Beijing, China - A former banker hailing from Switzerland, Thomas Kaufmann didn't know what to expect when he settled down in China's south-western city of Chengdu, back in May 2012, to work as a private butler. Up until that point, the 38-year-old had spent much of his career working in Zurich and didn't speak a word of Mandarin.
"Coming to China has been a bit of an accident," he said. When asked about this very unconventional career move, he said that "after working for several Swiss banks, I felt the desire to serve people and make them happy. It's extremely rewarding when your client smiles because you have managed his request properly".
With China's super-rich splashing out on luxury cars, mansions and Oxbridge education for their offspring, Thomas Kaufmann found it easy to find a butler job in booming China.
Despite slowing growth from 2009, China's economy still expanded by 7.4 per cent during the third quarter of 2012. Even in the middle of this "slowdown", China has continued to be a major producer of billionaires. Today, there are 271 US-dollar billionaires in China, up from 189 in 2010, according to the Hurun Report, an authoritative monthly magazine best known for its "China Rich List".
In order to get the perfect skill set, the Kaufmann first completed an internship in Chengdu as part of his eight-week intensive training at the International Butler Academy, a school based in the Netherlands, where he learnt the dos and don'ts of European etiquette. He then decided to stay for good in the Sichuanese capital, where he is now training a team of 20 Chinese would-be butlers who will be assigned within a luxury residential compound of 146 brand-new apartments.
Located right in the heart of Chengdu, this soon-to-be opened compound will have in-house, 24/7 butler service. Most of the apartments have already been sold to wealthy locals and other mainlanders from first-tier cities such as Beijing or Shanghai. This is where Thomas Kaufmann lectures Chinese butlers on French wines, Cuban cigars, and even fake luxury watches. "It's all about behaviour: how to talk, when to shake hands - things that are obvious for us, but not for them," he said.
With China's billionaires getting richer by the minute, demand has been rising over the past few years for professional, full-time home-caring staff. China's rich and famous used to rely on Chinese ayi, typically middle-aged women coming from the country's less-developed provinces working as domestic helpers in big cities - but no longer.
"It's very fashionable to have a butler coming from Europe. People really enjoy this Western lifestyle," explains Kaufmann. As China's super-rich become more status-conscious and more international, educated staff able to manage a wine cave, book a limousine service and handle art works with care have been particularly sought after.
"There's an obvious status symbol involved in hiring a full-time, professional butler, especially from Europe. Plus if you're spending $5m or $10m for a house, then hiring a butler makes perfect financial sense," says Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of Hurun and well versed in the ways of China's elite.
A British veteran butler with more than 20 years of experience in the industry, Anthony Seddon Holland agrees. "Chinese nouveaux riches are the very ones who are the least prepared to go back to their earlier lives. They know how to cook a meal, but now they want someone to do it," he said.
But Seddon, the founder of the British Butlers' Guild, a school established in 2007, prefers not to send non-Mandarin butlers to China. Instead, he has focused on training Chinese butlers in China, which proves most cost-effective in the long term. Most of their 2,000 Chinese alumni now work in China in the equally booming luxury hotel industry. A few of their graduates have been placed as butlers in private homes, where they can hope to earn at least $20,000 per year - about seven times the average disposable income of an urban Chinese household.
"China is not a no-go zone, but at the same time not the dream destination for European butlers. And it's not an issue of salary."
- Thomas Kaufmann, butler
Although if "demand is overwhelmingly huge", as Thomas Kaufmann puts it, European butlers have not yet been flocking to China. Language is a great barrier. As a maître de maison, a butler typically has to manage other property staff, such as a gardener, a chef and a cleaner. This is a task that can be more difficult if the butler does not speak any Chinese languages. "The European butler has more show-off effect, but a Chinese butler would be probably more convenient, just because he speaks the language," said Kaufmann, who now takes Mandarin classes twice a week.
Tough working hours, cultural differences and a lack of common understanding make the lives of European butlers in China more difficult. "The hours are very long and the culture in China is alien. In you are based in Tianjin, you cannot just switch your TV channel to watch your favourite British show if you suddenly feel homesick," remarked Seddon.
As a consequence, turnover is high, and professional European butlers - at least for now - prefer moving to Russia or the Middle East, which also have no shortage of emerging wealth. "China is not a no-go zone, but at the same time not the dream destination for European butlers. And it's not an issue of salary," says the banker-turned-butler, who is one of the two European graduates from the International Butler Academy to be actually working in China.
But as European butler schools set up branches in China to tap into this extraordinary demand, there could be better prospects for Chinese nationals. "If you look at the luxury hotels in China, five years ago all the general management was foreign, but today it's increasingly localised," Hoogewerf said. "So there's no doubt a Chinese butler will soon be able to master the art of European etiquette."
Follow Raphael Balenieri on Twitter: @rbalenieri