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Well-off Chinese learn manners fit for Queen
By Thomas Brown (Agencies)
Updated: 2006-01-02 10:58

Their star may be rising in the worlds of business and international affairs, but the manners of the Chinese are lagging rather further behind.

Now one woman is campaigning to change that, starting by training her fellow countrymen to be "ready to dine with Queen Elizabeth II".

In booming Shanghai, there are plenty of affluent people prepared to pay to appear well bred. Using a sixth-floor restaurant overlooking the Huangpu river as her classroom, June Yamada is teaching two business executives how to behave at the dining table.

"No, no," she exclaims, pausing to draw on a cigarette as she scolds her pupils. "Your knife cannot face other people because that's rude. Neither of you look too badly dressed today. You both deserve 95 per cent for dress, although it would be 100 if your shirt was not so loose, Mr Ho, or if you had removed your hat, Miss Huang."

A table manners course under Miss Yamada's tutelage costs 990 renminbi (£70) per hour. The fees are justified, she insists, because there is so much work to do.

"Everything is wrong," she explains. "Spitting in the street, emptying out your nostrils, pushing, talking so loudly. Then there's the long, dirty nails and picking their nose and teeth at the same time. It's endless."

Chomping on fish by the mouthful and spitting out the bones is a particular problem. "With fish, they are totally lost. Pork or chicken is bad enough, or what you do with water melon seeds," she says.

"That's why our course takes 16 hours, and at the end of that you are ready to dine with Queen Elizabeth II.

"Then there's wine tasting, which they assume should be done by the lady first. I have to explain that men should taste. It's because of the Duke of Buckingham. When everyone was fighting, you drank first to protect your wife and family in case it was poisoned."

Time is also devoted to the thinking behind manners, explaining a philosophy of thinking of others rather than memorising a set of rules.

In China, many company executives reach the top with the help of well placed friends and family, or party connections. Others are now trying to get around this by presenting themselves as a cut above.

"It makes me feel much more confident," says Huang Leting, 32, who deals in medical equipment. "I have more confidence now in meetings with different clients or customers."

Ho Genxiang, 56, the founder and chairman of the biggest bookshop in mainland China, says good manners would also benefit his staff, and he will pass on what he has learnt to his employees.

"Our staff are mostly service people interacting with customers so they need manners," he says. "Our company image is very important since we sell the same stock at the same prices as Xinhua [the largest state-owned bookseller in China]. The difference between us is the level of service you receive."

A book by Miss Yamada called Tell it like it is, June! was the first printed by China's People's Press to sell more than 1,500 copies in a month. There is now a fan club and a television programme scheduled to begin in the spring.

Miss Yamada grew up abroad until her stepfather brought her back to China when she was in her early twenties, two decades ago.

Her courses cover fashion, make-up, social graces, "image creation" for business executives, international etiquette, "stylish communication for ladies and gentlemen" and "finding Mr Right and Mrs Right".

And how long would it take Miss Yamada to transform a humble country girl into someone altogether more proper, just as Henry Higgins does in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion?

"Peasants have to learn the pleasure of being treated well rather than always suspecting people want something from them," she responds carefully. "The surface stuff would take three months. But to really change her to a lady inside and out - I would say, one year."

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