Shanghai elites in new class struggle

| Issam Ahmed 13 Jun 2019

Peter Stebbings with Kelly Wang

Danielle Liu, 10, stares straight ahead, a book balanced precariously on her head, and carefully walks along a red line on the floor.

Her mother hopes the exercise will help make her "a little lady" and allow her to shine among the offspring of China's ultra-competitive elite.

Danielle is with seven other young children spending their Saturday holed up on the top floor of a five-star hotel in Shanghai for a class in etiquette and manners.

The four boys look dapper in bow ties, suits and shiny black shoes. The four girls are all billowing dresses and angelic smiles.

"You have a stability problem," Guillaume de Bernadac, the self-styled French doyen of all things etiquette in Shanghai, tells one boy of his attempt to walk and keep the book on his head.

If the children, aged seven to 11, enjoy that exercise, they are less keen on sitting straight and keeping elbows off the table at lunch.

"I'm scared," Zachary repeats as he tries to eat pea-and-mint soup while keeping two pieces of paper tucked under his armpits. But soon enough, the carpeted floor is littered with A4.

The children also have a red ribbon tied behind their shoulders to stop them slouching. Those that do are gently upbraided by de Bernadac or his staff in English or Chinese.

Danielle's mother Cheng Liyan, who also uses the English name Shirley, wants her only child to be "perfect".

"To be lady-like, to be athletic, also academic, I hope she can develop herself in an all-round way," said Cheng, a teacher.

Danielle already takes part in extracurricular swimming, piano and dancing, which is her favorite.

"I always talk to her and ask if she likes it," said Cheng, but admitted there is "fierce competition" to stand out in Shanghai with its population of about 25 million.

Cheng and the other parents pay de Bernadac 2,688 yuan (HK$3,045) for four hours of practical instruction for one child.

Against a soundtrack of classical music, the children learn social skills, dining manners and deportment. Other exercises include how to introduce themselves and greet people, including "air kisses," and what topics are appropriate for dinner talk.

De Bernadac, who first arrived as a student, says demand has surged since he started Academie de Bernadac in 2014.

Shanghai officials recently approached him about designing programs for schools and he also does classes for adults and private firms.

De Bernadac, 31, is adamant that he is not simply trying to make the kids more Western.

"Our point is really to say if you go abroad, or even within China if you move to an international environment where you may be facing other cultures, we give you the keys to adapt," he said.

He has no formal training but says his great grandfather and his great-great uncle were tutors to Morocco's nobility in the 1920s.

Among their subjects was "how to be polite, how to behave," and then-future king, Hassan II, was among their students, he said.

De Bernadac, who sports a cravat and well-rehearsed smile, said interest in his classes in Shanghai and other main cities shows the country wants to be "part of the global village".

Cheng, sitting elegantly next to daughter Danielle when class is done, brushes off concerns that at their age, these children should be playing outside and having fun.

Apart from the dining part, the children mainly seem to enjoy being fast-tracked to adulthood.

"Kids should be kids, that's true, but at least they should have some discipline," said Cheng.

She explained: "For example in a public situation, they can't yell, they can't scream. It's so inappropriate."


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