Sucked into an elaborate tea ceremony con in Shanghai, China.

DECEMBER 6, 2011 — I’m walking down the Bund, Shanghai’s tourist center, which is essentially a monolithic concrete walkway adjoining the waterfront of the city’s polluted Huangpu River. Chinese tourists yell needlessly loudly into their cell phones as they gaze across the water toward a particularly ugly continuation of Shanghai’s soulless sprawl, the newly built Pudong skyline. The hodgepodge of glass and steel skyscrapers is so disorganized and tacky that I can only assume they were designed by 1950s-era elementary school children imagining “the future.” Above, a blanket of dark clouds, swallowing the blue sky, hides any hint of the sun’s existence.

“Where are you from?” asks a passing twenty-something Chinese girl, walking with two female, Chinese friends near the infamous Huangpu Park. The park, open only to the British during colonial times, is known for having had an entrance sign reading, “No dogs or Chinese allowed,” though no sign with that wording ever existed. (Still, the actual sign didn’t exactly warm the heart.) When I tell the girl that I live in California, she fires question after question at me excitedly, as though I am the first foreigner that she has ever met. She asks me if this my first visit to Shanghai, and she lobs questions about my life in the US. She tells me her name is Liu Sha and that her two Chinese friends, who don’t speak English well, are visiting Shanghai from out of town. She tells me that the three of them are on their way to experience a “traditional tea performance.”

Shanghai's new Pudong neighborhod's skyline as seen from The Bund.
Shanghai’s new Pudong neighborhod’s skyline as seen from The Bund.

“Do you want join us?” Liu Sha asks, smiling. She seems breezy and warmhearted, and I’m excited that I’ve already found a Mandarin-speaker to help guide me on my first day in Shanghai. I’ve been frustrated that almost no one, not even most hotel employees, speak English, and most written material and signs are written only using Chinese characters. I’m embarrassed by my ignorance of Mandarin. Trying to deal with Chinese bus schedules and restaurant menus and city maps has already overwhelmed me.

But Liu Sha’s suggestion that we visit a “traditional tea performance,” makes me suspicious immediately. I’ve traveled to almost 40 countries, mostly without guides and groups, and I’ve been subjected to countless touts and scams. Partly due to luck and partly due to stories from other backpackers and guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, I’ve mostly avoided being tricked, and I vaguely remember reading a sentence a few days before in my China guidebook warning single men to avoid being dragged to “expensive cafes or Chinese teahouses.” But Liu Sha’s backstory and demeanor were so convincing from the beginning that nothing seemed strange to me until she suggested the teahouse.

The world's highest observation deck sits on the 100th floor of Shanghai's World Financial Center.
The world’s highest observation deck sits on the 100th floor of Shanghai’s World Financial Center.

“How expensive is the teahouse?” I ask her warily.

“We’re not sure,” she says credibly. “We’re students and don’t have much money, so if it’s too expensive, we probably won’t want to go either.”

I’m starting to feel like I’ve stumbled into a David Mamet script, but I’m so tired and so relieved to be speaking English with someone that I decide to play along, if for no other reason than to see if, indeed, I’m the target of a con. How will the movie end?!, I wonder. These girls are too sweet to be con artists!

The three lead me down colonial-building-lined Yuanmingyuan Road, and I’m happy that they’re helping change Shanghai from a cryptic puzzle into a pleasant adventure. I can almost feel the cloud of jet lag and anxiety hovering over my head starting to evaporate as we arrive at the teahouse. We’re shown into a private room and, immediately, a Shanghainese-speaking tea pourer begins delving into the rich details of Chinese tea-drinking traditions.

A couple on the Bund running the tea ceremony scam waits to pounce on an unsuspecting tourist.
A couple on the Bund running the tea ceremony scam waits to pounce on an unsuspecting tourist.

Liu Sha translates the narration for me. She seems suddenly uninterested in the cost of experience. I ask to see the tea menu, which lists each tea tasting as Y60 (US $10), which, by the way, is ridiculously expensive for tea in China — even high-quality tea accompanied by a “performance.” But, even now, I’m not totally convinced that I’m being conned, and I agree to try three teas, though it’s not clear to me exactly why. I think I’m falling in love with the idea of being the target of a real-life House of Games, Matchstick Men, or The Usual Suspects. Meanwhile, Liu Sha deserves an Oscar for Best Performance in a Shanghai Tea Con for her convincing acting. I feel myself starting to sympathize with those lonely, elderly women that you hear about on the local television news, conned by phone hucksters relieving them of thousands of dollars for “investments.” I realize that, they too, must realize, on some level, that they’re being defrauded.

A woman pours tea during Shanghai's well-known tea ceremony con.
A woman pours tea during Shanghai’s well-known tea ceremony con.

The tea pourer begins the “performance” by pouring hot water over a tea-god frog statue, then proceeds to serve us four teas in quick succession: ginseng, jasmine, fruit, and lychee. The teas taste great, and we enjoy talking about life in China and America with each other. Liu Sha tells me about the competitive job market in Shanghai, and she acts shocked when she discovers that I don’t have a girlfriend. Her friends tell me that they’re studying architecture at a college in a small city in northern China. I tell them about life in Los Angeles and my planned route across China. As we’re drinking, they teach me how to correctly position my pinky finger (men keep it curled), and we all affix wet tea leaves to our faces below our eyes, meant to prevent “panda eyes” (dark circles). It’s genuine fun.

When the ceremony is over, the tea-pourer asks if we want to buy any of the teas, and two of the girls take her up on her offer. The girls also want to taste more tea, but at US $10 per tea, I announce that I’m done. Then, our tea-pourer hands over a bill reading: Y1200 (about US $200). Liu Sha acts shocked.

“Since my friends are just visiting students from out of town, would you mind helping them out with the bill?” Liu Sha asks me, seemingly innocently. Of course, by now, though we’ve had a legitimately enjoyable afternoon, I know that this is the big reveal: it’s definitely a con. (If it’s not clear, the fraud requires the girls to convince a foreigner to pay an outrageously high, full bill for a large group of people drinking tea, tea that probably has a real value of no more than US $10 total. The teahouse even gives the girls some money in advance to make them seem sympathetic when they pay for a small part of the surprisingly-large bill.)

Chinese acrobats jump on trampolines at Shanghai Circus World.
Chinese acrobats jump on trampolines at Shanghai Circus World.

“I’ll pay for the three teas that I ordered, but nothing else,” I say to Liu Sha, sternly. She flinches. I give the tea-pourer Y180 (US $30). This astronomical price for tasting tea is still a huge rip-off, but it’s a far cry from the US $200 bill. (I’ve read that other travelers have been tricked into paying US $500 and more: see this video, this video, this blog entry, and this blog entry, the last by a guy who still hasn’t realized he was tricked.) The other girls reluctantly “pay” for their portions of the bill — but, of course, the money they’re using isn’t even theirs. I realize that I should completely refuse to pay, but, I’m grappling with the fact that, for better or worse, I verbally agreed when we arrived to pay for three teas for myself. Strangely, the four of us continue the ruse as we leave the teahouse, as though we’re still friends. The girls don’t want to be embarrassed, and neither do I.

The Shanghai Museum
The Shanghai Museum

Over the next couple days, I go on to discover that many other bad reports I’ve heard from other backpackers about China are true. Locals seem to love spitting huge gobs of saliva and mucus whenever and wherever their mood compels them. People play music loudly with their phones in public, ignoring appropriateness. Mobs push and shove (instead of queuing) to get service at ticket booths and stores, with no concern for those around them.

All of this makes me think of Liu Sha and her friends. I find myself feeling dumbfounded, still, that someone so seemingly similar to me could be so soulless as to take such blatant advantage of the trust of a peer and disregard her moral obligations. Though Chinese Communism is based on being collectively minded, the tea con is an example of people acting more selfishly and carelessly than one might expect in such a culture. As The New Yorker writer Peter Hessler notes in his excellent Peace Corps memoir about his time in China: “But such collectivism was limited to small groups, to families and close friends… The average [Chinese] resident appeared to feel little identification with people outside of his well-known groups… Collectively the mobs had one single idea–that tickets must be purchased–but nothing else held them together, and so each individual made every effort to fulfill his personal goal as quickly as possible.” Maybe, when people feel that a government is systematically taking care of them, they feel less obligated to care for strangers and are more likely to try to take advantage of them.

Actors perform during a Beijing opera at the Yifu Theatre in Shanghai, China.
Actors perform during a Beijing opera at the Yifu Theatre in Shanghai, China.

Yet, despite my having to become accustomed to pronounced cultural differences, I still manage to enjoy Shanghai. I watch the acrobats at Shanghai Circus World fly through the air, contort themselves in unbelievable ways, and pilot motorcycles inside a huge metal globe (a fantastic daredevil act that no one should miss). I eat breakfast looking out at the view from the top of the insanely high World Financial Center in Pudong. And, on my last night in the city, I visit the Yifu Theatre to see a Beijing-style Opera. The opera, in Cantonese, is subtitled in Shanghainese. I can’t understand anything the actors are saying, the music is far from melodic, and the story isn’t visual, so I can’t follow the narrative. But the costumes are beautiful, and somehow the absurdity of me, an English-only speaker, sitting in the Yifu Theatre, persuades me to enjoy it.

After the opera, I find myself strolling through Xintiandi, an upmarket outdoor mall with stores inside rebuilt traditional Chinese houses. As I’m walking, a beautiful Chinese woman with long, black hair, black tights and a short skirt stops me.

“Hey! I was sitting in that coffee shop and I saw you walk by! You’re so handsome. Where are you from?” she asks me in impressive English. She shoots a big smile at me.

“Sorry, I’m on my way to dinner,” I tell her, coldly. As I walk away, I have no idea whether I have avoided a con — or just a beautiful Chinese woman. I feel sad. In China, I’ve been taught to think only of myself.

Things to See in Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

OVERVIEW: Fly to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. The fastest way to get into the city is to take the Maglev train (Y50/US $8, 8 minutes) and transfer to the metro. You can also take the metro directly from the airport (Y6), but the trip takes 75 minutes.

OPERA: The Yifu Theatre (take the metro to People’s Square) stages opera in a variety of regional styles. If you don’t speak Mandarin, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, but I still enjoyed the cryptic performance and gorgeous costumes. Tickets cost Y30 to Y280 (US $5 to US $47), but the theater is so small that the cheapest seats are almost as good as the best.

ACROBATS: Shanghai Circus World (take the metro to the Shanghai Circus World station) boasts amazing acrobatic performances with impressive artistry and a truly mind-blowing daredevil motorcycle stunt. Tickets cost Y180 to Y580 (US $30 to US $97), but every seat in the round theater except the absolute cheapest tier is very good.

SHANGHAI MUSEUM: Lonely Planet describes the Shanghai Museum as a “must-see” and a “tour de force,” but I find most museums boring, and this one was not an exception. But, if you’re dying to see seemingly never-ending galleries filled with bronzes, ceramics, and calligraphy, take the metro to the People’s Square stop. Admission is free.

WORLD FINANCIAL CENTER: You can take the metro to Lujiazui station and pay Y150/US $25 to go to the 100th floor and visit the world’s highest observation deck (in the world’s seventh highest building), or you can simply visit the restaurant/bar 100 Century Ave on the building’s 91st floor (part of the Park Hyatt Hotel) and see almost the same view.

37 thoughts on “Shanghai”

  1. Sadly, your experiences very closely match mine. I'm currently on my 3rd trip to China (Shanghai, no less) for business. I've travelled to Japan & Korea several times, so I feel that I can competently compare my experiences in China with other north east Asian countries. I've had the tea house scammers approach me outside the Shanghai Museum last year. Also, in Beijing I had different tea scammers approach me in the Forbidden City. And the less than polite behavior has been a fact of life just about everywhere I went. Its unfortunate that independent travellers in China end up having less than great experiences. After each trip, I'm often asked by friends about how it went, and the best word that I'm able to come up with is 'interesting'. China is an interesting, fascinating place, but 'enjoyable' rarely comes to mind. Its a pity, because as much tourism as China already gets, they could likely get significantly more if they made more of an effort to not treat (western) foreigners as a get-rich-quick opportunity.

  2. I believe I met the leading lady of your team last month in Shanghai. My first visit, husband had a training gig. I'm an active 70ish woman and I was wandering in cold wind near Yuan Garden wondering where it actually was in that giant maze of traffic. Frustrating. And lonely – no language, no eye contact, no smiles. So the two girls who asked me to take a picture of them with their cellphone, and stayed to chat, were the most delightful thing that had happened all day. When I learned that they were going to a New Tea ceremony (the English speaker was escorting her visiting cousin, an architecture student from a town up north…) I asked if I could follow along.

    There followed a nearly identical experience to yours, though apparently expertly tuned to our different mark characteristics.

    Suspicion dawned with the extraordinarily high price-per-person-per-tea notification. That, plus my little problems with in-the-head currency conversion shocked me into alertness and damage-control mode. As a little old lady, though, it is easy to remain friendly. I still wasn't SURE I was being conned. I found the rituals (even the con) very interesting, asked a zillion questions and learned a lot more than I had known about tea before. All 4 of us had fun for over two hours. When the tea cooled, the whole show had come to about $300, including a half-kilo each of my 2 favorite teas and excellent guidance back to the metro. I had insisted on paying for their tea tastings – it seemed like the gracious thing to do. I couldn't and didn't pay for the tea they "bought," actually felt a little bad about that, but it would have been too much.

    I'm drinking my "lady tea" just now. My husband can't have any because it has a number of attributes that would be bad for him. I could explain all this to you if you had the time. The episode is a month gone but the "English teacher" hasn't emailed me yet. Suspicious.

    I enjoyed your analysis of the encounter, and agree with some of it. Do you think we really did meet the same team leader, or do you think there are crowds of young congirls out there – all as good as she was…?

    Right at the moment I feel more callously treated by Apple's cynical product cycle than by those kids in Shanghai.

    Thanks for the eye-opener!

    Sharron Sussman

  3. netllama: Yes, there's something initially offputting about Chinese culture, and, yes, the Chinese seem to be doing their absolute best to pave over and pollute the vast natural wonders of their country. Nevertheless, once I became accustomed to the place, I started to enjoy myself and was sad to leave after three weeks. In some respects, ironically, some of the worst parts of being in China are also some of the worst things about the US — too often, I felt like I was looking in a revealing mirror. Of course, the US has improved greatly in terms of pollution and arrogance over the last 50 years. Hopefully this will happen to China too over the next 50 years.

  4. Sharron: Thanks for sharing your story! I think it's unlikely that you and I ran into the same scammer in Shanghai — I know for a fact that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of them, just by reading the Internet and watching and photographing them working people on the Bund after my incident — though I suppose it is possible. You'll see if you read other reports of this scam on the Internet that the details are uncannily identical, which may be due, in part, to the exceptional Chinese mimicry talent. I am forced to admit that, despite the dark ending to my essay, this incident was probably the most fun I had in Shanghai even though I knew I was being conned. So, as you point out, I'm mostly glad it happened despite the bad intentions of my scammers (though I paid up much less money than most duped so it's probably a bit easier for me to feel this way than most). Also, the tea itself was actually quite good, so that's an extra bonus. Glad you're enjoying yours.

  5. As a Chinese myself, I feel ashamed of what these people did. Even me myself got ripped-off in Huangshan. I was travelling in US for a while and I never was in a con there. The US trip and Huangshan trip contrast. My English sucks, I can't really express my opinion.

  6. The Chinese tea festival invite by the couple on the Bund walkway. Had a good chat, but declined the chance to experience their "culture". Funny is, went to Xintiandi and had a black haired gal stop me for "conversation". Had I not been solicited 30 times for watches purses and girls on Nanjing RD. East I may have fallen for one of these approaches. Buyer beware!

  7. Yeah, that happened to me, too, when I was in Shanghai. I was only approached twice, probably because I'm an ethnic Chinese, so I don't stand out as an American. But I'm not stupid. Do pretty girls approach me out of the blue in America? Nope. So I knew something was up. I talked with them a bit, but when it came to the scam part, I just politely declined.

  8. The tea scam just happened to me today; $100 in the hole. I can't wait to get back to North America and never come back to this goofy country again. It's just been one rip off after another for me and my colleages. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  9. I've just come back from my second trip to China. It's been hard work both times because I don't speak Chinese and travel alone. I will come back, scam irritants notwithstanding.
    Two nights ago I spent a few hours along the Bund. I had turned away five or six offers to see "beautiful young girls" both from charming young modestly dressed women and more aggressive older male hustlers.
    But a young woman "Jane" who said she was twenty six opened conversation with a request for light – first cigarette in two months. She said that she was a travel agent and explained that she came out on Saturday evening to people watch and reflect on her going nowhere relationship with a fifty two year old American "Larry".
    Her English was good and I didn't feel the ego massage of the standard come on.
    Warning signs came and went with oblique suggestions of Karaoke which weren't pursued. A suggested drink. Well okay, perhaps one beer since I'm heading back to my hotel since it's getting on.
    "Jane" didn't have a particular idea
    of where but then veered to a lounge.
    Up two escalators and into a largely empty, nondescript restaurant cum bar.
    An orange juice for me and some tea please.
    A fruit platter came. Nice touch but not something I ordered. Hmmmmm.
    A friend calls. "Jane" advises that she is on the way to drop in for a few minutes. Drinks appear. Okay let's shut this down.
    All this time I was aware of a clear exit which would avoid the bar area.
    The bill comes. I'm ready for a bit of padding and writing this off to a moment of soft-headedness. But not 2999Y!!!!!!
    Move slowly, gather my coat and start to move towards the exit. It's still not apparent whether I'm intending to pay or not. I'm at the escalator. "Jane's" friend seizes my arm. "You must pay, this is not the Chinese way". I'm down the first escalator, one more to go. Open plate glass doors to the pedestrian mall. Taxi a hundred feet away. I look back. No one following.
    I had thought I could write a book on these setups but it just took a moment of something quasi familiar to an innocent spontaneous conversation no strings attached.
    Glad to be home. Can't wait to go back.

  10. Haha! There should be warning notices in hotel rooms. I got done today, picked up outside the Shanghai Museum. Actually the loss of £80 is less painful than the sense of betrayal. With me it was a boy and a girl, and they were so nice!

    One detail of the tea ceremony seemed strange at the time; the performer only looked at me, not my companions, even though they were supposedly equal participants.

    Also there was the fact that it was so complicated to get to the tea shop, and they didn't even have to think about it.

    I feel a real fool. But I'd rather retain my natural trust in people than be damaged by this encounter. At least I've put some money into the economy.

  11. Wish I had known about this scam as I had the same thing happen to me today. Stupid me didn't think to read up on all the cons & tricks of the trade for her first visit to China. I was walking along the bund & were asked by a boyfriend and girlfriend to take their photo, then got engaged in a conversation. Boyfriend was visiting from out of town, she was showing him the sites of shanghai. They asked if I would like to join them for the traditional tea ceremony. Thinking it would be great I offered to go, they were very engaging. We arrived in a back alley of old shanghai (because the buildings are 30 years old as was explained to me), wanting to repay hospitality & friendliness, I offer to pay for the ceremony. I am shown the tea menu & we pick 6 teas to try, I ask the estimated cost – no answer. Get the bill at the end of the ceremony & it's $236 aud. I am mentally calculating in my head that this is $78 per person for 6 tea tastings – astronomical. I should have put my foot down & asked them to pay their own teas, they bought tea to take home (which they paid for), they then wanted to take me to a shopping mall but by that stage I felt very ripped off & said I was meeting people. Like one of the previous comments I am more pissy about the being sucked in than the cost. I like to think of myself as a savvy person who can detect the bullcrap. Alas we live & learn.

  12. I fell for this too. I was lucky enough to get my credit card company to reverse the charges and consider them fraudulent. One of the girls was dumb enough to give me her real email address and phone number though. I called her and gave a piece of my mind. This is one the transaction of emails that followed:

    "I can tell you real things.
    Actually I just came to Shanghai in September this year.
    I want to come big city.
    But after came to Shanghai.
    I can't find suitable work.
    Not too much work experience.
    So.I chose to work in the teahouse.
    Because this job can let me practice English.
    Can understand people in different countries.
    Different national culture.
    Of course can earn some money.
    But I can be sure to tell you I'm just temporary do the work.
    once again to you。 I'm sorry.
    If you can forgive me, I still hope we can be friend…."

    So yes, they are employees of the teahouse. I assume that the girls on Nan-Jin (sp?) road who come up and tug your sleep for them to buy you a drink are running the same scam…?

  13. Shuck!!! My husband has traveled to 51 countries, and I've done close to 40 countries and we thought we were savvy travelers. But. today we got ripped-off by these con artists. They hang out right outside of Yuyuan Garden metro station. A young lady and young man approached my husband to take their picture. Then my husband asked them to take our pictures. Then they started asking us questions about where we were from, etc. When I asked where the Yuyuan garden is, Toby, the young man, said there are two parts of the garden, and that they were going to the more interesting part of the garden to experience the tea ceremony and asked if we would like to join them (or we asked to join them — don't exactly remember what happened because they were so good!) Toby said he's a manager at Radisson Hotel, and the young lady, Liang Mei, is a student from Guangzhou visiting Toby for a few days. They took us to a place called "Old Tea House" on one of the side streets a few blocks from the metro station. Then they whisked us into a private tea room, explaining that this is a special time for tea ceremony – they're only doing this annually for about two weeks a year. The young lady in the tea house didn't speak any English, so Toby translated for us. They asked us to pick a 'lucky' number from 6, 8, 9, 10. And we 'collectively' picked 6. (Thank God it wasn't 10.) We were shown the menu at 48 RMB/per tea. I remember asking whether the price is per tea or for all, and at one point Toby said for all. But somehow we were dumbfounded during the 'tea performance' that we enjoyed one tea after another, and the last tea presented was the black tea, "the KIng of all teas, that was grown in high mountains so only monkeys could pick the tea leaves". BS!!! The price for black tea was 128 RMB/per tasting – and I said I wouldn't pay that, and they presented us with Lychee black tea for 48 RMB. We should have left at that point, or I should have said something to the effect that I thought the price was 48 RMB for all 6. However, we didn't realized we were conned at that moment. They're that good. When it comes time to pay, we were presented with a bill for 636 RMB for my husband and me. Toby said he will pay for his and Liang Mei's. We wanted to pay with MC, but they were going to add another 60 RMB for foreign service fees. So we ended up paying with cash of 700 RMB and gave us 60 RMB back. They didn't have any small change, and presented us with 4 small tokens. And Toby added 40 RMB for tipping, and we felt that it was only appropriate to do the same. So the whole tasting experience cost us 680 RMB — about $110, the most expensive tea I paid anywhere. The day before we had a lovely lunch in a local noodle shop for 15 RMB for two bowls of mouth watering hand-made noodles soup with beef. And today we paid $110 for 6 thimble -size tasting of teas. Live and Learn!!

  14. Yeah I was in Wangfujing shopping district with a friend this summer. A woman in her 40s approached my friend and I about getting a beer and then tea while my friend was buying shoes. I was well aware of this scam so I kept politely refusing. She was rather polite until she realized we were going to get away. Then I was fat and ugly. I was tempted to retort, yeah but not stupid!

    The other thing you have to watch out for is being shunted into shops by your tour guide where they get kick backs. It is okay if you are interested in the wares and are good at bargaining. That way if you feel like you got a good price, you aren't resentful about the experience even if they feel like they have fleeced you.

    We had been climbing Yellow Mountain most of the day and were told we had to either go into the tea shop or the foot massage shop (or something like that) before we would be taken back to the hotel.

    We refused because we were so tired and I think the guide was having a hard time deciding what to do because the guy who arranged the trip was the boyhood friend of the tour company owner.

    Later in the tour we spent a lot of money at a couple other places which I figured were also giving kickbacks to the tour guide so I am sure she was happy.

    The most laughably bald faced was when were were taken to a jade museum in Luoyang. The displays were interesting even though we were pretty sure one of the items was painted wood rather than jade. Barely 10 minutes into the tour we were taken through a door to a huge jade show room that was easily three times the size of the museum.

  15. Well I live in HK and spend quite some time in China. It is no surprise to me that the bund is a stage for tourism scams. No different to any other place in the world were you get a lot of fresh of the boat fly in fly out tourism.

    The reason a lot of this happens in China is because they can make money at it. Most western tourists are way too polite and end up getting themselves so deep into a scam they find it impossible to get out without appearing very rude. This is the angle these chaps use. Dont be afraid to tell people to bugger off or walk away even if it seems rude to you it is not to the average local. Chinese people do it all the time.

    In China the cardinal position is caveat emptor for absolutely everything. Ask the price, examine the goods, ask the price again, examine the goods. When in doubt just walk away you are not being rude.

    CH is a great country to travel in if you can get over the social mores that are verboten (spitting etc) back home.

  16. I got totally sucked into it. Same thing with a bill of RMB 1022. Luckily I told my bank immediately after I got out of the tea-house who blocked my card so I hopefully I don't get charged for it. I am so mad for being conned for being so trusting.

  17. Good reading. I went to Shanghai around 5 months ago. I was there on a short stopover on the way to visit my brother in Taiwan (English teacher). It was interesting … would have been better if I had a crew of mates with me. I had the kind-of-the-same feeling as you mentioned in the last paragraph. I met three really friendly people who said they were visiting from Beijing. I had an English / b-grade Mandarin chat, took a few photos of them and eventually they asked if I wanted to go with them to a tea-house. I turned them down (accidentally harshly in Mandarin) and continued on my way. I still don't know if I turned down a fun occasion with three friendly people or avoided a potential scam.

  18. Well … doing some more reading … It looks like I avoided a scam. That begs the question, do legitimate invitations to tea houses exist?

  19. Nice write-up. I am visiting Shanghai for business and was approached by a young couple on Sunday to take their picture, etc., etc. I eventually stopped answering their questions and just walked away, but it was amazing how persistent they were…all the while being polite. The good news is that I had been to China enough to not desire having a "local traditional experience" but could have easily been sucked in otherwise. I'm not a big fan of tea anyway. 🙂

  20. Oh Sh**t. I just came from the Bund and I have been conned. I was stopped by a group of two girls and a boy and they seemed to be very nice. I had a great time with them. Though when I left the tea house, I had a sinking feeling, don't know why. My inner voice was telling me not to go with them, but I still went and blew around 500 RNB up! Sad part is I just came back to my hotel and searched for the sams and found your page. This just changes my opinion about friendly english speaking Chinese who ask me where I am from India and get excited. So sad!It would have been better to spend that much money buying gift for my family.

  21. The photo of the couple you have look similar to Peter and Xenia who approached me when I came out of Yuyuan metro station on my way to the Yuyuan Garden. After asking me to take a photo of them (it seemed slightly odd that they wanted one infront of the wide street which had nothing else in the background) they started chatting and convinced me that it was not a good time to go to the garden as it was very busy at that time of day. They also told me that Peter was Xenia's cousin and she was taking him to a tea festival before it finishes for the year. They suggested I go along and go back to the garden a bit later when the crowd dies down. They seemed so genuine and Xenia showed such passion, warmth and enthusiasm. when we got there they told me to sit between them as this shows much respect for me as their guest of honor. A book was flashed infront of me with prices which I thought only applied if you bought the tea. Little detail was given about ceremony price etc. They told me we would be only tasting 6 out of their 200 types of tea. The ceremony went ahead exactly as you described it. I know something was wrong when they became impatient and their temperament changed as I was hesitant to buy the tea. I explained that although I liked it I thought it was too expensive. I then realised it was a scam and got up to leave. Peter immediately stood infront of me and would not let me get to the door, demanding that I pay 300 RMB for the ceremony. I was frightened but also annoyed that they treat me this way and demanded they let me out. The woman who did the ceremony started demanding money as well as Peter and I was insisting they let me out. Xenia was telling everyone to calm down. She said it wasn't fair that they should have to pay the bill and that I should contribute. I felt i didn't have a choice but to tell them I only had 100 RMB which I was going to buy my lunch with. As soon as I gave it to them I pushed past and opened the door and got outside. I saw there was a police car on the corner and went to it but it was empty. I asked some people nearby where the policeman was but nobody knew. A nice gentleman who spoke English was riding past on his bike and saw I was distressed and offered to call the police for me. As he was doing it a man appeared and asked me what was wrong and said he would go to the tea house with me to try get my money. The gentleman on the bike told me to ignore him as he was part of the scam. He was right. The gentleman told me that the police were on their way and to wait by the car. The other man was hanging around waiting to see what I would do. I told him I wanted my money back. He took out his wallet and handed me back the 100 RMB and told me to F*** Off. I immediately left. The incident has left a sour taste in my mouth and I am absolutely disgusted at how these people treat their tourists. If it wasn't for us their country would be a lot worse off. I can't understand how these scams are still operational. What is it going to take to clean up the streets and make the tourists feel safe and respected??

  22. Same thing happened to me up to the point I saw a thimble of tea was 49 Yuan or $8. Then I ran out of there and as I looked back I saw the whole team of scammers with their heads hung low, like "Damn, he got away."

  23. Hello Hank! I am writing you from my hotel room in Shanghai at this very moment. I guess it's good to know that I'm not the only one that fell for this tea ceremony scam as it just happened to me yesterday. Oh how I wish someone would have told me or that I would have heard about it before I came. I am such a non-trusting person, very careful and usually have smart sense. However, these people seriously fooled me…. I have never been in China before and a day before my conference I had decided to check things out. I was approached by a man and woman who claimed to be cousins. Reading your experience, with a few exceptions, matched the crazy experience that I had. I had convinced myself that I should be more friendly, which I am with people I know, and to live more in the moment taking life as it comes. This is what I was doing and I took the bait! The biggest difference for me is that at the end of the ceremony I had agreed to pay for my tea and help pay for the lady. I agreed to pay 825 RMB which I new was outrageous but I wasn't sure at the time what to do…Being new in the county…A single female.. Wasn't sure what was behind the doors…etc… A million thoughts went through my head… I didn't want to spend my cash so I used my credit card… Needless to say…… What was supposed to be a charge of 825RMB ended up being over 1825 – over $350…. Once I got back to my hotel room and began to think about this, I decided to do a little research and realized I was a victim to a scam.. There were so good. They had exchanged email addresses with me and I have a pic of one of them and the tea lady too. I guess I am gullible… I was reading another site where a chinese american said that all of us were just stupid.. Most of the victims, I guess are men… But I am a single female in my early forties and I should have known… right? Right! Anyway – The police won't even take my report because I can't give them the EXACT location of the place where this happened…… Which means that I can't make a fraud report with out proof that I made a statement. I am still in the process of trying to figure this out, but after what I read on some people – I got off easy.. Not as easy as you but still easier than many others….. This is crazy! I am so use to the people in Korea and just how safe things are there… I don't know.. I think more than anything I was hurt because these people were so nice and I fell for it! Thank you for letting me express my self and for writing your story.. It's helpful!

  24. I fell for it too man.($300. It was very enjoyable while it was happening and I was oblivious to it all. They even gave me their email address and when I later realized what had happened, I emailed them to say it was wrong. They emailed me back and said Yes but we all had so much fun together!

  25. Sadly, I just fell for this scam earlier today. I was not sure it was a scam, but did get suspicious along the way. But it is my first time in Shanghai, and not knowing what things cost I was unsure until looking this up. I didn't have enough money so they went with me to an ATM. Somehow they reduced the price in the end, but still paid 300 CNY. As so many others have mentioned, it was not the amount of money, it is the feeling of being suckered that made me so mad.
    I know this is a common risk to travelers in all big cities around the world, especially when you don't even speak the language, but I feel a bit jaded.
    It is a shame because I also met such nice people as a result of my meetings and was treated with great hospitality, but my experience today has really tainted my impression.
    This is an interesting place, but not high on my list to recommend or come back.

  26. I am so glad that our hostel in Shanghai had a sign on the wall warning visitors of "tea house scams". We saw it right when we arrived, wondering what it could mean. Next day as we were walking close to the Shanghai Museum we met a few young people who asked if we can take a picture of them. One of them was obviously showing his friends from out of town around… Nice little chat, and surprisingly good English. We did take a picture or two, but as soon they mentioned "tea ceremony" we thought of the warning, declined and walked off. It seemed unlikely that so innocent-looking youths would be part of a scam, but I guess they were. Later when people asked us to take pictures of them we mostly did not even bother to do that (they would not need the only Europeans among thousands of other people to operate a camera, would they – unless they were targeting us specifically). Anyway, we avoided the scam, but it was very interesting to read a bit more about it. Thanks.

  27. The tea ceremony is alive and well. So glad I am not alone in my innocence. I was part of a sting near the riverbend area where the tour boats run. I just stepped out of a cab and a cute young talkative gal who claimed to be visiting Shanghai and was going to a tea ceremony and would I like to go so she could practice her English. I recognized one of the tea servers in the photo. It is embarrassing to admit how much I paid and I chalk it up to experience and learning not to trust people in large cities where there is a lot of poverty. It is all about business sense and if anything I am impressed with their craft and cunning; it was a seminar in how to avoid deception and to put things in perspective and let go and learn from mistakes. As the lyric of the Cloud Cult song You'll be Bright says "Travel Safely".

  28. Bleh, I was also scammed in Shanghai yesterday by two lovely Chinese 'travellers' who wanted me to take their picture. I paid a lot of money for the ceremony and purchased three boxes of tea (didn't even want it… felt guilty). If I hadn't accidentally taken way too much money out of an atm already I would have refused to pay the price, but only wonder what could have happened if I didn't go along with it as I am was a single, young female. One of the teas I purchased was retailing for 450 in a shop at the airport, which made me feel slightly better about the experience… and it was enjoyable at the time! Definitely leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially because I thought they were such nice people. They are good at what they do. I have never lost any money while travelling or been scammed before (and I travel a lot!), so I figure I've done well!

  29. Caitlyn, thanks for sharing your story, though I’m sorry to hear that you were scammed. I wish there were more I could do to get the word out to stop this from happening again! But, on the plus side, I agree — even if it is a scam, it’s a life experience that’s not 100% bad, right? I hope you enjoyed your trip otherwise!

  30. Hey Hank, similar thing happened to me in Beijing. I am posting everywhere on the internet that I possibly can about it.

    In beijing I was scammed at Da Shan Qing Tea house on Nan chizi street. My experience was particularly memorable as the scammers that scammed me included a foreigner, who called himself Mike, and spoke mandarin chinese.

    I hope one day this scam is stamped out, and nobody gets scammed anymore but it doesn't seem likely. There seems to be no shortage of people who do not read up before heading out traveling to china.
    If you want to read my experience go to pissedconsumer . com and you can search for Da Shan Qing Tea house and find my post.
    Theres also other places that I posted it on the internet!


  31. I was really glad to find this blog! i actually just went to Yu Garden and got sidetracked by two "cousins" as soon as I exited the metro who talked me into the whole tea thing. I never saw the garden as I spent too much on the tea service – only about $71 but my budget's limited. Now I don't feel like such a loser, so thank you! 🙂

  32. Three days I'm in Shanghai without local friends.
    First day when walking alone in the Bund, I met young couple, clean and educational look. The guy ask me to help them take a picture using his iPhone 5. After that, we have warm conversation until they offering me to enjoy tea festival/ceremony. I refuse politely to enjoy them and say good bye. They walk away from me. When I walk to their direction, saw them ask another man to help them take a picture and following with the 'tea' conversation. I just walk them away and wondering… what they do for living?

    Second day.. I walk on Yu Garden area.. and two young girls come to me and asking me to help them take a picture using their iPhone 4. Continue with conversation they come from another city, until they ask me to join them to watch tea festival. Also I refused their call.

    Third day, when I sit to play with my cellphone outside metro train station, another tourist show me a map asking direction. I answering with English and show them direction. Suddenly there is a couple trying to help them too. I just hear them and make sure they give correct direction.
    After that, the girls try to make warm conversation with me and at the end ask me to join them to show tea ceremony.

    I really curious what will happen if I just say yes and following them.
    But thank to you. Share your experience 4 years ago.
    In day 1 and 2 I just make assumption, their will kidnap me 🙂 and sell my body part. Or they will do some criminal act and let me hold the evidence until their clear… My assumption because I see they equipped with expensive things. But I know now, my imagination is to wild. 😀

  33. I've been in Shanghai for 2 days now, and it's the first time. I walked the bund near the river, and 2 good looking English-speaking girls came to me while I was taking some pictures. Asked some questions about me and said some complements, then, hot-weather conversation started. They suggested to go for a beer.

    Thank God I get suspicious almost about everything. I, kindly, refused with an excuse. Completed my journey toward Nanjing rd. I ran by 2 or 3 women, offering me body massage or having to drink something. But I refused them all. After that I knew the story. And your experience you shared us with, confirm my thoughts about it. So, thank you.

  34. Hello, Hank!

    Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and making me aware about scammers in Shanghai. And thank you to all those people who shared their experiences here too! You are all doing a great job!

    I am going to travel to China soon and Shanghai is one of my stops. Thanks to you all, I now know what NOT to do!

    So, China, here we come, wiser than before!

  35. Interesting article, well-written—thanks! Have to admit that I missed the part where there is any point at all in visiting Shanghai, especially if you don’t speak the language. It sounds like one Kafka-esque experience, full of confusion, inauthentic cultural experiences, and encounters with totally fake people who live in their own dystopia.

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