Trained servants increasingly seen as status symbols by China’s growing millionaire class

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-19 18:38:01

Two trainees practice how to massage babies. Li Hao/GT

Trainees at Meiyu Home Services have a cooking lesson on August 14. Li Hao/GT

The demand for butlers, often regarded an archaic and unfashionable profession in the UK, is booming in China. The country's butler agencies are finding it difficult to satisfy the growing demand from their wealthy clients, who regard butlers as the latest status symbol on par with Ferraris and Birkin bags. Wannabe butlers are investing tens of thousands of yuan in training on how to properly serve those used to the finer things in life, drawn to the job by the high incomes on offer.

"Remember that the clients' health is the top concern, and we have to design recipes that are conducive to their health," said an instructor to around 30 students in a mock kitchen in a red-brick building in eastern Beijing.

The students were mostly women dressed in purple uniforms and aprons. One of them, Qiu Lanying, a 38-year-old from Yiyang, Hunan Province, listened attentively, nodding and taking down notes as she listened.

Here at Beijing's biggest butler agency, people aspiring to serve the city's elite are being trained in etiquette, cooking, cleaning and basic management skills. Qiu paid 11,874 yuan ($1,855) for the four-week course, and she thinks it's a worthwhile investment  - she learned on the Internet and from the instructors that a butler's average salary is 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan each month, and those at the very top of the industry in Beijing can command over 35,000 yuan a month plus bonuses. This is higher than the salary of junior managers in large companies.

Competition is fierce among the trainees. After they graduate, they need to complete a six-month internship at the company's headquarters, a villa designed to resemble the homes of their future clients, before the company singles out the best students and dispatches them to clients' homes, often in a group.

"Each group consists of a butler, their assistant, a cleaner, a chef and a chauffeur. The annual fee is usually around 700,000 yuan," Liu Yang, CEO of Meiyu Home Services, told the Global Times. "We receive so many requests that we find it hard to meet the growing demand. It's normal for clients to wait a month before we can find butlers for them." 

Liu, originally from Heilongjiang Province, opened Meiyu Home Services in 2003 after she graduated with a hotel management degree from a Swiss college, hoping to cater to the rising demand among wealthy Chinese for elegant, educated home service workers. Her clients are some of the richest people in the country, mostly real estate developers and business owners, she said, who find that normal domestic helpers are unable to satisfy their needs.

A new old-style concept

While Meiyu takes a local approach to the butler profession, the International Butler Academy, headquartered in the Netherlands, is bringing authentic European butler training to China. The school opened its only foreign branch in Chengdu, Sichuan Province last July, charging 40,000 yuan for a six-week course. So far, 47 students have graduated from the academy.

Here, all students are given a traditional three-piece butler uniform, plus two white shirts with French cuffs and four pairs of white gloves. They're also given a large suitcase, suspenders, a tie, armband and a pocket watch, among other accessories, which are included in the tuition fee.

"The growth of wealth in China is certainly contributing to the growing demand for butlers. The high number of millionaires that are created here means our potential [pool of] clients are growing steadily," Thomas Kaufmann, director of training at the International Butler Academy China, said.

"It's going into the direction that we're going to be very busy for the future, and the demand is overwhelmingly high," he said.

According to the 2014 Hurun Wealth Report, by the end of 2013, the number of millionaires - those with a personal wealth of over 10 million yuan - in the Chinese mainland reached 1.09 million, an increase of 40,000 from the previous year. Among those, the number of super-rich individuals, whose personal wealth exceeds 100 million yuan, reached 67,000.

The rising fortunes of China's wealthiest makes them eager to imitate the charm and sophistication of European-style old money.

The super-rich, according to the Hurun report, own four cars on average and their homes are worth an average of 20 million yuan. They collect wines, Chinese calligraphy and paintings and like to spend their vacations travelling abroad or sampling fine tea. Golf is their favorite sport, and 14 percent have personal physicians.

Hiring a family butler is the latest trend, a status symbol just like a Birkin bag, a Ferrari or Patek Philippe watch.

But not everyone who hires a butler understands the essence of the profession. The modern-day butler is more like a personal assistant who manages the house, give orders to the chef, the cleaner and other home service personnel, books the clients' trips and helps plan events.

"Many Chinese people who request a butler from us don't really know how to use one. They may have an idea, from Downton Abbey or whatever, and they think it's a fancy idea to have a butler, but they just don't know how to use them," Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann mentions some clients who use a butler like a waiter - having them stand at the entrance to the home, opening doors, and serving tea, dinner and lunch, and that's about it. "That's just a waste of such a great resource of what a butler is," he said.

This is why apart from courses for future butlers, the academy is also teaching its clients about how a butler can be used, so that they will get the most value out of their investment, he said.

In the meantime, the demand for butlers is developing in the country's second- and third-tier cities. Ren Lei, a trainee at Meiyu Home Services from Zhucheng, a county-level city in Shandong Province, said he was sent here by his boss who asked him to bring what he learned back to Zhucheng's own butler school. "There might not be as many rich people in third-tier cities as in Beijing, but people there are also looking for high-quality home services. I hope what I learn here will help me set a new standard for home services in Zhucheng," he said.

Upstairs, downstairs

Being a butler means one gets to observe, live in and manage - at least to some extent - the houses of China's wealthiest people. This can be a mind-boggling experience for new butlers, who mostly come from small cities or rural counties.

Yang Xuping, director of Meiyu's training department and a former butler, said she was shocked when she first learned how loose her employers were with their cash, back when her career had just started.

"Some employers spent several thousand yuan on children's clothing when they went shopping. It was more than my whole month's salary back then," she said.

Yang enjoys the eye-opening aspect of serving the rich. "Some of the clients' houses are like exhibition halls," she commented. She used to work in a house that was over 2,000 square meters in area, equipped with a swimming pool, and has inspected houses decorated with indoor aquariums, limited edition home appliances and bespoke leather sofa sets that cost up to one million yuan. Rooms filled with vintage wines, antiques and walk-in closets full of designer clothes are common in the homes of the wealthy people.

Liu Yang said during butler training courses, she often takes promising students to Beijing's high-end shopping malls to familiarize themselves with luxury brands and their logos.

"When an employer asks for her Armani coat, they have to at least understand what she's talking about," she said.

Having been in the industry for almost a decade, Yang Xuping now talks about the profession in a calm, reserved manner, but her expression changes when she recalls her days as a butler.

"Compared with being an instructor, I enjoy working as a butler more. It offers me a sense of fulfillment," she said. After she worked for two years as a butler, Liu Yang appointed her to be an instructor for the company and help train future butlers to satisfy the growing number of requests the company receives.

Lines that cannot be crossed

But the job also comes with strict rules that must be followed. Yang said it's important that butlers know the limits of what they can do.

"The clients may treat you as one of their family, but you must have a practical sense of who you are," Yang said. She described a dinner scene as an example. "Although our code of conduct prefers us not to, the client family sometimes insists that we have dinner with them. And they're each having a sea cucumber. What do we do? We have to keep away from these delicacies. We don't eat what we're not in a position to eat, and we don't say what we're not in a position to say."

There are also certain places in the house that even butlers can't enter.

"For example, we usually keep away from rooms where antiques are housed, or rooms where clients worship Buddhas. There are also other very specific household rules - in one family, the client made it a rule that the door to the bedroom and the door to the worshipping room should never be open at the same time."

Kaufmann mentions loyalty and discretion being particularly important for butlers in China. While this is a universal creed, he says Chinese clients voice this concern to them more often, probably because the role of the butler is still not very well known in the country.

"As a butler you know a lot about your employer. It's very important that your employer can trust you, that you're not going to talk about who you work for, and what is going on in the house and all that," he said.

Newspaper headline: Becoming butlers

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