Our first morning in Shanghai brought us to the Bund, where we took a walk down the historical street to check out the old buildings (more on the bund here). Once near the end of the block, we were approached by a young Chinese lady who was fluent in English and asked us to take her picture. My friend Jessica took the photo and after, the lady started to chat. She seemed friendly, telling us she worked in Northern China and was visiting a friend. She asked where we were from and told us she had a Canadian co-worker, knew about Toronto and had been to Korea as well. She asked us what our plans were for the afternoon and we told her we wanted to find Old Shanghai street and look around.
She told us that a friend of hers was going to be performing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony soon and asked if we would like to join her while pointing down an alleyway that had no sign of life. We told her no thanks and tried to part ways. She became aggressive and insisted we join her and tried to take my elbow and lead me to the alley. I immediately pulled away and we took off at a hearty pace. We both thought it was weird how pushy she got all of a sudden and chalked it up to her just being a psycho.
The next day we ended up going further into Old Shanghai street, into a big shopping area absolutely packed with tourists from China and all over. The place was so crowded we had to deke left and right every few seconds just to stay together. At one point, we stepped up to a raised walking pathway where more shops stood but fewer people walked. I stopped to take a picture and some guy popped out of a doorway asking what I was looking for and if he could help me. I told him I wasn’t looking for anything and he responded by asking where I was from. Without looking at him (as I was still trying to take a picture,) I replied “Canada.”
He reacted enthusiastically that he knew Toronto and Vancouver then immediately asked if we liked art. Quite tired of street vendors pushing us to buy things by this point, I replied with a terse “no.” Undeterred, he pointed to a poster on the wall and said that he was apprenticing with a famous Chinese artist and his showroom was upstairs if we’d like to see. We just walked away and soon left the entire marketplace as the pushy sales people were too much.
Later that night we met up with an old friend of mine whom I had met during my first time in Korea nine years ago. Coman now lives in China, in the north-eastern city of Dalian in Liaoning province, but he used to live in Shanghai. While in a cab heading to dinner, he asked us if we’d been scammed yet. I asked what he meant by that and he said that there are many ways to be scammed in China but there are two that are most notorious, especially around Shanghai.
The first one is the tea ceremony scam and the second is the art room scam. Jessica and I shot each other a look of dread and exclaimed that both things had almost happened to us.
“Both? Already?” He laughed. Considering we had not even been there for 48 hours yet, he found this impressive and went on to explain:
In the tea ceremony scam, they get you to come in and enjoy the traditional brewing and serving of Chinese tea in a tea house. This is a real and beautiful tradition: you can check it out here:
In the scam version of this ceremony, they chat you up while you enjoy the show and the tea, then present you with a bill of around a thousand dollars (CAD). There is often some sort of riffraff blocking your exit and threats of violence police-calling ensue if you refuse to pay.
In the art room scam, a similar situation occurs. They bring you in and show you around but when it’s time leave you’ll have some big burly ne’er-do-well once more blocking your exit at which time the jig is up. You’re pressured (bullied) into purchasing something before you can leave the shop. Upon hearing these tales of horror, Jessica and I clasped hands as our faces drained of colour. Then, as quick as our fear arose, anger replaced it.
“I would’ve hapkido-ed the crap outta those fools!” I swore.
“I would’ve gone crazy, started biting people and just tearing the room up!” I declared.
“I would’ve just ran as fast as I could and met you at the hotel later,” Jessica added.
“Well, it’s a good thing you two don’t trust people too easily,” said Coman, assuring us that we would be fine for the rest of our stay now that we knew the score.
The thing I found most shocking is that no travel articles really touched on this in all of our research leading up to this trip. My friend who is studying to be a travel agent advised me not to wear a lot of jewelry when shopping in Shanghai as it would make us a target, since many Chinese already think all white people are rich compared to their monthly wages. She learned that in her travel course though, not from the net. The lack of information (in English anyway) is what prompted me to write this article. It’s possible that we weren’t looking in the right places, but regardless I wanted to make this information more available for those who may need it.
Another friend of mine who lived in China for two years and met many foreign teachers in her time there said the same thing. She had several co-workers and acquaintances that went traveling around China on their time off and found similar results. Some even returned early from their travels because they were sick of being scammed for money at every turn.
Advice from my future travel agent Jodie is to keep your accessories low-key when shopping and if you want to go on organized tours, make sure you book with a big, reputable company that you’ve researched or at least seen around beforehand. She also advised never to take the offer of someone who is willing to take you on a “private tour” in their car or van because it will lead to bad news almost definitely. This isn’t to say that China is not safe, so please don’t get it twisted. I’m just advising my Dear Readers to be wise when treading through unknown waters. Especially for those of us who have lived in Korea for a while, we have gotten used to the relative safeness of Korea and may not be thinking on our feet when seeing other parts of Asia.