Meet Sara Jane Ho, the woman teaching manners and etiquette to China’s elite

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Last month, we highlighted a short series by GQ titled The Bling Dynasty that covered China’s blossoming culture of the newly rich and the hurdles their society faces with so many instant millionaires and billionaires popping up everywhere.

One of those challenges has to do with knowing how to act rich. They are called tuhao, which roughly translates to “the rich but uncultured of China.”

Tuhao can buy luxury supercars, yachts, private jets and designer clothes like candy, but they struggle to pronounce anything in French, they don’t know how to use a fork and knife properly, how to dress fashionably or how to really spend their money, so they look to guidance from the continental culture that invented the highest form of class known — the West.

From the perspective of most Westerners (and GQ journalists), it’s almost too easy to poke fun at China’s newly rich and their peculiar idiosyncrasies, but there is a much larger context that most are either historically unaware of or unable to directly mention due to current politics.

China is one of the oldest civilizations this planet has ever seen, withstanding the test of time virtually unchanged for thousands of years. However, nearly a century ago, their imperial system had rotted from the inside out and was overthrown by a new regime. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established by an anti-imperialist named Mao Zedong. In 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year counter-revolutionary movement that was marked by violent class struggle, street executions, labor camps, book burnings and the destruction of thousands of years’ worth of cultural treasures and knowledge. China’s old-world culture had essentially been erased, and the cult of Mao Zedong became the new school. This new culture started from nothing but proletarian struggle, and not until China’s open door policy and economic boom of the 1980s did their lack of old-world values become most apparent.

That’s where Sara Jane Ho comes in, but for business and marketing purposes, she’s simply known as Sara Jane. Educated on the American East Coast and polished at a Swiss finishing school, Ho founded the Institute Sarita, an etiquette school based in Beijing where she holds courses for China’s wealthy on how to fill the shell of elite status their newly found money has created for them.

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For about $15,000, wealthy Chinese, mostly women, take part in a 12-day course that consists of lessons like “Introduction to the Noble Sports,” “Pronunciation of Luxury Brands,” “British Afternoon Tea,” “Lingerie Lesson” and “Introduction to French Cuisine.”

We had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Jane over email, where she answered some questions about her clientele and how she is bringing old-world European class to modern China’s newly rich.

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Tell us about your background and how you ended up going to school in the U.S. and later to finishing school in Switzerland.

“I grew up in Hong Kong but felt constrained by the environment and schooling there, so as a teenager I left to attend boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy. I felt that the States better suited my personality. I went on to Georgetown and after a stint of banking to HBS.

Some girl friends of mine had attended Swiss finishing school and I myself have always had a passion for hosting; I enjoy bringing people together and making new friends. The course at finishing school is on how to be a hostess: how to greet and take care of others, including table conversation, table seating, flower arrangement, deportment, gifting, afternoon tea, planning a menu, etc.”

What was the greatest challenge for you in growing Institute Sarita? What’s the most valuable lesson for business or dealing with people that you’ve learned since launching?

“A school is an old-fashioned business. I’m not a tech company that’s going to IPO in three years! I’m a brick and mortar kind of girl; I like laying the foundation and growing slowly but steadily. We currently have one school, in Beijing, and 80% of our clients fly from all over China just to take the course. We are very high end and a boutique, so scaling will be the greatest challenge in growing the business.

A mentor taught me that ‘in China, slow is fast.’ I decide and execute quickly – sometimes too quickly – but the highest realms of business are like taichi. Slow and deliberate. The Chinese way to deal with problems are to postpone them for as long as possible!”

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Do you feel there are facets of Chinese culture or history that may be responsible for China’s “lack” of modern etiquette?

“It’s important to remember that Chinese etiquette is thousands of years old. Confucius first taught us his values 2,600 years ago.

Recent history in China has led to some lost culture and values which we hope to bring back. Now that China is becoming an economic and political power on the global stage, Chinese need to better understand the rest of the world and let the world better understand China.

It’s also important to remember that no other country has gone through so much change in so short a time. We need to be patient.”

Do you think your courses allow your clients to “buy” class? What kind of mindset do you want your students to take away from your classes?

“Chinese are adopting a higher measure of quality of life. They have deeper desires, hold themselves to higher standards, and want to earn the respect of others – these are all indicators of social progress. My course is not for people to ‘buy’ class; etiquette is about how to put people around you at ease.”

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Do you believe successful people today exercise the amount of propriety you teach your students?

“Not necessarily! Career success does not necessarily mean one has good manners! Although manners and high EQ do help one’s career.”

Is there a single most “bad habit” you find yourself having to correct with your clients? What other behaviors perturb you the most?

“My students are actually very sophisticated and considerate individuals. I believe this is the biggest misconception of them. We are not a basic etiquette school, but rather an elegant finishing school. Princess Diana went to Swiss finishing school not to learn not to spit, but how to be a hostess and take care of others. There is no ‘bad habit’ or behavior that ‘perturbs’ me.”

It seems you teach etiquette to only female clients. What about men? Can you list off some things you think men in Chinese culture should change to follow proper etiquette?

“We have a men’s course but our specialty courses are for ladies: debutante for unmarried women and hostess for married women. If you look at finishing schools and charm schools in Switzerland or the USA, it is traditionally for women. I think all men all over the world could benefit from attending etiquette school!”

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Can you tell us about your passions outside of the world of business and etiquette?

“I have begun collecting contemporary Chinese art and am a young patron of the Ullens Centre of Contemporary Arts in Beijing.

I am also a competitive horse rider in Beijing’s show jumping circuit and competed in the Longines Masters in the National Olympic Stadium (Bird’s Nest) last year.

I find that spending time up close and personal with my horse renews my sense of wonder. When work gets busy with my school or social events, I simplify my life by spending time in nature with my horse. Riding is so old fashioned and there is a charm about it. I love the smell of the stables – it calms me and I am reminded of my childhood.”

Do you have plans to develop Institute Sarita further and expand?

“In May 2015, we will launch our second school, which will be in Shanghai. It is in a beautiful old villa in the French Concession and I am going through the plans with my designer right now. It will be a similar set-up to Beijing, with a concept store attached to the institute. So I am looking for cool products overseas to bring to the Chinese market!”

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