21 January 2020 From Courier Issue 33 (Feb/Mar 2020)

A portrait of China’s etiquette queen

Sara Jane Ho’s finishing schools are teaching China’s new elite.

 

Sara Jane Ho may have named her business after Alice in Wonderland’s fantasy world, but instead of grinning cats and magic rabbit holes there are lessons in basic etiquette, things like how to peel a piece of fruit, greet your father-in-law and eat tricky foods, a popular module among the nouveau-riche society wives who make up most of Ho’s clientele. ‘I want all women, when they come to our world, to discover products, lifestyles and things about the outside world and themselves,’ says Ho in a polished British accent befitting a royal.

She founded Miss Wonder Omnimedia a year ago and it now encompasses ‘The Sara Show,’ a weekly video show, and Institute Sarita, China’s first high-end finishing school, a modern spin on the historic organisations that everyone from princesses to the daughters of presidents, and high-profile lawyers, doctors and captains of industry went to perfect their etiquette.

Institute Sarita remains the only Chinese finishing school centred on the European model. Even before Ho opened the doors in 2013, word of her teaser courses rippled through China’s elite. Despite little advertising, hundreds have since signed up to learn the nuances of international etiquette. Ho has even turned the tables to offer training for expats who want to brush up on their Chinese manners, earning her the nickname ‘Miss Manners’. Various luxury brands also bring her in to deliver courses for their most-prized customers. ‘Pretty much every lifestyle, luxury or fashion brand is my client,’ Ho says.

‘We’re curating a world of functional living, of positive living, of meaningful living for our community. China needs us now. This is my service to my country.’

She continues to exert great influence via ‘The Sara Show’, essentially a celebrity interview programme hosted by Tencent, China’s biggest video content platform. ‘If you had invested in Tencent stock you’d be happy right now,’ Ho says, her short giggle complimenting an otherwise extraordinarily proper demeanour.

Launched last year, the show grew out of Ho’s livestreams with friends – Canadian-Taiwanese fashion designer Jason Wu and US actress Kelly Rutherford. Each episode, 15 minutes in length, racks up more than 700,000 views. With the perfumer Kilian Hennessy, Ho masks lessons in the application of fragrance with evocative humour about his taste in women. Other guests have included Jessica Alba, Marie Kondo and Ariana Huffington, and they almost all have brands that they wish to expose in China, especially to a targeted audience of 25- to 34-year-olds with spending power that makes up much of the show’s fanbase. ‘I take my audience to see the world,’ Ho explains.

This explosion in interest has allowed Ho, 34, to expand into new territories, including Shanghai, where she lives and recently set up the new business headquarters. In bringing this concept to China, Ho, with her dainty figure and contemporary-chic style, has emerged as an emblem of China’s extraordinary rise from developing nation to economic superpower and pioneered a new industry centred on ‘finishing’ clients in the ‘Western’ way.

Yet Ho’s vision is only beginning to take shape. She has reduced her teaching to spend more time on areas that are more scalable for the company. Miss Wonder Omnimedia is in the midst of a pivot towards e-commerce, the aim being to create an integrated media and lifestyle education company with a range of services for its clients. The model for Ho is what Martha Stewart has achieved in the US. Services will include assisting western brands to enter the Chinese market, while the e-commerce site, essentially an online marketplace for brands that compliment the purported lifestyle of Ho’s audience, will launch later this year. ‘We’re curating a world of functional living, of positive living, of meaningful living for our community,’ Ho says. ‘China needs us now. This is my service to my country.’

Ho’s interest in etiquette is rooted in her childhood, which began in Papua New Guinea but continued in London and Hong Kong. She harbours warm memories of her youth as the only daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong family. She had private tutors and spent her free time learning how to play tennis and riding horses. She’s still very sporty and plays tennis and swims as much as possible because, she jokes: ‘I eat a lot and need these sports to stay in shape.’ As a showjumper, she competed in the Longines Masters in the Beijing Olympic Stadium, but to maintain these standards required that she rise each morning to practice from 6.30am before work, and it became too exhausting. She refers to it as her ‘second profession!’

‘China’s approach to basic etiquette saw China’s National Tourism Administration issue strict guidelines on how to behave while travelling.’

The nature of her parents’ jobs – her mother was an executive in the music industry – required that they travel and so they often left Ho at home with the nanny. Whenever she was around, Ho’s mother, to whom Ho owes much of her business acumen, spent her time hosting; on weekends, it was not uncommon for there to be more than 30 relatives and friends inside the house. ‘I saw my Mum making the home really warm through entertaining,’ Ho recalls. ‘That showed what etiquette could do, although I didn’t think of it as etiquette at the time.’

Her mother’s death at 51 from cancer left a hole in the family’s life. ‘My mum was always the one with the social calendar, so after she passed away, we weren’t really hosting anymore,’ Ho recalls. Then just 21 and a recent graduate of Georgetown University, Ho began to host her own parties, eager to rekindle the warmth that she’d lost. ‘It [hosting and organising events] is something I’ve always been known for,’ she recalls. ‘I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m outgoing by nature.’

It was this interest that led her to Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Switzerland’s last remaining finishing school, in the summer of 2012. By this point, her career had taken her from New York, where she worked in mergers and acquisitions, to Beijing, where she fundraised for Wokai, a non-profit online platform in microfinance. But her ambitions remained unclear other than she wished to stay in China and invest her time in something that would have a significant impact on the country. She chose Beijing because it needs ‘so much help’, she says, whereas the markets in Hong Kong and Shanghai are more mature.

It turned out Switzerland would provide the answer. Over six weeks, Ho learned how to position her knives after finishing a meal in France and when to shake a Mexican waiter’s hand, all at a cost of approximately $30,000. As the only Chinese student in attendance, she spent evenings in conversation with the ‘tubby’ Shanghainese chef, practising her mandarin and discussing their home country. ‘China was becoming a leading power and with that comes great responsibility,’ says Ho. ‘China and the Chinese, we could do a better job of expressing ourselves to the world.’

China’s approach to etiquette has been a point of national concern for some time, so much so that China’s National Tourism Administration issued strict guidelines on how to behave while travelling. Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government staged an unsuccessful politeness campaign to dissuade locals from littering, spitting and queue-jumping. In Shanghai, meanwhile, the local government’s ‘seven nos’ campaign – no spitting, no littering, no vandalism, no damaging greenery, no jaywalking, no smoking in public places, no swearing – proved to be equal in its futility.

The roots of this national headache can be traced back to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period beginning in 1966 that crippled the economy and ruined millions of lives. And according to Ho, a widespread misplacement of manners also ensued: ‘When you’re struggling to get by, you’re not thinking about dressing properly or holding the door behind you.’

It is among this younger Chinese generation that the embarrassment is most apparent. The country’s establishment as a world superpower has widened the channel with the west. ‘I have friends who will email me saying, “I am about to go to [Washington] DC to go to a breakfast meeting. How do I do it?’’’ Ho explains. ‘Incomes have risen but taste and an understanding of behaving hasn’t risen with them. This younger generation is conscious of this.’

China now harbours an abundance of companies created to smoothen these Sino-foreign interactions, the majority set up in the immediate wake of Institute Sarita, around 2014. Many, such as Académie de Bernadac, founded by aristocratic Frenchman Guillaume Rué de Bernadac in 2015, are run by foreigners and require a translator. Locals – among them air stewardesses, whose employment requires them to be accustomed to western practice – have also looked to capitalise, but rarely speak English.

Ho considers herself Chinese but also a citizen of the world. ‘I tend to go native wherever I go, and that’s my ethos for living,’ she says. Her time in London and then the US has allowed her to differentiate her teachings as an authentic combination of traditional western culture and the values of Confucius, whose teachings are the basis for religious and moral life in China.

Ho recognised that etiquette schools in China were mostly for waiting staff rather than something more elegant like Chinese hostesses. She communicated her vision to her father, who bankrolled the business initially, when Ho brought a local business partner on board in return for a 40% stake. ‘My dad told me: “The time is right, China needs this, and if there is anybody that can do it, it’s you”,’ says Ho.

In the wake of her first school’s success, Ho decided to open a second school in Shanghai, offering an identical service. Clientele are divided into two categories: hostesses, meaning they’re married; and debutantes, meaning they’re not. The course for the former runs over 12 days and costs around $16,000; the latter takes 10 days and costs around $13,000. The curriculum is based on the Swiss model but customised for the Chinese market, meaning it covers pronunciation of luxury brands, introduction to expensive sports and deportment. There’s also a module on international savoir-vivre covering culture, customs and cuisine.

Yet scalability remains one of Institute Sarita’s biggest hurdles. ‘It’s tough because it’s an offline business,’ Ho explains. ‘We’ve had offers to franchise our school but it’s important that we do not compromise on quality.’ Because of this, Ho is turning her attention to online mediums as she seeks to capitalise on the brand name within the means of the 10 full-time staff that she currently employs. She’s just launched a paid podcast, ‘21 Days to Being a Learned Lady’, and she has plans to expand to a virtual etiquette school.

With Martha Stewart in mind, Ho is working to leverage her status to achieve her lofty ambitions. And she likens her circumstances to Emily Post, the American authority on social behaviour, whose biography is currently beside her bed.

‘In her time, you had the newly rich Americans, the railroad tycoons, and then you had the leftover class stuff from the British, and this fed on the newly rich Americans’ insecurity. However rich they were, there would never be nobility,’ she says. ‘China has been going through a gilded age the past 10 years but, at the same time, we are not trying to be someone we are not.’

 

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