Travelling solo in Shanghai will be one of the most stressful experiences of your entire life.
The supposed businessman who has lost his wallet and briefcase and needs money to catch a taxi to his hotel, the young art students who want to excitedly show you their original paintings in a nearby exhibition, the beautiful girls who try to get you to play karaoke with them for the small price of £500…
And then we have the Shanghai Tea Scam.
After spending seven hours walking around Shanghai and finding nothing but hassle, I was pleased to run into two friendly Chinese girls who were around the same age as me. They began by excitedly asking to have their photo taken with me, something which I had got used to very quickly since arriving in China.
Whilst I like to believe that these people are actually adoring fans of my site, the reality is that Chinese people seem to like collecting photos of themselves with small white girls who look like they’ve shoved their fingers into a light socket. I was only too happy to oblige
With nothing better to do and upon discovering that the two girls were actually very funny and had close to perfect English, we stood talking and laughing for over half an hour before deciding to part. As I said goodbye and started to walk off one of them quickly gasped and ran after me to tell me that they were actually just heading off to a traditional tea ceremony, and that I was free to accompany them if I wanted.
As spending another seven hours getting lost sounded about as appealing as piss flavoured lollipop, I excitedly agreed to go with them.
I’d hung out with quite a few locals in Taiwan already and every single experience had been fantastic — I’d had an opportunity to learn about their culture and, in some cases, made a life-long friend. I’d visited a traditional tea ceremony with my friend Lia in Taiwan and had a fantastic time — and she’d even insisted on paying no matter how many times I tried to force my money into her hand.
Little did I know quite how different this experience would turn out to be…
After a long walk during which the girls led me through a series of dimly lit, small alleyways, we finally arrived at our destination.
It was a nondescript building, with no identifying sign and no indication that it housed any kind of tea ceremonies. I dismissed my growing sense of malaise and followed the girls inside.
We were quickly ushered into a small, dark room by our host for the next 30 minutes: a tiny Chinese lady wearing traditional robes, who quietly motioned for us to sit. The room was empty apart from a low wooden table and a few wooden stools. The walls were covered by yellow, slightly peeling wallpaper adorned with Chinese symbols and landscapes.
As we sat down one of the girls turned to me, “the host can only speak Chinese. Don’t worry, I will translate for you. I hope you don’t mind my Engrish” she grinned as the other girl burst out laughing.
A menu was quickly shown to us and one of the girls told me that we would be sampling six different teas today. I noticed that the prices were not listed but after seeing the size of the cups I assumed that it wouldn’t cost much at all.
The ceremony itself was uneventful but I was still having a wonderful afternoon. I couldn’t wait to write about everything I was learning — the teas for different ailments, the history of Chinese tea. The girls translated every word and taught me about the different types of teas and their benefits.
I was having one of the best days since arriving in China.
As the ceremony ended, the more talkative of the pair pointed towards the second container of tea. “This was my favourite tea, which was yours?” she asked. I indicated that I liked the fourth tea that we had tried and she excitedly told me I could buy some to take home for my family.
After seeing how ridiculously expensive the prices were, I politely declined. The two girls, however, both chose two bags of tea each.
And then the bill arrived.
The prices, scrawled out grey pencil, tell me my share of the price, including their gifts for their family, comes to 742 yuan (£75/$115)…
I sat there in shock for a while before suddenly remembering the signs plastered all over my hostel. The signs which I had been joking about with friends just the day before.
The signs which read: “Caution: You may be approached by several young student-type locals with very good English who will offer to take you to a tea ceremony. Do not go with them. This is part of an elaborate scam to trick westerners into paying extortionate amounts of money”
How could I have been so stupid?
Thinking quickly, I immediately refused to pay for part of their tea that they had bought. “But it is tradition”, they giggled, “in China we must always split the bill equally. This is what friends do. Are you not our friend?”
I stood firm, refused to pay the money, and asked the host to recalculate the bill without the tea. The new price came in at 500 yuan (£50).
To put that into perspective, £50 is roughly the cost of ten days in a hostel dorm room in China.
Feeling only slightly better with this price I handed over the money and watched one of the girls leave with the host so that she could “pay via credit card”.
I felt like crying and couldn’t prevent the surge of anger running through my body. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t believe my ignorance and naivety.
As I sat silently cursing myself, the remaining girl in the room quickly pulled out an advert for an acrobatic show that evening and asked if I wanted to buy a ticket from her so that we could go together. Thoroughly pissed off by this point, I glared at her and didn’t bother to respond, leaving us both sitting in silence while she stared at me awkwardly.
When the second girl returned we left through a different door than we came in through and they led me down a completely different set of backstreets as before, as I focused on how I could get rid of them as quickly as possible.
Suddenly we were back among the tourists and bright lights and one of the girls tells me they have to meet some other friends now.
They asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day and as I started to tell them I noticed one of the girls with her arm outstretched behind my back. I swiftly turned around and caught her hand in my bag pulling out my purse.
It was at this point that I lost it.
With adrenaline pumping through my veins I pulled back my fist and with all my strength, I flung it forward and hit her square in the face. She stumbled backwards, stuttering, staring at me in horror as I began to realise what I’d just done.
Unable to calm my temper or gain control of the situation, I gave her a small wink and some combination of a smirk and a grimace before quickly disappearing into the crowd of tourists across the street.
Upon arriving back in my hostel, I was still shaking. I sat down and spent my evening searching online for more information on the Shanghai Tea Scam. The amount of people that had been caught out by the trap was overwhelming. After reading about people losing hundreds and hundreds of pounds through the same scam I realised that it could have been much, much worse, and felt glad to have only lost £50.
The good, and bad, thing to come out of this whole ordeal was that from that moment onwards, if anyone tried to approach me on the street in China I wouldn’t even react and would completely ignore them. Whilst that therefore prevented me from being scammed anymore, it also made me feel a bit sad that I felt that I could no longer trust anyone else.
As the wonderful George Bush famously said: “fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me [pause] You can’t get fooled again”
Have you ever been scammed while on the road? How did you react?