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A revolution in manners

Well-to-do Chinese go for grooming courses, join finishing schools

A well-groomed mainland Chinese woman travels abroad and, with her genteel ways, gets mistaken ― as Japanese.

“Why is it that the Japanese can do it (be gracious), and the Chinese can’t?” she rues in a mix of pride and patriotic hurt. While her manners apparently passed muster, the endorsement is in the form of mistaken identity.

The earnest lament from a student reveals how China is ready for change, says Miss Sara Jane Ho, the brains behind China’s “first high-end finishing school.”

She declares: “The desire for self-improvement has already been awakened. They are hungry and humble. People do want to change their manners.”

Poised and savvy, the 27-year-old who graduated from the Harvard Business School last year is in pole position to capitalize on this ― gracefully, of course.

Last month, she launched Institute Sarita in Beijing. There, monied ladies from debutantes to tai tais to businesswomen are tutored in “international savoir vivre” ― from how to prepare British afternoon tea to how to queue up at Starbucks (The answer: “There should be personal space between persons”).

It sparked off an enormous amount of interest among the hoi polloi chattering on the Internet and the elite flocking to get in.
Women at the Institute Sarita are tutored in international and manners. (Institute Sarita)
Women at the Institute Sarita are tutored in international and manners. (Institute Sarita)

The Hong Konger who herself honed her arts at Institut Villa Pierrefeu, an exclusive Swiss finishing school, is too well mannered to talk about the money it is making ― there are “only 40-something students” so far, she says. But she is keen to expound on a subject close to her heart: a cultural revolution in manners.

“I am tired of hearing about Chinese nationals behaving badly,” says Miss Ho, who has since been dubbed Beijing’s Miss Manners, in an interview with The Straits Times. “I have foreign friends ― they don’t see me as Chinese ― who complain about them. And I decided I’m going to do something about it.”

Over the past decade, courses in grooming, business etiquette and public speaking have sprung up across China, conducted by universities, private enterprises and personal coaches alike. The trend started in the late 1990s, says Shaun Rein of China Market Research Group, and accelerated around 2003.

The Academy of Professional Education and Counseling, for instance, started etiquette classes in Beijing in 2003, imparting tips such as “Don’t ever sit in your hotel room in your underwear with the door open.”

Another, Chunfeng Liyi (Spring Wind Etiquette) started in 2007, and today boasts of schools in eight cities, from Shenzhen to Changsha.

But “pure finishing schools” like Miss Ho’s Swiss-style institute, with its whiff of foreign aristocracy and driven by her impeccable credentials, are rare.

“It’s going to boom,” says Rein. “The Chinese know that it’s important to present a good face to non-Chinese, to move from China to Europe and be able to understand their manners.”

The rapid rise of China in the past three decades, lifting 679 million people from extreme poverty, according to the latest World Bank data, means that material comforts ― if not cultivated manners ― are now within the reach of many.

Just 10 years ago, few traveled overseas other than government officials and the elite, says Rein, who authored the bestseller, “The End Of Cheap China.”

In 2010, 15 million did. This year, an estimated 90 million will.

Certainly, Miss Ho’s women-only school offers students the promise of old-world polish as they traverse the world.

But such exquisite manners are within the reach of only those able to afford her 100,000 yuan ($16,000) courses ― or government functionaries readying to take on the world with the perfect lipsticked smile.

So far, more than 40 women ― they hail from all over China, from Chongqing to Shanxi, and 90 percent are business leaders ― have enrolled in the classes taught by Miss Ho and her friend, a Chinese “married to a member of the British aristocracy,” says the institute’s brochure. Students are screened to make sure they are above age 16 and hail from “respectable families.”

Another 20 from the Ministry of Commerce were sent last month for a course on dressing and dining. The school conducted it free of charge “because they represent China when they travel to Washington,” says Miss Ho.

But helping China’s nouveau riche and officials attain an aristocratic patina is quite different from helping 1.3 billion Chinese improve their manners.

As Miss Ho tells it, behaving badly is a legacy from China’s past. “During the Cultural Revolution, people fought to be at the front of the food line,” she says. “Manners were a luxury.”

Today, amid fierce competition to stand out from a huge population, many Chinese still push, literally and metaphorically ― at the airport, going up the bus, making a business pitch ― because of their fear of losing out to others who are pushing at their backs too. Will those at the forefront of good manners thus lose their spot ― and lose out?

As Rein muses: “At Silicon Valley, the idea is ‘let’s make money and let’s push.’ If you become too burdened by these old manners, they could hurt you.”

For Miss Ho, behavior should be “situation-specific.”

“If you are about to step up to the bus, go with the flow. You shouldn’t push and shove. But you shouldn’t be walking meekly to the back of the crowd either.”

Indeed, her initiative is not without controversy. Some Chinese query why she is importing “Western manners to an ancient civilization.”

With a gentle smile and in dulcet tones, Miss Ho reminds her interlocutors: “Confucian values also emphasize consideration for others.”

By Li Xueying

(The Straits Times)