Travelling solo in Shanghai was one of the most stressful experiences of my life.
Simply put, it feels like everyone is out to get you.
Within minutes, I became exhausted from the ever-present touts who approach you on their flashing light-up wheels that just snap onto your shoes, aggressively trying to sell you fake watches, clothes, massages and services I won’t name.
Then there are the scammers.
The 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 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 several 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 that 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 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 sat on a bench, talking and laughing for quite some time 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 few hours getting lost sounded about as appealing as urine-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 what felt like a life-long friend.
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.
This was my first mistake.
The ceremony itself was uneventful but I was having a wonderful, fascinating afternoon. I couldn’t wait to write about everything I was learning, to share the incredible experience I was having — I learned about the teas for different ailments, as well as 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 I began travelling, four months ago. I couldn’t have been happier, and the girls couldn’t have been lovelier.
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 we had tried and she excitedly told me I could buy some to take home for my family.
After seeing how expensive they 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, told me my share of the price, including their gifts for their family, came to 750 yuan…
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?
My guard had been up all day while I’d been exploring — I had been so cautious. And yet, the fact that these two girls had invested over 30 minutes of their day in getting to know me had left me completely at ease. That this could possibly be a scam had been the last thing on my mind.
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 over a week in my 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. Feeling thoroughly pissed off and betrayed at this point, I simply stared at her and didn’t 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 the one we had entered and they led me down a different set of backstreets as before. I spent my time focusing on how I could get rid of them as quickly as possible. I was actually quite scared of what they would try next.
Suddenly, we were back among the tourists and the shops and bright lights and one of the girls tells me they have to meet some other friends now.
I let the waves of relief wash over me.
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 half-way out of my bag pulling out my purse.
So not only did they pretend to be my friend, scam me with their tea ceremony and attempt to scam me again with an acrobatic show but now they were trying to rob me? They were trying to grab my purse with all my money, my credit cards and my drivers license inside. Wasn’t scamming me enough?
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 (which, admittedly, is very little), I flung it forward and hit her somewhere near her face. She stumbled backwards, stuttering, staring at me in horror as I began to realise what I’d just done.
Upon arriving back in my hostel, I was still shaking with rage.
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. I felt so relieved to have only lost £50.
The good, and bad, thing to come out of this whole ordeal was that from that moment on, if anybody tried to approach me on the street in China I wouldn’t react and would make an effort ignore them. Whilst that therefore prevented me from being scammed, it was also upsetting to feel that I could no longer trust anyone else. On the occasion that I did chat to a local, it wasn’t long until they invited me to their art gallery or to a tea ceremony. Perhaps I just look like an easy target.
As George Bush once said: “fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me [pause] You can’t get fooled again”
Update: This post was written a long, long time ago (2011), at a time when I was a naive and inexperienced traveler. When I visited China, I had only travelled for four months in total and had never been outside of Europe or the United States. I was instantly overwhelmed by the difference in culture and didn’t handle it very well at all. I was a first-time solo traveler and had no idea what I was doing or how to cope with such unfamiliar surroundings. I am ashamed by how I behaved.
I do wish that I had travelled through China with an open mind and given it more of a chance — I wish that I hadn’t been naive enough to be scammed, and I most definitely wish that I hadn’t reacted in the way that I did. It was stupid, dangerous and I regret it.
One of the great things about travel is how much it changes you and, in my opinion, makes you a better person. I feel as though I wasted an opportunity to explore a fascinating country because I was too busy freaking out about how everything was different and how it wasn’t like home. I’d love to return to China in the future with a completely different attitude and experience it with different eyes.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to avoid being scammed next time :-)
Update 2015: I’ve decided to take down the photo of the girls who scammed me. It now feels a little bit too much like public shaming.