Finishing school, Chinese style

Be polite even though I'm super rich and busy? Sara Jane Ho puts China's very important people to a global test. 

Andy Wong/AP
Chinese women have a chat near a plum tree at a public park in Beijing Sunday.

How’s this for a Chinese start-up? Finishing school.

Sara Jane Ho, a well-groomed young woman from Hong Kong, has just launched what she calls Beijing’s first “high end boutique finishing school” to teach China’s nouveau riche how to behave.

Good manners are not necessarily deeply instilled in your average Chinese citizen, and here I am being as polite as Ms. Ho teaches her students to be. But as she points out, only 50 years ago, people here “were fighting to get to the front of the food ration line, for survival. They were not thinking of manners.”

Today, though, wealthy Chinese businesswomen, housewives, and ladies of leisure are anxious to learn the social skills of their Western counterparts. And for a cool $15,000 for a 12-day course, Ho will initiate them into the mysteries of foreign etiquette at her Institute Sarita.

She has the background – both a business degree from Harvard and an etiquette diploma from the Institute Villa Pierrefeu, a Swiss finishing school – and she covers all the bases.

One moment her clients, gathered in Ho’s plush offices in the Park Hyatt Residences in downtown Beijing, will be learning what “black tie” means; the next moment they are practicing the correct pronunciation of “Louis Vuitton” or being given the “Introduction to Expensive Sports” course, which explains why they ought to enjoy horseback riding.

Predictably, perhaps, for women accustomed to eating even the grandest banquet with a simple pair of chopsticks, laying a Western table and learning how to handle knives and forks are especially puzzling skills. Nor does Ho make it easy: Her students have to remember such arcane details as the difference between the fork for extracting snails from their shells and the fork used to eat oysters.

But Ho says she also hopes to give etiquette a deeper meaning, to teach “the philosophy behind the mechanics.”

“Good manners go along with good morals,” she preaches, with a nod to Confucius. “Virtuous people do not commit murder … and nor do they behave in obnoxious ways when they travel.”

In the end, she points out, good manners are the same the world over once you get past such questions of which hand you should hold your fork in. “Good manners means respect for other people,” says Ho, and that is something that some of China’s new rich find even harder to learn than how to distinguish a Californian Chardonnay from a Bordeaux claret.

“I tell them [my clients] that they have to treat people as people no matter who they are speaking to,” she says. “You are not above other people just because you are in a rush or have more money. But that takes a long time to learn.” 

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