How ‘Downton Abbey’ Fueled China’s Demand for Butlers
photo by Gilles Sabrié
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 service.
“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.”
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.”