 students will start in early March, and places have been booked through early winter, according to the school’s website.
Tang hopes the school will be able to open more branches in the next five years, in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou in