Sara Jane Ho recalls the initial reactions to her idea of opening an etiquette school in China. “One of my friends asked, ‘Who would admit that they have no manners?’ I said no, you don’t understand. It’s going to be a very elegant and expensive boutique finishing school. To which she retorted, ‘Okay, who’s going to pay so much money to admit they have no manners?’” Well, since 2012, nearly 16,000 have sat through Ho’s classes and talks.
Today, Institute Sarita remains one of the most popular etiquette schools in China, and operates out of Beijing and Shanghai. It’s US$16,000 ($23,000) for a 10-day course and US$1,500 for a two-day taster.
What Ho does is a far cry from simply telling people how not to behave. Just like traditional finishing schools in the West, Institute Sarita teaches manners and decorum to women who wish to enter or navigate high society with all the grace of a 19th-century aristocrat. Cognisant of the unpolished image of the nouveau riche in China, Ho’s courses — which are tailored to married and unmarried women — include practical knowledge.
“I teach them how to pronounce foreign brand names like Givenchy and Hermes, how to identify foie gras of the highest quality, how to eat tricky foods elegantly, and more,” she says.
Having managed to repaint etiquette as an exercise in self-improvement and a stepping stone to an enriching life has put Ho on a fast track to mass appeal. She’s published two books and a podcast, and is busy hosting her own bilingual talkshow The Sara Show. With guests the likes of Jessica Alba, Marie Kondo and Arianna Huffington, it has garnered millions of views on Chinese video-streaming website Tencent Video and Beijing Television, and was released on Youtube in April.
“People think an etiquette teacher should be a middle-aged lady who’s a Virgo, wears a suit and has her hair in a bun,” quips Ho, 34, who’s the dictionary-definition of casual chic with only the wind in her hair and an easy smile on her makeup-free face.
“But etiquette should be natural, fun and be flexible enough to change with the times. It’s all about putting people at ease.”
It seems an odd career path for an English Literature major and a Harvard Business School graduate, especially when her prior work experience included two years as an analyst for a boutique investment bank in New York. But the truth is, her calling had been unconsciously seeded since childhood.
As you would expect, Ho is a conversational wizard and it’s likely she had charisma from the moment she could form sentences.
“My mother would always tell me to go talk to this person or that person, and it didn’t matter if he or she were 12 years old or 80. She wanted to push me out of my comfort zone. That’s why I was like a little adult,” she says. “She was also a typical Hong Kong tiger mum, so if she notices someone’s tea cup emptying down, she’d kick me under the table as a way to remind me to refill it.”
Ho was also inspired from simply watching her mother host their household’s many parties.
“I saw her create these really magical moments and warm spaces through entertaining, which I think is what etiquette is about,” she says.
She recounts an incident when a guest spilled red wine on their Persian carpet. “Everyone stared at my mother because she was the hostess. She just laughed and thanked the guest for spilling it because now everyone could rest easy. Then she quickly directed attention to someone else across the room, asking about her trip to Burma while discreetly motioning for our helper to clean up the mess.” Observing her mother masterfully handle one awkward situation after another cemented Ho’s belief that etiquette was, in fact, empowering.
Ho’s mother passed away when she was 21. Determined to continue her mother’s legacy, Ho did her fair share of entertaining. She even enrolled in a two-month course at Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school — a decision that stemmed from realising she didn’t know how to address Prince Maximilian of Liechtenstein when they met during her one-year fundraising stint at a non-profit in Beijing back in 2010.
“My mother taught me a lot, and I’ve read lots of books and looked online, but I really wanted to go to a place that had a systematic and comprehensive course,” she explains.
At that point, etiquette was a personal fancy, not a full-blown business plan. The idea for Institute Sarita only blossomed when a successful Chinese businessman she knew called her up for advice.
“He needed to fly to Washington DC the next month for a breakfast meeting and was really nervous because he was unsure of how to behave among his American peers,” she says. “That’s when I unofficially started teaching etiquette. At first, I thought it was just kind of fun and funny, but I realised that everybody wants a sense of belonging and the confidence to know what to do with different people in different situations. That’s when I decided to formalise what I was doing.”
There was one problem: in China, the term for etiquette was often associated with waitstaff and car show models. To counter that low-brow image, Ho booked an apartment at Park Hyatt Residences “because it was the most expensive address in Beijing at the time”, hired a sous chef from the French embassy to prepare the dishes and partnered with brands like KPM for dinnerware.
“I sent out emails about my class to my friends, who must have forwarded them along because I got a call from a journalist one day asking if she could feature my course, and I hadn’t even opened it to the public yet,” she says.
“My Mandarin was really bad at the time so all I could make out was that she would fly to Beijing from London and Shanghai to cover a class. I told her to just drop me an email. When I saw that her email address had ‘@ft.com’ attached to it, I thought, oh, maybe I should do this.”
That Financial Times article ended up being the first of many to shine the spotlight on China’s “Miss Manners”. Ho’s success soon prompted competition, but she’s not worried.
“Foreigners, like butlers who once served at a French palace, have tried to start their own schools, but they teach through a translator, which means they’ve already lost their audience. There are also former flight attendants who teach things like holding your hands 5cm above your belly button — it’s so unnatural,” she observes.
Ho credits her success to her and her teachers’ backgrounds. “We aren’t just bilingual, we’re bicultural. We are our clients’ window to the rest of the world.”
Institute Sarita now enjoys a steady stream of clients, which also include “every luxury brand you can think of, as well as private banks and auction houses” who use her courses as a perk for their VIPs, a product activation or staff training.
“The next big thing I want to do is take my school virtual. In the ’70s, everyone in China was poor, but now there are 400 million middle-class citizens, and their priority now is self-improvement, and etiquette falls right into that.”
This story first appeared in the May 2020 issue of A Magazine.