The invitation demands guests dress “strictly” in “afternoon tea semi- formal”, and the 12 women sitting around the chairman’s suite at Shanghai’s Langham Hotel have taken no chances. There’s not a flat shoe or unvarnished nail in the room. The hair and make-up on display suggests most made an earlier visit to the salon and there are enough pearls, designer handbags and bejewelled fingers to warrant a security guard at the front door.
As a window into China’s newly rich, this gathering is highly instructive. But the suite, with its six-metre ceilings and marble floors, is not the setting for a luxury brand launch or society photo shoot. On a recent Friday, just after lunch, it became a classroom complete with clipboards and pink monogrammed pencils. The attendees had each paid $450 for a three-hour tutorial from William Hanson, billed as Britain’s “leading etiquette and royal protocol expert”.
The afternoon tea invitation said guests would learn “pastry manners”, “duties as a host”, the “correct service of tea” and its “traditions”. Aside from the obvious irony of teaching the Chinese how to drink tea, the classes appear to be a natural extension of the country’s near-insatiable appetite for Swiss watches, French perfume, Italian handbags and any car with a European name badge.
Having acquired this hardware, the success of the tutorials suggests there’s a desire by some to upgrade their software. In this case, the chosen brand is British, with all its rigidity and petty class distinctions.
No Taste – The Ultimate Put-Down
Even so, the popularity of Hanson’s classes – he made six trips to China last year – is somewhat surprising in a country where for the most part anything goes. At a recent dinner, an Australian banker reported consuming two bottles of Penfolds Grange and a Château Lafite Rothschild in a series of toasts that went straight down the hatch. There was no lingering over the bouquet or slowly savouring the vintage.
That, in cameo, has been China’s reputation – a country in a hurry since its re- emergence as an economic power 15 years ago, where the newly rich have hungered after Western luxury products but generally eschewed conventions on how they should be worn, consumed or displayed. Hanson and his etiquette classes show this is changing and there is a growing desire to display one’s sophistication, not just through money, but via the more subtle arts of manners and decorum.
One possible reason is the word tuhao, which has emerged this year as the ultimate put-down in China. It loosely translates to hillbilly, but has come to signify those with money but no taste.
“I think the emergence of tuhao is a watershed moment in the development of the Chinese luxury consumer,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of the HurunReport, which documents the lives of China’s rich via a monthly magazine of the same name. “It shows that many more luxury consumers understand the difference between what is tasteful and what is crass.”
The Eton-educated Hoogewerf, who should know all about the “correct service of tea”, says even though the newly rich use the term to gently mock each other, no one wants to be labelled a tuhao. “People who are being called a tuhao are changing,” he says.
Guidelines for Travelers
Manners are part of this evolution and the change is being driven by China’s fast-rising middle class – a group that barely existed at the turn of the century. McKinsey & Co figures show that China’s middle class grew from just 4 per cent of the population in 2000 to a staggering 68 per cent 12 years later.
This has driven an explosion in purchasing power and seen the advent of mass tourism. About 100 million Chinese are expected to travel overseas this year. Yet the emergence of the Chinese traveller has not been without friction, and their manners, or perceived lack of them, has been part of the issue. This prompted the Chinese government, via the official Xinhua newsagency, to release guidelines for how to behave while travelling abroad. Soft diplomacy, embarrassment and a fear that badly behaved tourists may harm China’s international standing looks to have been behind the decision.
In the 64-page booklet, aimed at first-time travellers, Xinhua warned against peeing in swimming pools, stealing life jackets from planes and leaving footprints on the toilet seat. Other items on the banned list include not picking your teeth and not cutting nose hair. It was followed by another Xinhua directive in May for mainland tourists travelling to Hong Kong, after there was an outbreak of tension when a toddler was filmed urinating on the street.
The uploaded video was shared more than a million times on social media, partly due to the scuffle which broke out between the cameraman and the toddler’s father. Lost in the frenzy of outrage at “uncouth mainlanders” was the lack of a nearby public toilet and a claim by the parents that the child actually urinated into a nappy.
Regardless, it reinforced the idea that the Chinese, for all their growing influence and economic might, lacked sophistication and manners. And so the government acted by issuing a six-point directive on how mainland tourists should behave while in the former British colony.
It warned against overzealous bargaining and spitting in public. Tourists were also cautioned that eating and drinking on the subway would attract a fine, as would not wearing a seatbelt while in a taxi, although there was no mention of public urination, which isn’t an uncommon sight on the streets of China.
Xinhua maintained, “These are some social parameters. Best to adhere to them. If not, you may find people rolling their eyes at you.”
Extremes of British Formality
That a government would tell its citizens how to behave overseas shows that paternalism is not dead in modern China. But it also reminds us that the country was closed to the outside world for four of the last six decades. And during that time much of its history and graceful traditions were erased by Mao’s Cultural Revolution which ran from 1966 to 1976.
“Culture has always been very politicised in China,” says Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “It’s quite a contentious thing, culture in China, whereas cultures from outside don’t carry this . . . and so perhaps they are easier to buy into.”
Hanson and his etiquette classes are allowing the Chinese to do just this, albeit in an extreme way. At the most basic level, the lessons teach Chinese people how to interact in a Western environment. Yet there is no escaping the idea that they are introducing the worst aspects of British formality and the class system to China, at a time when most of the world is becoming increasingly relaxed.
“Today we are going to learn the art of an English afternoon tea,” Hanson says by way of introduction to his students.
He then provides the trivial observation that it should never be called “high tea” as this is what the servants had downstairs – at a high table – before a long evening of serving upstairs. “We are educating people about this, one etiquette class at a time,” he says.
“Bear in mind we are looking to what the British aristocracy would do. We won’t look to America for what is correct.”
And so, for the next three hours, the 12 women are instructed on shaking hands, air kissing, how to hold a teacup and the art of making small talk. At times it seems like a dress rehearsal for a Ricky Gervais comedy, if not for the seriousness of the participants.
Angelina Du, who works in China with Hanson’s company The English Manner, says all the guests were “high-net-worth individuals”. This is not strictly true, as the room is divided between those who were sent by their company and others who aspired to be the perfect hostess.
Roxy Wang, who works for a local Chinese company selling luxury goods, says her boss suggested she attend. “I need to know how to act like a lady sometimes,” she says.
Another participant, who gives her name only as Emily, says the idea of etiquette is catching on in China. “It’s mainly among women,” she says. “Men in France and Switzerland had very nice manners,” she says after visiting Europe over the summer. In her mid-20s and dressed in a pale green frock and modest heels, Emily says she worked in the family business, but she declines to give more details.
Such secrecy is not unusual in China, where the new rich are highly insecure about their wealth, knowing it can vanish in an instant if they find themselves on the wrong side of a powerful government official. This often means an aversion to any publicity. However, Emily does venture that her time in Europe was spent visiting wealthy families in France and Switzerland in an effort to understand how they have passed down a business between generations.
In China, where most families only have one child, this suggests any role as the perfect hostess may be coupled with business. Nevertheless, the finer points of holding a teacup are still of keen interest to her.
Emily obeys as Hanson decrees, “Now we most definitely do not point our little finger.” She puts the milk jug down when Hanson instructs that milk should be added last after pouring the tea, through a strainer.
And then comes the correct method for stirring. According to Hanson, etiquette dictates that you stir your tea in a semi- circular fashion back and forth. “It’s six, 12, six, 12,” he instructs without mentioning the hands on a clock. “And I don’t want to hear the noise of spoons hitting the sides.”
Lashings of Royal Gossip
All through his routine, Hanson references the royal family and its two main drawcards, the Queen herself and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. Whether explaining how to sit correctly (on the front of a chair with one ankle behind the other) or where to put your handbag (on the floor next to your chair) there are constant references to the royals.
“This is how the Queen and Kate Middleton would sit 90 per cent of the time,” he says.
The potential for a little royal gossip – dinner is served at 8:15pm sharp in the royal household – appears to be part of the attraction. And also for a rebuke. When meeting people for the first time the correct greeting is, “How do you do?” Hanson instructs.
“We don’t say ‘Pleased to meet you.’ In fact, when Kate’s family was being introduced to William’s friends they became known as the ‘nice to meet you Middletons’.”
And so it continues, before guests are handed a Wedgwood cup and saucer as a parting gift on their way to making the perfect exit; one should face one’s host when opening the door. For Hanson this does not mark an end to the day’s tuition. Following afternoon tea, it is on to a “royal fine dining etiquette class”, to be held over dinner in the same suite.
The class is closed to AFR Weekend; a wealthy family has booked all the places, at $610 a head, and they have no desire for media attention, especially to an event where the invitation reads, “Orchestrate a dinner party with an aristocratic touch.”
It goes on: “Learn table settings, dinner etiquette, social graces, how to entertain guests and prepare invitations.”
The dress code is “strictly evening formal”.
Strong Sense of Hierarchy
Hanson attributes some of his success in China to Britain being seen as the “birthplace of good manners” and also notes the Chinese are very keen on education. Kerry Brown has another theory. He believes there is a strong sense of hierarchy and class in both Britain and China.
“Many Chinese are incredible snobs . . . so in a way their culture is perfectly compatible with the United Kingdom,” he says. “The British and Chinese are very similar in one way, as both societies are based on social class.”
And in both countries it’s all about the family line. In China, class is determined by your rank within the Communist Party or connections to those in top positions. Strangely, for a supposedly socialist country, this is not based on merit, but your family’s closeness to Mao during the battle to establish modern China. This means the children of revolutionary fighters – the Princelings – have as much right to inherit their parents’ power as their money.
The strength of this class system is shown in the current Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – where four of the seven members are considered Princelings. For most Chinese, this rigid class structure is impenetrable and so some are looking to Britain instead for clues on how to break the class barrier. The irony can’t be lost on any Western observer.
It also takes the participants at the Langham Hotel back to the 1840s, a time when the British dominated Shanghai’s international settlement after the First Opium War. Their dominance would last 100 years and span the Victorian era. What Britain’s longest-serving monarch might have said about the short skirts and occasional tattoo on display in the chairman’s suite is another matter.
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Article: Financial Review