Soup spoon, salad fork... Zhang Zhejing struggled to remember how to lay out the cutlery on either side of the plate. She also forgot to put the water glass next to the wine glass - a crucial mistake that would not go unnoticed by her two examiners.
Ironing, suitcase-packing, cooking and Western-style table setting - with knives, forks and spoons rather than with chopsticks - were all part of the final test at the International Butler Academy based in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.
The six-week program teaches everything a European-style butler needs to know to manage a rich family's household to the highest standards: from etiquette to organizing trips to exclusive destinations. Those skills are in growing demand among China's super-rich.
Zhang, 38, a longtime high school English teacher from Shandong province, took the course to broaden her horizons beyond what she saw as a dead-end career that she felt she “never went beyond the school's gate.”
“I did not want that kind of life. I want more choices for myself,” Zhang said. “So I came here.”
Looking for ‘a certain lifestyle’
Prompted by the popularity in China of the British TV series ‘Downton Abbey’ and a fondness for anything that looks expensive and feels European, some of China's very wealthy want uniformed employees with white gloves, impeccably trained, who can anticipate their every need.
Du Yinuo, a professor of etiquette at the Sichuan Film and Television University, said China's rapid economic growth over the past 15 years has elevated the purchasing power of many people who now “want to taste a certain lifestyle.”
A butler can provide that. So more and more people are thinking: ‘Oh, I want a butler too,’” said Du, who attended the butler academy herself to incorporate some of the skills into her courses.
The demand also has been driven by property developers. Eager to stand apart amid stiff competition and a decelerating economy, some of them have hired butlers in their showrooms and even offered butler service for new owners of their apartments and villas.
While maids and housekeepers are a big part of urban life in China, it's rare to see a uniformed servant who performs the kind of top-to-bottom household management offered by a butler. At least one Beijing company offers a team of about a dozen butlers for full-time household work or for party catering and VIP airport pickups. The service, CN Butler, advertises with placards outside shopping areas in wealthy suburbs of the capital.
The academy in Chengdu was opened in July 2014 as a joint venture between a butler school in the Netherlands and a Chengdu-based property developer called Chengdu Langji Real Estate Co.
Zhang is negotiating with a wealthy family looking for a butler who can also teach their children English. Her four classmates weren't even looking for butler jobs. They included two employees of luxury property management companies, the owner of a travel agency and a 21-year-old sent by her wealthy family to acquire practical knowledge.
Cultural factors can make it difficult to teach butler skills in China, said the academy's head of training, Christopher Noble. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s sought to eradicate any notions of elitism in society, while decades of the one-child policy have meant many younger Chinese are accustomed to being the center of attention in their families.
“One of the challenges we are having with our students is convincing them to put others ahead of yourself,” Noble said. “In other words, to think of your principal or to think of your fellow students or to think of your fellow instructors - have their feelings before yours.”
Though Zhang faltered in setting the table, she fared better when asked to complete a set of tasks for a person about to leave on a last-minute business trip. She was given one hour to iron a shirt, polish shoes, prepare a suitcase, lay a table, fold napkins 10 different ways in less than three minutes and prepare breakfast. She finished those tasks with nine minutes to spare and passed the course.
She said her husband is not keen on her new career choice because he sees it only as “serving people” rather than as a household management job that changes daily.
“I quite like the job because it has high requirements in all aspects,” Zhang said. “Every day there are always new things. It is not like it's a life where everything stays the same.”