I’ve agonised over whether to post this on my blog and put my gullibility/stupidity out into the public domain, but I told myself when I decided to record my travels that it would be warts-and-all, rough with the smooth – something to look back on to remember the many good times, and if it proved to be the case, the not-so-good times.
Well, in Beijing, what had so far been a very smooth journey suddenly hit a bit of a pothole. I was scammed – although thankfully, I’ll state early on, there is a happy ending.I can just about laugh about it now, but it very nearly put me off my beloved cups of tea for life!
There aren’t many photos, but what follows is my way of a public service announcement, my experience of what happened, how I was taken in, how I confronted it and my advice to anyone travelling to China. If you don’t know me and you’ve come across this page through a search engine, the chances are the same has happened to you and you’re looking to find out what to do about it. Well, along with anyone planning to visit, I feel the following is so important, anyone applying for a Chinese visa should be made to read it before the visa gets granted.
If anyone, nomatter how normal, how nice or how genuine they seem comes up to you and asks if they can talk to you and practise their English, do not, I repeat, do not entertain them.
I’d been in Beijing for a few days, and started to feel comfortable. I knew my way around, the people were friendly, and many of the Chinese tourists were so intrigued to meet a Westerner, many would stop and have photographs taken with you and say how nice it was to meet (that’s my next post!)
Unfortunately, there are quite a few Chinese people around the main tourist sites willing to exploit the friendly meetings and mutli-cultural mix.
I was taking photographs of the main gate to the Forbidden City, taking in the atmosphere and watching the crowds filing under Mao’s portrait. Like any tourist attraction, it was really busy. Being on my own and taking photos, I’ve also become used to strangers coming up to me and offering to take a photo for me. As I was holding out my camera trying to self shoot myself in front of the famous landmark, a Chinese girl comes up to me and offered to help.
She took the photo, gave me back my camera, and I thanked her. She was around 25, looked like a student and not particularly attractive. The conversation then went like this:
“Ah, you’re English,” she said.
“I’m studying English in the south, I’m here with my friend on holiday, how long have you been here for?”
Me: “Ah, a few days now, it’s a great city.”
Her friend then appears alongside and we talk about Beijing for a minute or so
Them: “Its so good to be able to talk English and use what we’re being taught with someone from England. We love your accent – it sounds like someone on the BBC.”
I kid you not, they were her words. Naturally, I said “Well, you won’t believe this, but….”
And so it went on for about five minutes, general pleasantries and conversation like I have already had with countless other people in the weeks since I’ve left the UK.
By now, however, I’m wanting to get on with getting into the Forbidden City, as I had to meet friends at the Olympic Park later that afternoon. I tried to politely say I need to get on and take more photos, and they said they would come with me and help as they like speaking in English.
I reluctantly agreed, as they seemed harmless enough and I thought it was quite nice to be helping Anglo-Chinese relations a little by giving two English students a helping hand with their language skills.
“Its really busy in the main entrance, you should go to the Forbidden City through the East Gate, there’s not as many crowds,” the shorter one with fewer spots told me.
“We’re going that way soon as we’re going to stop for a quick coffee, we’ll show you where it is if you like?”
Thinking it was helping me out, and that if they’re off for coffee I’d at least shake them off, I went with them. We turned left down the main street which runs parallel to the eastern wall, still having normal chit chat, when they invited me to join them. Well, it was lunchtime, I’d not had anything to drink, and the thought of a coffee wasn’t a bad one. The girls seemed harmless enough, if a little geeky, and if I’m honest, it was quite fun learning about how one works part time in a Barbie toy factory, how they had travelled on the train to Beijing and they were genuinely interested in my stories about back home and hearing about my travels.
“How about this coffee shop here,” she said. It seemed okay, it was a tea shop like id seen all over the place, so in we went. We were ushered into a little room with bamboo all around, and laid out on the table was a fantastic array of Chinese teas of all different shapes and colours.
I was given a menu with other drinks, when one of the girls said it’d be nice to try some of the tea. “You drink it with milk back home don’t you, blurrgh,” the girls joked.
I’d not tried the proper Chinese teas here yet, so I thought ‘why not’ and agreed.
A woman in typical Chinese attire, hair done up like a Japanese Geisha, then came in with a kettle of water and started making tea. I was given a thimble-sized cup, while some tiny satsumas and some strange crisps were put on the table. The girls tucked into the satsumas, and passed me one. I’m not a fan of oranges, but to be polite I ate one, and then was advised to try the ‘nice crisps’ which I did (not particularly nice)
The tea lady then started some weird performance of brewing tea, pouring most of it in a tray, rubbing warm cups over her face and dribbling a little bit into my thimble of a cup.
I had a sip of jasmine tea, fruit tea, green tea, black tea, a tea with a funny ball of flowers in it and a number of other teas that came at me at such a pace, that in about 15 minutes I’d probably still only consumed the grand total of half a normal cup of tea back home.
It was actually quite a performance though, with lots of information about which teas are good for you, the benefits for mind and body of one tea compared to another etc etc. I asked to take a photo – for me this was an authentic way of having tea in China and it’d be good to have a record of it, but was politely told that I couldn’t because of the tea ladies religion (???!!!)
“Which one did you like the best, as now we’ve sampled them we can choose one?” one of the girls asked
“Erm, not fussed really, whichever you preferred,” I replied, thinking I was being a gent.
Along came a teapot filled with a weak yellowy tea that was poured into my thimble.
For the next 10 minutes, conversation continued. They asked to see photos of life back home.
“Oh, you have a lovely house.”
“Wow, you’re dad is so good looking for his age.”
“You’re mum has such lovely hair.”
“You’re brother looks just like you.”
All lines ive heard from so many people on this journey so far (the one about dad was a first, admittedly…sorry dad!) and nothing to raise any suspicion.
And then the bill came: 3,260 Yuan. That’s £326.
Yes, you did read that right – hundreds of pounds for a few sips of tea.
“Oh, it’s a bit more expensive than we thought it would be, we should have checked before we ordered,” one of the girls said, blatantly clocking my suspicions.
I took the bill and looked at it. Perhaps I was jumping the gun at thinking I was being ‘done’, maybe the decimal point was in the wrong place or a nought had been added in error – although £32 would have been way out in any case.
“Well, don’t worry about paying for us, we’ll pay our share,” the girls said.
I told them to hang on, not to pay anything yet and I’ll speak to the manager. Sure enough, biggish female manager walks in and tells me the bill was correct.
“For some tea?” I said, voice getting louder and slightly high pitched as the worry of forking out £100 for my share starts to kick in.
“We take credit cards,” the manageress firmly says, pointing at a Visa sign on the wall.
I’m now starting to think on my feet in damage limitation. One of the first rules is not to hand over credit cards, so even though they’d seen it in my wallet, I told them it was maxed out.
“There’s an ATM around the corner,” she helpfully adds.
I made up more excuses about how I’d taken money out and my cashcard wont let me have anything else until next week.
I knew I had to get out of the situation somehow, and I looked again at the bill. I’d been charged £10 for the poxy satsumas and crisps, classed as snacks; £50 for the ‘tea show’; £5 for each of the 10 or so tea samples, £10 each for the ‘room hire’ and various other charges that my panicked mind wasn’t able to fully take in.
“Tea is a very precious commodity here in China, its valued highly, and you’ve drunk some very rare and expensive tea. You must pay,” I was told.
I threw back that I’d not asked for all of the teas and i’d only popped in for one cup, that I thought they were samples first before deciding which one to have, and that there were no prices anywhere, nor warnings given of how much each tea could cost.
Then they pointed at a price list which had been turned at an angle so you couldn’t see it from the place I was sat. Low and behold, each tea is listed at 50 Yuan per person.
Id been complaining for a while now, and slightly worried that some big burly bloke would come in before long, so I thought id better part with a bit of cash and try to get out of there. Unfortunately I’d been to a cash point the night before and they’d seen how much cash I had. I tried putting 500 Yuan down, but the girls both complained that they then had to pick up the rest of the bill for me that they couldn’t afford, and that they were already helping me out.
Naturally, I was feeling a bit guilty – at this point, I was still half thinking they may have been genuinely on holiday too, and it was in fact the tea shop that was cashing in on all of us. Afterall, one had paid on a card and signed the card slip…it all seemed genuine.
“Put 600 (£60) in and I’ll see if my card will pay the rest, but you’ll have to treat me when I visit England sometime,” the spotty girl said.
I’d got away with not putting all of my wallet’s contents in, so did so, and then made a beeline for the door. The girls said they had to an ATM now as the tea shop had taken all their money, and that I could go around the Forbidden City with them if I wanted.
Suddenly, I wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. I was confused as to what had actually gone on. I suddenly felt humiliated, stupid, ashamed and vulnerable all at the same time. I walked to a place I felt safe – a McDonalds funnily enough – to have some time out and lick my wounds.
Were the girls genuine? Had they been fleeced too? Is tea sometimes that expensive? Why didn’t I check the prices? Why didn’t I just walk away after they took my photo? All questions which were rattling through my head at ten to the dozen.
I decided, as hard as it was, to put it down to bad luck and a bad experience. But £60 now, to me as a traveller, is a lot of money. Back home, I’d have probably written it off, been in a grump and moved on – but when you’re not earning and accommodation is around £5 a night, it starts eating at you that you’ve basically been robbed of two weeks-worth of hostels in South East Asia.
I met up with Santi and Gali at the Olympic park. I put on a brave face and took in the sights, but I wasn’t in a good mood deep down. I even felt too ashamed to tell them what had happened or to ask their advice, but as soon as I had wifi access back at the hostel, I Googled ‘Beijing tea’ and up came ‘Beijing tea scam’ with an incredible 2.2-million results
Suddenly, it all became very clear, with exactly the same story and circumstances, and yes, those girls were very convincing criminals. Reading through some of the testimonies, it seems almost everyone that visits Beijing gets taken in by it, and in many cases, for hundreds of pounds. I could console myself that I’d got away relatively lightly – but it still ate away at me.
I decided to tell Santi and Gali, mainly as I’d feel awful if they got taken in by it too. They were shocked, but could understand why its convincing – and then we remembered on the first night a girl talking to Santi and saying it’d be nice to join him for a drink (that’s another scam, not a chat-up)
I woke up the next morning feeling better, but angry. I wanted to confront the shop, I wanted to get my money back, and according to the Web, some people had managed it. I contemplated going in and asking for an official copy of my receipt, which by law all Chinese businesses must keep (of course, they wouldn’t have any for their dodgy scam) Failing that, there’s the slighty risky business of getting a photograph of the business and then revealing I’m a journalist. Whatever, I needed back up, and thankfully there was a police post on the corner of the street.
The policeman I spoke to could understand a bit of English, but the moment I said ‘tea shop’ his eyes rolled and he asked how much. He told me to wait, and ten minutes later another policeman arrived in a police car. He told me to get in and I explained what happened. He said the problem was rife, and they are trying to get to grips with it, but very few people report it as they are too embarrassed.
We drove down the street and I recognised it straight away. The chubby manageress was in the window to see me get out of the police car with my new friend. Her face dropped, and she was already on her way through to the back by the time we reached the door.
“What do you want,” the tea lady who performed the show asked, with a sickening smile.
“Well, ive been reading all about your little tea parties on the internet, so I’d like my 600 yuan back please,” I replied with a stare.
She scuttled off, the copper looked at me and rolled his eyes, and then a familiar looking bill appeared with ‘600’ scribbled on the back. I was asked to sign it, and six red 100 Yuan notes were put back into my hand.
The copper said something in Chinese, which I think was along the lines of “I’m watching you,” to the manageress, and we both left. He generously gave me a lift to the Forbidden City, and on the way told me how the scam was damaging tourism but that there were so many people at it, they couldn’t keep up as names were being changed and different people and businesses were starting all the time. He told me it was mainly students trying to earn money. I wondered why nothing was being done to close down the businesses, but decided not to rock the boat.
Now my conscience was clear again – yes, I’d been scammed, but because I stood up for my rights, for fairness and for what I believe in, I’d been one of the lucky ones to get my money back. If I was at home, I would have quite happily done a story about it if it had happened to someone else, but in this case I had to fend for myself. It’s a despicable scam that preys on everything a good traveller tries to be – helpful and generous to the locals, open to new cultures and experiences, striking up conversations and relaying stories about life ‘back home’ if asked.
But that sets up the platform for the hustle – the pressure to match your new and equally fleeced ‘friends’ at payment, that you are being an ‘ignorant foreigner’ for not knowing local customs if you don’t, and that simply, you don’t know any different.
Unless, however, you’ve been lucky enough to read up on it before you go. I almost shied away from writing this and highlighting what I felt was a gullible, stupid mistake I’d made, but I only found out what to do thanks to countless accounts like this one written by others. I can only hope that by putting this online, it will raise more awareness and possibly help someone else avoid the trap. If you’ve already paid out after falling into it, and are reading this after searching for advice, go straight to the police – they were surprisingly helpful for me and are as fed up with the scam as visitors are.
That night, following examples from others who helped me with my decision, and under the cover of darkness, I got some photos of the shop in question. Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the perpetrators like some have put online – after all, their ‘religion’ stopped me (this again, I’ve since found out, is a common lie)
And so, for anyone visiting Beijing (or Shanghai – its common there too) please, don’t visit this shop – even if the expert and totally believable con-artists doing their dirty work really do offer all the tea in China.
JHH Tea House, Nanchizi Street: Take a bow.
As a footnote to this, once you are aware of the scam, the full scale of the problem becomes clear. Walking through the crowds on the way back from taking these photos, I saw two separate groups of Westerners being led towards ‘Tea Street’ by some new Chinese friends and engaged in conversation. I was then approached no less than six times by different people – men and women – asking if I’m English and could they talk to me. One even brazenly asked if I’d like to go for some ‘authentic Chinese tea’ with her.
“You probably don’t have Yorkshire Gold,” was my reply. It gave me some amusement, left her puzzled and laid a ghost to rest.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
I can laugh about this now, but that’s because I’m one of the lucky ones who fought back and came out of it without any loss. The tea ceremony, as they are known, was actually very enjoyable…and in my case, free. But id recommend going to a legitimate place if you decide to try it. I look back on it as a little bump in this travelling journey – its scrapes like this that make the whole thing a life experience. It’ll go down as one of my traveller stories – but while the Chinese authorities are letting this practice go under the radar, many, many more innocent people will lose vast sums of money, and have holidays and trips of a lifetime ruined.