Paul Burrell in China as Downton Abbey effect continues

Chinese girl curtsying to Paul Burrell

One of the more interesting outcomes of the internet revolution in recent years has been China’s continued fascination with British culture.

Merlin, Silk, Hustle, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Black Mirror, Dr Who, North and South, and The White Queen among others have all been lapped up by young Chinese viewers in their millions through digital platforms like Youku and Iqiyi. The popularity of British telly is such that Mr Bean was recently reprised for a Chinese production.

But one cultural export in particular has spawned a new trend among China’s new rich. Call it the Downton Abbey effect. Not only did the popular period drama help boost sales of afternoon tea products from the UK, it also led to increased demand for butlers.

Great Scott, Jeeves! You?

No butler has an arguably spiffier CV than Paul Burrell. Perhaps better known in UK households for appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Paul served the British Royal Households for 21 years, becoming personal attendant to Her Majesty The Queen and later butler to the Prince and Princess of Wales.

It doesn’t get more Downton Abbeyesque than that, and Paul (or is it Mr Burrell, or even Mr Burrell, RVM?) was in China last month to share his Royal Etiquette expertise in different sessions with local audiences that included ladies, children and business people.

Paul Burrell and etiquette students in Guangzhou

The training, organised at the Ritz Carlton in Guangzhou by etiquette specialists Prestige Education Consultancy (PEC), focused on dress styling, manners and behaviour, skills gained at the very highest level by Paul Burrell and useful for mingling with the global elite.

Paul Burrell delivering etiquette training in Guangzhou

In an increasingly competitive and “globalised” world, China’s ambitious – as in any nation – will look for an edge beyond a solid grasp of English. A student in Danong today might well become a speaker in Davos tomorrow. Anyone thinking about teaching English in China ought to consider the cultural dimension on top of language tuition.

But of course, this is a two-way street. Anyone looking to make friends and influence people in China should do the sensible thing and learn from the Chinese.

That means not only taking a course in putonghua but also making an attempt to understand their culture, from guanxi to mianzi, baijiu and beyond. It’s a steep learning curve, but so is learning which spoon to use at the dinner table (I still can’t get it right).

We can and should learn from each other – that’s when the good stuff happens. Now, who is China’s equivalent of Paul Burrell?

The Beach 20 years later: spirit lives on in digital nomad tribes

Matinloc Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Today is a remarkable anniversary. Alex Garland’s The Beach was published 20 years ago (younger people might recognise Alex as the director of Ex Machina). What’s remarkable is that it’s only been 20 years. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since: ICQ (yes, that long ago), Google, the iPod, MySpace, Facebook, the smartphone, the Millennial, Tesla, the selfie, Instagram, #sorrynotsorry. It has been a period of enormous change, for better or for worse.

Looking at it now, The Beach evokes “end of an era” and end of innocence feelings, and not just because disillusioned Richard left the hidden paradise he called home. It really was the fin de siecle: the end of the 1990s, the end of the 20th century, and the end of simpler times as we knew them, when care-free hedonism and dial-up connections reigned.

Soon after reading the now cult classic and watching the Hollywood movie when they emerged, I travelled to Southeast Asia for the first time. I felt like a novice backpacker like Richard, armed with a knackered copy of the Rough Guide and a traditional camera with 3 rolls of film (no digital cameras then, let alone smartphones), staying at cheap Malaysian guesthouses, popping into “cyber cafes”, and staring wide-eyed at the sheer exoticism of the Far East, as the region was still called then in that quaint pre-globalisation way.

Seven years later, I unexpectedly returned to Kuala Lumpur – this time in a suit, my own “innocence” lost. And this time, I stayed.

Hopping about frequently in Southeast Asia, I never forgot The Beach and the hope that there was a mystical idyll out there somewhere, buried in the South China Sea or hidden in the Indonesian archipelago. I was fortunate enough to encounter extraordinary beaches and fascinating characters, but The Beach as described in the book, a tropical shangri-la, was forever elusive.

And yet, while the untainted paradise beach will likely stay a myth, the utopian spirit of The Beach lingers on. Its post-911, post-capitalism incarnation can be seen in the form of co-working spaces, filled with digital nomads who get about using apps such as Airbnb and Waze.

Like The Beach’s main character, digital nomads also flock to Thailand (although the book’s original location was The Philippines), to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi, making connections and living the dream. And with the passing of Richard’s generation into middle age gloop and suburbia, the baton has been passed to globetrotting Millennials, themselves looking for purpose.

Travel might no longer be romantic, as it surely was pre-internet, but the essence of what made The Beach special – the pursuit of a more spiritual, community-minded and more “authentic” alternative to everyday life – endures to this day.