From Crass to Class

It’s Friday night and a group of twenty-somethings in designer clothes recline on sleek couches in Linx, one of Shanghai’s glitziest nightclubs. Bentleys and Porsches are parked outside. Dom Perignon flows like water. A local DJ is playing house music.

These are the kids of China’s new rich, the perfect poster children for what most people would associate with the word fu’erdai: self-confident, careless, minted youngsters who don’t give a hoot about spending RMB10,000 on a table and double that on champagne – ordering up to a 100 bottles per night, as a PR girl working for the place tells me.

Now close your eyes and reopen them in Beijing, to a completely different scene: a bright room with another type of couch – a classy, upholstered number straight out of Downton Abbey – along with porcelain teacups, a handful of pretty clutches and elegant headpieces displayed in a showroom-like space. Upstairs, a sun-lit classroom, whitewashed walls and a few big tables.

I’m at Institute Sarita, the capital’s very own version of a Swiss finishing school. Its students are the other face of rich China– not the gaudy, flashy sort, but a more discreet, high-class type. Here, they come to learn ‘Western etiquette,’ and a whole new code of behavior.

“My students aren’t those loud, crass, well-off Chinese who make disparaging headlines abroad,” says founder Sara Jane Ho, a poised 30-year-old who speaks five languages and boasts a degree from Harvard Business School. “For somebody to want to study etiquette, they are already very well- mannered and very considerate. They are ahead of the wave and want to sharpen and refine their tastes to fit with the Western privileges money is granting them.”

Wealthy doesn’t mean only one thing.

Ho opened the school in 2012, at a stage when “China truly needed something like this,” she says. Over the last three years, the Hong Kong native has created customized courses spanning hostessing, debutante and Chinese etiquette and also gentleman’s and ‘Young Ambassador’ programs - the latter targeting the fu’sandai, the third generation of wealthy kids who are increasingly leaving China to study abroad.

Among the classes taught by Ho and two other (impeccably mannered) teachers are the art of entertaining and organizing household staff, greetings and introduc- tions, pronunciation of luxury brands and small talk, ‘precedence,’ travel etiquette, history of cutlery and table manners and lingerie, fur and jewellery lessons.

Demos on Western table manners and how to eat tricky foods – from spaghetti and soup to bananas (how does one eatthe fruit gracefully? With a knife and fork, slicing it into thin slivers) – are also on the schedule, and make for some of the most popular courses.

Such exercises may seem silly and out of date. In Europe itself, finishing schools are fizzling – the remnants of a lost age of polished aristocratic pomp. Yet in China, Institute Sarita is doing incredibly well. This month, Ho is opening a branch in Shanghai, right in the heart of the former French Concession – and courses have already filled up.

“If finishing schools have a future at all, it is in emerging economies,” says Ho, who is a prod- uct of Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school. “My class at Institut Villa Pierrefeu was made up mostly of girls from countries such as India, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In China, many nouveau riche are keento learn how to engage with foreigners and show respect and consideration for others through the right manners.”

Access to such knowledge doesn’t come cheap – though Ho notes that, for most students, the hefty price can seem trivial.

Aspiring attendees to her classes have togo through an admission process that requiresa deposit of RMB18,000 to secure a space.Once they obtain that, Institute Sarita charges RMB80,000 for a 10-day debutante program, RMB100,000 for a 12-day hostessing course and RMB50,000/60,000 for male-oriented programs, whose duration varies between five days to a week.

Affluent Chinese fly over from all across China – Kunming, Guizhou, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou – to join the institute.

Unsurprisingly, women make up the majority of students. “The hostessing course is no doubt the core of our school,” says Ho.

“The women who sign up for it are mostly ladies in their 40s who grew up in the Cultural Revolution and now have kids who enjoy privileged lives influenced by the West,” she continues. “They are caught between two generations – they are wives, mothers, daughters and businesswomen in this new drastically changed world – and have no precedents to refer to. What they need is a frame of reference, and this is what I provide.” Debutante classes are the second most popular, particularly in the summer, when wealthy Chinese come back from their studies abroad. “There’s an amazing willingness to learn from these young girls too,” she says.

“They recognized that being viewed as ‘noveau riche’ makes them vulnerable to popular criticism, and are eager to shake that off. Generalizations are what they are trying to move away from.”

Zi Lu, a well-heeled 27-year-old from Anhui, is in complete agreement. “I don’t think people should put us all in the same basket,” she says. “I am who I am, and can only account for that. It’s all about the education you get.”

Education has indeed become a spurring force for rich China – not just for all things etiquette but also, increasingly, in terms of taste.

Not so long ago, affluent Chinese would purchase the showiest bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux (and mix it with Coca-Cola) or sport the designer bag with the most logos. Today, a rising number of moneyed youngsters are choosing wine appreciation courses and less opulent designs.

“Classes and experiences to refine taste and broaden one’s knowledge are becoming big in China,” says James Roy, Associate Principal at intelligence firm China Market Research in Shanghai. “Flashy is still very prominent, of course, but this is definitely becoming a very good market for a quieter approach to money. Many people in their late twenties and early thirties are eager to improve their level of sophistication.”

“The reason is partly political – Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption and conspicuous consumption has no doubt had an effect not only on government officials but also on the middle and upper classes,” he says. “But the shift is also related to a growing interest for the under- stated, and the desire by some young and wealthy individuals to join a global elite class they can identify with – if still outside of the public eye.”

Going underground has become of pivotal importance for many rich kids and their families. The rise of private luxury concierge companies in China – with their promise of discreet services and exclusive experiences away from the masses – is testimony to that. Being part of members-only clubs allows them to go beyond showing their wealth simply by driving a Bentley or jetting to Europe for shopping sprees.

British company Quintessentially Lifestyle, a major concierge firm with offices in more than 60 cities worldwide, has seen business boom since setting up its China branches eight years ago.

“Our clients span from mature entrepreneurs who run global ventures to young urban socialites who spend time following their passions around the world,” says Managing Director for Greater China Vincent Lai.

What they seek is mostly travel-related experiences – private trips to the Artic or stays at hidden resorts away from the beat- en track - but also passion investments.

“Most members are keen to learn more about art and jewellery from global private collectors and auction houses, options in real estate overseas and elite education. Their general taste is very much a discerned one.”

But elite experiences and flawless manners aren’t the only shift in focus from some of China’s young money: health and mental wellbeing are also coming on top of their priority list. As they get richer by the day, affluent youths from well-to-do families are starting to seek new meanings to their lives; perhaps in response to surrounding pressures, but also as a way to deal with their own privileged existence.

A peaceful state of mind is essential to be happy,” says Zi. “Studying, being down-to-earth, doing good – that’s what is really important.”

It doesn’t surprise, then, that faith and health are rapidly becoming the new luxury goods for a slice of the 0.1 percent, who are choosing philosophy classes and meditation holidays over MBA degrees and shopping excursions.

At Fudan University, a one-year literature program for adults that started in 2006 grew so popular that it has been extended to two years. Students can make it a four-year program by double majoring in philosophy and arts. Chinese business schools, by contrast, are struggling to attract students after booming for years.

Chinese moneyed, it seems, are looking for new forms of self-actualization.

John Osburg, an Assistant Professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester and author of Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich agrees.

“Perceptions about what matters are evolving, albeit slowly, and now that so many people can afford materialistic gratifications, some of China’s new rich are moving on to different pursuits and ways to distinguish themselves on a social level. Spiritual and moral cultivations are among some of these ways.”

While researching his book in Chengdu, where he spent three years befriending local businessmen and tycoons, Osburg was surprised to discover the turn that many of China’s new moneyed have made toward Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of spiritual fulfilment.

“Part of it is still about status competition,” he warns, “the idea to be different by way of a spiritual route. But, on a deeper level, there’s also a genuine interest in spiritual transformation and in becoming better, more moral people.”

An underlying sense of anxiety and precariousness of their assets, Osburg continues, makes new rich in China particular- ly vulnerable subjects. Tibetan Buddhism, traditional Chinese philosophy and similar practices offer guidance to pivot points in life.

There’s a yearning for a more rewarding lifestyle,” Osburg adds. “That obviously still applies only to a small slice of wealthy in China, but it signifies a step forward in terms of societal development in the country.”

The gap between rich and poor might still be wide, but such subtle changes in the role of privilege in society might shed some positive light for the future.

“Rich people aren’t all the same simply because they have money,” says Zi. “They come from different backgrounds and environments, just like anyone else. Wealthy doesn’t mean only one thing.”

And fu’erdai is not only bling – taste, manners and a lesson in Buddhist teachings might be pushing Bentleys and Champagne out of the gilded spotlight.

First appeared in the That's Shanghai, May 2015.