On my second day in Shanghai, I set out to find the Old Town. However, I didn’t get very far before I got shanghaied. I normally pride myself in being able to spot a scam a mile off, but this time l was taken for a ride. At what point in the story I’m about to tell you, would you have become suspicious?
Soon after I left the hotel, I bumped into a Chinese student who asked me to take her picture. I was happy to oblige, and after I’d taken some photos, this sweet, smiling student told me she was in Shanghai for a couple of days, and at this very moment she was on her way to a Traditional Chinese Tea Performance. This rang a bell. I had said no twice to something similar the previous day, so I thought this might be a good time to check it out. Also, I reckoned it was something typical for Shanghai since I’d already been asked about it several times.
The student, who told me her name was Karina, took me to a tea shop nearby, where we were shown a tea room, with a table, tea pots and lots o different types of tea. The girl doing the tea performance only spoke Chinese, but Karina told me she was happy to translate for me.
Before we started, we were shown a menu. It was 30 yuan ($5) for the rent of the tea room, and 48 yuan ($8) for the tea. At that point, I hesitated a bit, thinking $13 was a bit pricey. But then I thought, why not? It looked interesting with all the teas. A special memory like this might well be worth $13.
The tea performance was actually quite interesting, and it was nice to try out all the different teas and hear all the anecdotes about Chinese tea making.
At this stage, I was really enjoying it all. It was fascinating to see the entire jasmine tea ball open up as a flower inside the tea glass.
And the fruit tea was absolutely delicious.
I felt I was doing something local, and quite lucky I had bumped into Karina.
When we had tried five different types of tea, Karina asked me if I wanted to stop there, or try a sixth tea. She said, “I’m a student and I don’t have much money,” implying she was happy to stop there. This just didn’t make sense to me. “Do you pay extra just for this sixth type of tea?”, I thought. So, better safe than sorry, I said no.
Next, the girl doing the tea performance asked us if we wanted to buy some tea. I looked at a new price list, but with prices of several hundred yuan ($40-60) for a packet, I said no. Karina decided to buy some tea, though.
At this stage, the tea girl started writing out separate bills for me and Karina. Imagine the shock when I realised she was charging me 48 yuan per tea! Five times 48 yuan, plus 30 yuan for the room came to a whopping 270 yuan ($44)! It was at this moment I realised I’d been taken for a ride. But what could I do? I had been shown a menu/price list before we started, and I hadn’t thought of asking what the total would actually be, to double-check everything. I just assumed the 48 yuan was for all the tea. I can’t really blame anyone else here. I should have been more vigilant.
From that moment, I started observing what Karina was doing very carefully. However, she handed over money for her bill, and then gave me some of her jasmine tea as a gift.
We said goodbye outside the tea shop, and that was it. I felt very annoyed, though, because those 270 yuan were enough for lunch and dinner for that day and the next.
When I got back to the hotel, I googled ‘traditional tea performance’ and Shanghai, and found a lot of stories similar to mine. Apparently, this scam is very common in Shanghai, and it seems I actually got away lightly. What often happens is that when a single bill is issued at the end, the shanghaied party is asked to pay most/all of it because the others are “students”, with “little money”. In my case, I guess Karina went back after we had parted ways and got her money back, plus some kind of commission on the amount I’d paid. I wish I had seen this thread on TripAdvisor before today!
I felt very annoyed with myself for the rest of the day. I was going over what had happened in my mind, and I was looking for clues I should have picked up earlier than I did. The first thing that came to mind was the fact that Karina had asked me to take a photo of her in front of a plain one-storey post office. What Chinese tourist to Shanghai wants a drab picture like that? It should have set off warning bells. The second thing was Karina’s suave, polished chatter. She seemed to have a phrase ready for each step of the process, and in retrospect, the conversation seemed rehearsed.
These are not easy clues to pick up on when you’re visiting Shanghai for only a couple of days, and you are very keen to experience something new and different. A clever scam if you ask me.
But then this is Shanghai after all.
This is the tea shop on 106 Jiangxi Road (S) I was taken to.
I’m not saying that this tea shop is illegitimate. They showed me a printed price list before the tea show started, and issued receipts at the end of the performance. The scam is when “students” pretend to be genuine customers and take you there, and then get a cut of the ridiculously high bill a tourist is presented with.