The English butler returns

By Geoffrey Murray Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-30 18:33:01

At first sight, a career as a servant doesn't seem to fit the image of a socialist country like China, with its emphasis on egalitarianism. And yet, my residential compound is swarming with live-in nannies and even the ubiquitous Filipino maid has come to make an appearance.

In all shapes and sizes, of all ages, they maintain a ceaseless patrol in chattering groups past my windows with babes in arms or in pushchairs all day. (In childless families, they babysit the dog.)

I've never liked the idea of having domestics. I was forced to have them when I worked in India in the 1960s and it embarrassed me; in the 1980s, at the insistence of my then-wife, I hired a succession of Filipino maids who proved to be more trouble than they were worth.

In a tight labor market, however, domestic service is becoming a popular job, so the reappearance of the English butler is perhaps just another step along that road.

The meticulously trained butler will be familiar to anyone who has seen British television period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs.

You know: "You rang, m'lady?'

"Yes, James, we will take tea in the conservatory."

It might seem an anachronism, but the institution is finding new markets. Apparently, there are many academies in London that train butlers for the newly-rich in the emerging markets of China and the Middle East.

Is there really a market in Beijing for such a creature - one who epitomizes traditional "Englishness"? There's the snob value, of course. Having a personal butler is a way of showing off - a symbol of having reached a certain level in capital accumulation.

And these days, a butler is not just someone with good manners, tact and discretion who ensures dinner will proceed smoothly without seeming to intrude; he can also help instruct Chinese businessmen in Western etiquette: what piece of cutlery to pick up first, how to meet and greet Westerners, how long to maintain eye contact, etc.

A century ago, an estimated 30,000 butlers worked for the British aristocracy, but the number dwindled to around a hundred in the 1980s. Now, it seems, the number is back up to 10,000 and demand exceeds supply. With salaries on offer up to $300,000 a year, I can see the attraction.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.

Posted in: Twocents-Opinion

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