Stay in just about any hotel in Shanghai and you’ll see various signs warning you to be aware of possible scams: “Be wary of any locals who approach you on the street with excellent English. Do not follow them when they invite you to a tea tasting ceremony – this is a scam designed to trick Westerners out of large sums of money”
You acknowledge the signs and keep the information safe in the back of your mind although you’re certain that you wouldn’t fall for such a scam anyway….
However, when the two friendly girls approach you in the popular tourist area of People’s Square and excitedly ask you to take their photo, you find yourself eagerly doing so and getting caught up in a fun and interesting conversation with them. When they stand and talk to you for over half an hour asking you about your life, where you’re from, what you’re doing in China, the possibility that this could be a scam doesn’t even cross your mind. After all, what scammer would invest so much of their time in someone?
And then, as the conversation fades, the girls begin to make their excuses and excitedly tell you how they’re spending the rest of their day – they’re heading off to visit a traditional ceremony. They start to leave and then hesitate, turning around, their faces lighting up: wouldn’t it be great if you came along with them? It would be so much fun!
You find yourself eagerly agreeing and getting excited about experiencing some authentic Chinese culture while hanging out with some friendly locals. All thoughts of being scammed have now entirely faded from your mind…
This happens literally every few minutes in Shanghai and it happened to me too.
By just hanging around in a tourist-filled area it’s certain that you will see this happening time and time again – and it’s always the same. A group of Chinese locals pretend to be tourists and approach a foreigner who is on their own – they engage in conversation for a significant amount of time and then all walk off together, laughing and joking.
I followed my new “friends” to the building where the tea ceremony was held. I didn’t notice it at the time but the walk consisted of multiple strange turnings, walks through alleyways – an extremely complex route to retrace.
Entering a derelict building, my companions were talking so fast that I barely had time to register the lack of distinguishing sign, the peeling wallpaper and the musty smell. We were ushered into a tiny room by our host for the next hour: a small, elderly Chinese lady who immediately began jabbering away in Chinese. My friends were keen to translate and we learnt about the different types of tea, where they come from and their different ingredients.
We were to sample six teas, each placed in a miniature teacup that held no more than a couple of mouthfuls. I had a fantastic time and spent much of it laughing, joking around, taking silly photos and enjoying learning about the different aspects of Chinese tea culture. The time flew by and before I knew it we had finished all our samples and were being offered the chance to buy some for ourselves. At a price of roughly 100 Yuan (15USD), they were extremely expensive for such small bags so I declined as my companions eagerly purchased one each.
And then the bill came.
I was handed a crumpled piece of paper with the total amount scrawled across it in pencil: 742 Yuan ($115 USD). The girls immediately started chatting away, pretending that this was completely normal, motioning for me to get out my purse and pay. I refused. Not only was that my share of the bill, but they were also trying to get me to pay for the two girls as well.
“It is tradition in China to pay for your friends. We are friends now. Aren’t we your friends? Don’t you like us?” They stared at me expectantly while I glared back in disbelief.
Refusing to pay for them but intimidated by the tearoom staff that were now surrounding me, I eventually managed to get the bill down to a more manageable price of 500 Yuan ($78 USD). It was still an extortionate amount of money for China, but at least it was slightly better than the original amount.
As I left the building, cursing myself for not realizing what was happening, I realized that the girls hadn’t given up on me yet when they tried once more to scam me: this time with tickets to an aerobics show that evening – an overpriced show that probably didn’t even exist. I had had enough and marched off back towards People’s Square.
I could feel the girls closely following behind me and as I began to turn around, ready to tell them to leave me alone, I found myself getting tangled up in one of the girl’s arms. Looking down, I was horrified to see her hand in my bag, wrapped tightly around my purse.
It was at this point that I saw red and really lost it. I felt myself pulling my arm back and driving my fist towards her face, hearing the satisfying thud as she fell backwards in shock. Before she even had time to react, I was quickly walking away, disappearing into the crowds and heading straight back to my hotel.
From that moment onwards, I was extremely wary of any locals that approached me in the street throughout my time in China which is a shame. I noticed the scams, I saw other tourists falling for them wherever I went and I found it safer to trust nobody. It is a shame because we travel to these distant lands in the hope of having an authentic experience, of making friends with the locals, but when some of the locals seem out to get you, it’s just much safer to be on your guard at all times…
Lauren is on a quest to never stop travelling around the world! You should check out her amazing website, Never Ending Footsteps, but make sure you have plenty of time to read all the blog posts because they’re amazing and infectious!
Have you experienced this scam before or something similar? Let us know below…