Butler boom? Jeeves has arrived in China

Story highlights

  • Dutch school in southwestern China trains butlers
  • UK shows like Downton Abbey are very popular in China
  • China now has more billionaires than the U.S.

(CNN)It's a steep learning curve for China's wannabe butlers.

Before they put on their white gloves and get down to the nitty gritty of table setting, suitcase packing and silver service, they must master what many might consider a more fundamental task.
    "The first we thing have to teach is using a knife and fork," says Christopher Noble, head of training at The International Butler Academy China.
    "We use them every day but to them it's inherently foreign."
    The latest batch of new recruits at the year-old school in the southwestern city of Chengdu start their six-week training this week.
    An offshoot of The International Butler Academy, based in the Netherlands, the school hopes to cater to the growing ranks of China's super rich and their fascination with the old-money trappings of European aristocrats.
    "Downton Abbey," the UK TV show about the lives of a well-to-do family and their servants has been a massive hit in Communist China and country's staid state-run media has gushed over every detail of President Xi Jinping's state visit to the UK this week -- from the age of the silverware to the 20 chefs responsible for the lavish banquet hosted by the Queen.

    Bewildering tasks

    A butler in training measures the precise distance between cutlery on a table at China's only foreign-run butler school in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on January 23, 2015.
    The school is a joint venture between the Dutch academy and Chengdu Langji Real Estate Company and many of the first students work for hotels or property companies seeking to improve their service, rather than private families.
    Noble says the training starts with how to smile, stand and even personal hygiene: "Straight back, shoulders back, eyes looking straight ahead and not at the ground. We need to teach our Chinese students to be aware that everyone in the room is looking at you."
    Many students struggle when they first arrive -- the intricacies of setting a table for a formal dinner table can seem bewildering -- and Noble says the language gap causes difficulties.
    "I can put a cup of tea in front of you very elegantly but there has to be passion, grace and a style to it and that's hard to explain in words."
    The course is almost identical to that offered in the Netherlands but is tweaked for China.
    Students learn how to choose a good Chinese liquor, serve Chinese food and tea.
    But just as important as the practical skills is the mindset butlers must cultivate when working grueling hours for their employer or "principal," stresses Noble.
    "Just because you're a millionaire or a billionaire, it doesn't mean you are a nice person. You have to stay within yourself. You have to take care of your mind and your body."

    Modern day eunuchs?

    Pu Yan, the school's sales and marketing manager, says that they have had 17 students graduate from the classes so far and nine more started this week.
    New graduates can expect to earn $31,500 yuan a year, she says. Highly skilled and English-speaking butlers can easily earn triple that.
    And she doesn't expect a slowing economy to dent demand for what's perhaps the ultimate personal service.
    "Many companies are in a transition time and want to focus on providing a better service to their clients to differentiate their companies and make their customers more loyal."
    Dan-Xia Bossard, a director at marketing agency Fletcher Knight, sees no reason why China's super rich shouldn't embrace butlers especially as they move away from more conspicuous consumption.
    "It's a different way of projecting your image and wealth to have someone cater to your every need."
    China now has more billionaires than the United States -- 596 compared to 537 in the U.S.
    But Pu says the market is young and potential clients "still need educating" on how a real butler is different to a personal assistant or household manager.
    Comments on Chinese-language articles about the school have derided butlers as being like "palace eunuchs" of old, she says.
    
A trainee butler eyes the precise distance between cutlery on a table.

    Life-long career

    Former wedding planner Wang Mingzhu finished the course in July and now has a job in working for a company called Bangduobao -- a concierge service for wealthy families.
    She won't divulge how much she earns but says she "gets paid a lot."
    For her, the hardest part of the course was learning about red wine. "There is just too much to know, for instance the grapes, the wineries, the way to make wines."
    She watches "Downton Abbey" each week but says that didn't inspire her to become a butler. She believes it will offer a life-long career path. People prefer their wedding planners young, she says.
    Wang says she's viewed with esteem and recognition by her clients.
    "In China, service often has a negative connotation, suggesting that you are inferior to the one you are serving. That's not the case in the Western mindset; everyone is equal, even though you are the provider of the service."