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Chinese trained as world-class butlers

Move over, Jeeves. Here comes Ji Wu, the made-in-China butler.

Long gone are the days when every well-to-do household in Britain boasted a Jeeves, author P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional creation of the quintessential butler. But a new breed of “gentleman’s gentleman” is on the rise in Asia – the China-trained butler.

In July, renowned 15-year-old The International Butler Academy (Tiba), based in a chateau in the town of Valkenburg in southern Holland, opened its first overseas institute in Chengdu in Sichuan province, in response to the “overwhelmingly huge” demand for servants for the country’s burgeoning numbers of the super wealthy.

In the past, domestic help has generally come from middle-aged women (ayi) from the countryside. However, as the tastes of China’s rich grow more sophisticated and global, rural ayi may not be up to scratch.

According to Ledbury Research, China, Japan and South-east Asia have more “centa-millionaires” – people with US$100 million (S$127 million) or more in assets – than either North America or Western Europe. And, as the new mega-rich learn to yearn for the finer things in life, an old-fashioned butler seems to be just the ticket.

Tiba China’s first cohort of 24 students, schooled by four Western butlers, will learn everything from the basics (like serving wine, ironing newspapers for a smudge-free read, setting tables for formal dinners) to taking on “executive manager” tasks (like running several properties, managing wine collections and liaising with gourmet suppliers). It’s all about a Downton Abbey level of service, says Tiba founder and chairman Robert Wennekes, who has served five American presidents, among other luminaries.

“In the average Chinese restaurant, the food is excellent but the service is really bad. That is changing,” he says. “The wealthy are experiencing that it’s possible to have somebody in (their) employ who looks after them with grace and elegance.”

And it makes sense to train the locals, says Tiba China CEO Thomas Kaufmann. To Westerners, the culture is alien and language is a great barrier. A maitre de maison (master of the house) will typically have to communicate with other staff, like chefs, gardeners and cleaners. “A Chinese butler would be more convenient,” he says.

Why pick Chengdu as a China base? Kaufmann cites the city’s “rapid development in the past 10 years”. He adds: “Compared to Beijing and Shanghai, it is developing very fast, and that makes the people here very open to foreign ideas. And to be a world-class butler, you need to break rules and give up old habits.”