“Okaeri-nasai mase, Goshujin-sama!” exclaimed Misaki Ayuzawa back in 2015, introducing international anime audiences to the concept of Japanese maid cafes. Translating to “welcome home, master” Ayuzawa used the phrase while greeting male customers—all the while condensing her inner ‘bruh-ness’ to fit the concept of being a kawaii girl decked in a frilly French maid outfit. “The men out there today need someone to hear them out, let’s do our best,” her co-workers chanted.
Back in 2016, after watching the anime myself, I remember echoing the same curiosity which has plagued female audiences to date worldwide. Why should men have all the fun? What about ‘male maid cafes’? Do they even exist? If so, where can I visit one? Women in China, fed up with dating self-absorbed men, are now fuelling a booming industry in this quest. Enter butler cafes, China’s hottest rental service offering attentive male company—for a fee.
Remember those “I rented a Korean oppa without telling my boyfriend” videos that used to randomly pop up on your YouTube recommendations circa 2019? Well, butler cafes are based on a similar concept where lucky customers get to spend time with a team of dashing young waiters for an hourly fee of approximately ¥800 (£90).
The general concept goes something like this: with various roles like House Steward, Butler and Footman, the staff are impeccably dressed and are here to solely act as your butlers while you’re dining in your own ‘home’. They strictly have to stay in character throughout your time at the cafe while pampering you with drinks and movies. To top it all off, they listen to everything you have to say. No interruptions, pronto.
Originally from Japan, butler cafes are now generating enormous buzz on Chinese social media—spreading rapidly in major cities. Sixth Tone noted how a review site, DianPing, now lists dozens of outlets offering “butler” services. Several posts about the cafes have also gone viral on the country’s Instagram-like social platform Xiaohongshu in recent months.
So what exactly is fuelling this boom out of the blue? The bottom line: tightening restrictions and frustrations of Chinese women, many of those who feel that the society is far too patriarchal. With studies in the past proving how Chinese wives are less happy in their relationships than their husbands across age groups, butler cafes aim to give women a space where they are in control.
“Our mission is simple. We want to take care of women’s needs as much as possible,” said Mero, co-founder of The Promised Land, a butler cafe in central Shanghai. Launched in October 2020, customers can choose the type of man they want to be accompanied by at the cafe. They also have the autonomy of deciding the activities they’ll do together—right down to their preferences of dressing. In an interview with Sixth Tone, Mero highlighted how a traditional suit and tie or a Japanese-style school uniform are popular choices among customers. They can also book a butler to accompany them on shopping trips and other errands through the cafe’s “one-day boyfriend” service.
According to Mero, most of the clientele are university-educated women who are “open-minded.” They spend ¥600 (roughly £67) per visit on an average, with some paying as much as ¥25,000 (£2,803) to avail VIP perks—giving them access to special parties with butlers and more. “When I play games with my male friends, sometimes they’ll just keep winning without making you feel involved,” said Wang Qian, a 24-year-old student who is a regular visitor at the cafe. “But with the butlers, they’ll notice that and make you feel accomplished in the game.”
Qian described most of the men she meets in normal life as ‘pu xin nan’—a term popularised by the female comedian Yang Li that translates to “men who are so average, yet so confident.” The butlers, however, are considerate and never ‘mansplain’ anything to her. “The butlers respect me and care about my feelings,” added Zheng, a 40 year-old Shanghai civil servant who visited The Promised Land with a friend in April simply out of curiosity. “With the butlers, you are the queen!”
After spending time at the cafe, Zheng is no longer able to accept the unequal power dynamics that prevail in most Chinese relationships. “In the traditional Chinese mindset, men should be the breadwinners,” Zheng said. “But there’s nothing wrong with women consuming men for fun.” According to Zheng, in reality, men are the ones who pay checks and women are the ones serving them. “I don’t want to be in the subordinate role anymore. It’s nice to be on a higher level than them.”
Although The Promised Land was set up for a bit of “frivolous fun,” co-founder Mero explained how the cafe has deeply impacted the personal lives of customers. To many, the cafe isn’t really about cosplay, but companionship. “Some women have asked the butlers to help them move home or accompany them on visits to the hospital,” said Mero.
With the Chinese government increasingly cracking down on culture and business, following President Xi Jinping’s call for a “national rejuvenation,” butler cafes may just be the UNO reverse card on Japanese maid cafes that echo a counterintuitive solution for a society deeply rooted in patriarchy and the promotion of ‘masculinity’. The impact of these cafes also makes one wonder who has more power at this point: the customers or the servers? After all, industries like this wouldn’t exist if gender relations were friendly and respectful in the first place.
The Chinese government is increasingly cracking down on culture and business following President Xi Jinping’s call for a “national rejuvenation.” Joining “electronic drugs” (popularly known as video games), gambling, cryptocurrency and sports is now a ban on who the country has labelled ‘Niang Pao’—which literally translates to “female weapons.”
On 2 September 2021, China ordered broadcasters to shun artists with “incorrect political positions” and “effeminate” styles—stating the need for ‘patriotism’, thereby widening a crackdown on its booming entertainment industry. Broadcasters must “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,” the country’s National Radio and TV Administration wrote in a notice, using the insulting slang term ‘Niang Pao’ while referring to these effeminate men.
The notice went on to state how programmes portraying or promoting effeminate behaviour and other content deemed “warped”—including shows built around scandals, wealth and “vulgar internet celebrities”—should be stopped. Broadcasters should instead feature programmes that “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.”
The controversial move follows a nation-wide crackdown on South Korean boy bands and “chaotic” fan culture as a whole. It also voices official concerns at how Chinese pop stars, influenced by the “sleek, modern appearance” of some South Korean and Japanese singers and actors, are not encouraging young Chinese citizens to be “masculine enough.”
“Some effeminate stars are immoral and can damage adolescents’ values,” read an opinion piece in the state-run Guangming Daily published on 27 August, as obtained by Reuters. Written by a former official at a military newspaper, the article outlined how such stars, when acting as soldiers fighting in a war against the Japanese—a popular setting for Chinese movies and TV shows—make the “righteous” and “heroic” characters appear childish. Reuters also noted how a popular video-maker on Douyin, China’s TikTok-like short video platform, had his account suspended in late August over complaints of being too ‘effeminate’.
“Unhealthy fan culture should be deterred and strict controls placed on programmes with voting segments,” the administration said, adding how programmes that encourage fans to spend money to vote should be forbidden. Broadcasters should also avoid artists who “violate public order” or those who “have lost their morals.” Reality shows featuring the children of celebrities are also banned.
Authorities have thereby pledged to promote what they call a “more masculine image” of men and criticised male celebrities who wear a lot of makeup. On 4 August, microblogging platform Weibo Corporation suspended thousands of accounts which doubled as fan clubs and entertainment news hubs, including a BTS fan account for “illegal fundraising.” Popular actress Zheng Shuang was also fined 299 million yuan (£33 million) last week on tax evasion charges as a ‘warning’ against her influence on her audience as a positive role model.
Actress Zhao Wei, on the other hand, has disappeared entirely from Chinese streaming platforms without explanation. Her name has also been removed from credits of movies and TV programmes in the country.
“This is part of Xi’s latest efforts to ‘cleanse’ what he or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees as undesirable social culture, such as excessive video gaming by teenagers,” said Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto’s Asian Institute. In an interview with the BBC, Ong explained how the latest announcements are “evidence of the party’s ever encroaching role into the lives of ordinary people.”
Chinese ‘cultural cleansing’ is not a recent set of decisions either. Among the wave of new censorship laws in 2019, China allegedly smudged the earlobes of some of its young male pop stars, both on television and the internet, as an attempt to hide their piercings. Male tattoos and ponytails were also blurred before they made it to media screens across the country.
Increasingly pressured to align with President Xi Jinping’s vision of a ‘healthier’ society—and thereby a more powerful China—it’ll only be a matter of time before the country starts compiling more controversial bans, just like the shutdown of Little Kyoto after complaints of a Japanese cultural “invasion.”