In Beijing, a Club for Self-Improvement Signifies a New Luxury for China’s Wealthy

Sara Jane Ho, the founder of Beijing-based finishing school Institute Sarita, has embarked on a brand new venture for her wealthy Chinese clients: a members-only club.

Headquartered in a Parisian-style mansion that was once the residence of Manchu aristocrat Rong Lu, the clubhouse, Casa Fengchao, plays host to weekly events designed to give members guidance on how to improve both their business and personal interests. From exclusive access to luxury brand press conferences, to cocktails, high teas and talks, the three-story home provides ample space for presentations and meetings, plus boasts a spa on the top floor.

This particular members-only club model isn’t exactly like the famous high-society clubs (think Soho House) populated by celebrities in cities like L.A. and London. Despite China’s growing number of ultra-wealthy, its scene has yet to support the likes of London’s long list of trendy and historical, socially-driven clubs for those who go out to be seen.

In China, in contrast, many wealthy consumers tend to be more private. “If people want to go out drinking,” Ho told Jing Daily, “they kind of want to do it in an enclosed room. Whereas in other cities, you go out to be seen and you bump into your friends at the club.”

This is partly the reason Ho decided on a venture that would serve less as a hub for exclusive entertainment, but more as a space for members to learn how they can elevate their lifestyles.

The idea for Casa Fengchao has long been on Ho’s to-do list since her realization that her finishing school students have needs that are “much more than just etiquette itself.”

Ho made global headlines when she launched China’s first finishing school five years ago to cater to China’s ultra wealthy class who were beginning to have international personal and business interests. Then, earlier this year, Ho launched two books on etiquette to make her teachings more accessible to China’s middle class and younger, aspiring consumers.

Still, she saw opportunity with her own students and clients. “They have needs regarding their own self-improvement,” she said, “their children’s education, and their businesses.”

The clubhouse of Casa Fengchao has a worldly history: it was formerly used as a meeting space for important members of society and foreign envoys, before later temporarily becoming the Afghan Embassy to China. Courtesy of Casa Fengchao

These desires reflect a larger trend that’s been shaping the behavior of China’s wealthy class—a pivot towards a new idea of luxury, or spending more on items that improve one’s lifestyle, such as health, entertainment, sports, premium products, and travel. In the case of Beijing’s new clubhouse, this lifestyle-focused improvement will be led by talks and events hosted by experts in the fields of health and wellness, fashion, family affairs, investment, and more.

Currently, Casa Fengchao, which is operated as a completely separate venture from Institute Sarita, has two levels of membership, where entry-level gives access to the space for events, while the next level is a business advisory arm for members.

Ho, who has been listed on Forbes “12 to Watch” in 2013 and BBC 100 Women 2015 (30 under 30), has also been busy developing her club under her newly-opened holding company Fengchao Value, in which she has plans to expand business interests across other sectors. For now, she’s looking for partners to help expand the members-only club to other locations around China to meet her clients, many of whom are from smaller cities outside of Beijing and Shanghai, where they are.

The clubhouse itself has a worldly history: it was formerly used as a meeting space for important members of society and foreign envoys, before later temporarily becoming the Afghan Embassy to China. Ho wants to continue this tradition of cross-cultural exchange. Even the design of the space mixes Western-style design and luxury with Chinese contemporary art and Chinese antiques.

While Ho isn’t releasing information on Casa Fengchao’s membership fees, she ensures its target members are not only among China’s wealthy consumers, but those that bring something extra to the table. “My clientele are either very successful businesswomen themselves, they have ideas, capital, influence, and energy,” Ho said. “That’s what excites me—surrounding myself with women who want to do things, that want to make an impact in China.”