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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.