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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Meet China’s favourite etiquette coach, darling of socialites and the super rich

  • Guillaume Rué de Bernadac teaches Chinese clients how to hold a teacup, how to sit, stand and eat
  • His great-grandfather tutored Moroccan royalty, and he learned etiquette at an early age
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 7:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:55am

Guillaume Rué de Bernadac is the walking epitome of class and poise. Sporting a tailored double-breasted suit, an ascot pin on his pink cravat and a rosy pocket square in a matching colour scheme, he greets us at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund.

It took a while to nail down de Bernadac, who since founding Academie de Bernadac in 2015, has quickly become one of the most sought-after etiquette instructors in China.

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The academy is employed by financial institutions, hotels and the food and beverage industry to train their staff on how to present themselves. De Bernadac has just returned from Hangzhou, where he taught some seven-year-olds dining etiquette and had spent the week before in Guangzhou, where he trained butlers at a five-star retreat.

Earlier last month, Gucci invited de Bernadac to coach their VIP clients on what to wear for different occasions – business formal, cocktail and “creative black tie, very tricky”, he says. “You need to know what you can do and what you can’t do. To be modern 21st century ladies and gentlemen means knowing the rules, and always, knowing when you can break them.”

Knowing the rules is not easy. Each culture, society and occasion comes with its own set of social customs and whether you can play by the rules will often decide if you can become part of the group. The challenge is that much of it is tacit knowledge rather than explicit guidelines, and this is where de Bernadac comes in.

“Generally the higher you go in society, the more sophisticated and complicated and strict the etiquette will be. This is exactly what we teach and why we are here. We want to teach people how to adapt if they deal with high society abroad,” he says.

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Besides corporate clients, de Bernadac also caters to individuals, often China’s super-rich who are looking for the keys to the elite circles. Today’s event, afternoon tea at the hotel that used to be the Shanghai Club – a premier club serving British residents more than a century ago – is one of such classes.

The lesson begins as soon as the tea and pastries are served. But before we dig in – or as the proper ladies we are, take dainty bites of the food – we first learn how to take a seat. I would have just plopped myself down on the big velvet sofas, but Chu Mingjingjing, a Shanghai socialite dressed in a bespoke 1930s qipao and one of three VIP clients joining us today, demonstrates how to sit down with poise. The torso must be kept straight, so that at no point would you be flashing your derrière.

As the tea continues, de Bernadac guides us through a set of rules and the most common mistakes: how to hold the cup (pinch the ear instead of looping your fingers into the handle, to make your fingers look elongated), how to stir the tea (never do circles or touch the sides. Stir your spoon back and forth from six to 12 o’clock) and how to sit to make your legs look longer (the slant: legs crossed and tilted to one side, see Princess Diana at the Bamenda Electrification Plant in Cameroon).

De Bernadac learned all this as a child growing up in France. His great-grandfather, Joseph de Bernadac, became a private tutor to Moroccan princes and princesses during the reign of Mohammed V, teaching them different academic subjects as well as savoir-vivre, a French term that translates literally into “knowing how to live”.

While de Bernadac may not have descended from royalty, his grandmother Julienne de Bernadac demanded just as strictly of him and his brother. For example, to refine their dining posture – arms firmly against the body and the back upright – de Bernadac and his brother ate their Sunday lunches at their grandparents’ home with ribbons tied around their shoulders and a piece of paper tucked under each armpit. “If I dropped one paper, I had no dessert,” says de Bernadac. “That’s why I’m very slim today,” he says with a laugh.

[Chinese men] think if they make a lot of money, they can earn people’s respect, so they don’t care about their demeanour
Chu Mingjingjing, Shanghai socialite

Now he poses the same challenge to his clients. At the recent butler training, trainees had to walk while balancing books on their head and plates with water on their arms.

Fortunately, our class today is more relaxed. With the lecture over, it is time to enjoy the food. One client, an employee at a caviar company, has bought a jar of the delicacy to share. Over the roe and scones, the conversation quickly turns to manners, or more precisely, the lack of them among Chinese men.

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Manners maketh man, but gentlemen are a rare breed in China, especially among the nouveau riche, who are notorious for flaunting their wealth and blithely disregarding etiquette.

Chu, who founded Luxe China, a company catering to the “top one per cent” of Chinese society, travels frequently. (Just this summer, she was one of very few Chinese to be invited by the Italian Princess Catherine Colonna de Stigliano to the Bal de l’été, an event in Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera.) When Chu returns home, she is often struck by the lack of decorum.

“[Chinese men] think if they make a lot of money, they can earn people’s respect, so they don’t care about their demeanour,” she says, recalling occasions where men did not even follow the chivalrous custom of “ladies first”. The two others nod in agreement. “That’s why they are shut out of the upper class.”

But ever the gentleman, de Bernadac takes a less critical view. “Chinese ladies have very strong taste for elegance and sophistication. They care about beauty. They care about image. For all of these, men are always behind,” he says.

“But they will eventually come to it.”