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roddy

The Beijing Tea Scam (and a few others)

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roddy    3,564
roddy

Friend of mine just got caught out by this while visiting Beijing, and I figured I'd write this up in the hope that it might save some others some hassle . . .

I'm sure these and variations are in operation in other cities in China and worldwide, and a general warning to be on your guard when you're in tourist areas is always warranted, but here's some details.

The Beijing Teahouse Scam
You are happily wandering around somewhere like Wangfujing or Tiananmen and a friendly English student starts chatting to you. He or she speaks very good English, is friendly and shows you around, maybe helps you buy a few gifts, and subsequently suggests you go for a cup of tea at a nice teahouse he / she knows. The teahouse will be very nice, you will have some very nice tea, but you will feel slightly disturbed by the fact that they served tea without letting you see a menu, or that the menu has no prices on. You will assume this is how you do things in China.

When the bill comes it will be ridiculous. My mate got presented with one that was approaching a four-figure RMB sum, for a pot of tea. Even if there is a tea house in Beijing legitimately serving tea at that price, it sure as hell doesn't pour without asking what you want first.

What happens now varies - some scream and shout, some yell for the police, some pay up meekly, even if it requires the use of foreign currency or a credit card because they haven't got enough RMB on them.

Variations:
1) Art galleries. 'Art students' strike up a conversation and invite you to their gallery. You'll see at best second rate art at top-rate prices, and will be lucky to avoid a high-pressure sales pitch. Spend your time at a real gallery. Real galleries, for reference, do not send English students out onto the streets pretending to be art students.
2) Bars. Seems to be more common in Shanghai, and uses pretty girls in too much make-up rather than innocent looking 'English students' in tracksuits. This is clearly because Shanghai attracts a lower-class of tourist, but that's beside the point.

In any case, you'll be in danger of paying a lot more for something than you should do, and at the very least you're going to waste your time.

How to avoid it: Sad to say, if you are in an area where there are a lot of tourists in China, then 99% of people who approach you want something, whether they are postcard sellers, tour touts, Mao watch merchants, or scam artists as described above. Do not go anywhere which will involve spending money - be it a teahouse, a gift shop, an art gallery or a restaurant - with these people. If you are convinced that someone who approached you while you were standing on a street corner with your upside-down map and a copy of the Lonely Planet is genuine, fine - but go to a place of your choosing, and laugh in the face of anyone who gives you something you didn't order, or presents you a price-free menu.

 

2015 edit: There've also been reports of foreigners carrying out the scam. Be aware

This has been a public service announcement. I think most people on here would be savvy enough to know what's going on, but if you've got friends or family visiting, give them a heads up. I didn't, and I feel bad about it.

Roddy
PS And while I'm in public service mode, use the taxi queue at the airport, fools, not the touts that collar you at arrivals!
EDIT: and see here (scroll down to 'Beijing Tea Party') and here. These guys were presented with bills even higher than that above.

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gougou    147
gougou
some scream and shout
So what happens after the twisting and shouting? Is there any way to get around paying up?

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roddy    3,564
roddy

I've heard of people being 'allowed' to get away with paying much less than the original figure (which is virtually proof its a scam, no legit place is going to let you do that), and I would doubt that they would try to restrain you if you physically walked out of the place. There was a report a while ago of someone who paid by credit card and then tried to dispute the cost with the credit card company.

But to be honest, you shouldn't be in the situation in the first place, and anyone with a bit of travel experience should have warning signals going off well before you even get in the door.

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gougou    147
gougou

Yeah, that's right.

I came across this art gallery variation: A guy approached me, asked me where I'm from, oh, Germany, what a coincidence, they were just preparing an exhibition in Germany, maybe I could help him select some paintings that Germans like...

In general, not much can happen with art galleries though, at most you'll waste half an hour of your day. Apart from having English students pose as art students, there is not much that deserves to be called scam. If you're interested in art, but don't have the time to go to a real gallery, this might be a nice opportunity to learn about all existing cliches in Chinese art while shopping at Wangfujing...

Another variation I heard about is when booking all-day tours, the program will include eating at a overpriced, underclean restaurant (very isolated, so you can't go next door), and sometimes even a visit to a marked-up branch of Tongrentang.

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malinuo    12
malinuo

I'm not sure about they wouldn't try to stop you if you physically walked out. I was surprised in China at the number of times people held on to me.

The first time was late at night in Guangzhou, when an old beggar lady pulled my sleeve. I had never seen that in any other of the dozens of countries I have been to, and I almost slapped her, as I thought it was some kind of a hold up. However, it seemed to have been just a way of getting my attention, and when I said no, she let go.

Once when I asked for directions in a stationary shop, the shopkeeper, an elderly lady, physically pulled me out of the shop by my sleeve, to be able to better show me the building I was looking for. All smiles and kindness apart from that.

And one young girl in a souvenir stand took a firm grip around my wrist, as if she was not going to let go until I had accepted her price for an SD card I thought about buying.

If it is socially acceptable to hold people in friendly situations, I imagine that it may be so in less friendly situations as well.

Edit: That said, most of the girls who have come up to me to ask to practice their English or to simply have their photo taken with me have clearly had no hidden dark motives.

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roddy    3,564
roddy

You could be right - probably a decision best made cautiously. Although it's probably academic, as presumably anyone who's read this won't find themselves needing to scarper . . .

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snarfer    10
snarfer

I was waiting for someone at Wangfujing and had some time to kill so when a couple of girls approached with the usual story about wanting to practise their perfect English I went along with it for a while. I even bought a 120 RMB pot of tea, which seemed kind of over-priced but not a complete scam. What was funny was that the teahouse they took me to had an oppressively loud Peking Opera act going on at the time. It was such a perfect place to go for them, because you would need earplugs to stay in there for more than five minutes.

Anyway then we walked out and they we had this sort of funny conversation about whether I wanted to buy some art for my parents "Sorry I don't have any room in my luggage for that kind of thing. Oh but you can roll up the canvas very small..." and why I didn't want to get a stamp made with my name in Chinese characters "What the hell would I do with that?"

At this point I started to see it as a little game to see how long they would take to ditch me if I didn't spend any money on anything. Finally they brought me to a bookstore and dropped me off in the English language section "We're going to shop for some Chinese books but you don't speak Chinese..."

Since then I've found that most of the annoying scammers at Wangfujing quickly run off when I give some indication that I can speak a little Chinese.

As far as the airport taxis are concerned, I waited in line for the meter taxi one time and had him take me on the scenic route. Now I only take the airport bus. It is fast,cheap, and direct. I highly recommend it.

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skylee    1,903
skylee
Now I only take the airport bus. It is fast,cheap, and direct. I highly recommend it.

I just wanted to go to Beijing station (last year) but the last stop of the "right" airport bus was in the middle of nowhere ...

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wushijiao    158
wushijiao

My former co-worker in Shanghai was suckered into the "Tea House Scam" by an attractive woman.

Anyway, he ended up with an 800RMB bill, which he refused to pay. At that point, a fairly big man came out to make him pay. Still, he made a cell call, and threatened to beat up the security guy who was trying to make him pay. In the end, he got out of paying through a mixture of bluff and willingness to use violence, as the story goes.

Still, it's fairly stupid to end up in that situation. I would imagine that some of these scam artists have connections with the mafia.

A good rule to live by: never, ever say you will buy anything without asking about the price first.

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roddy    3,564
roddy

Actually snarfer, it sounds like you might just have found a couple of genuine English students and bored them till they went away. 120Y is expensive, but it's entirely possible for decent tea at a high-end / touristy place to cost that.

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gougou    147
gougou
As far as the airport taxis are concerned, I waited in line for the meter taxi one time and had him take me on the scenic route. Now I only take the airport bus. It is fast,cheap, and direct. I highly recommend it.
Last time I landed in Beijing, there was an attendant next to the taxi queuing place who gave me a booklet which listed the prices for several destinations around Beijing as well as a phone number for complaints, a taxi driver who still rips you off after that must have some nerve. Or know about the efficiency of the complaint hotline?

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malinuo    12
malinuo

Actually I don't think you have to be stupid to get into this kind of situations. Clearly, being smart or at least applying common sense, you get the risk down by an order of magnitude. But for some schemes, I don't think there is any easy counter move, unless you are ridiculously cautious.

Let's just say that a girl leads you past an alley with the pretext to introduce you to her family, who of course doesn't live there at all. Then someone else simply mugs you. Not much you could have done there. If you find a nice Chinese friend, you cannot insist on staying in well lit open public places for ever. Some time you have to actually start trusting him/her, or accept a boring life. It is not easy to choose when to start trusting someone, and even clever people will make mistakes.

In a normal restaurant I never ask how much a glass of tea is. Life is too short to care about that small amounts. I doubt I would do it even if brought there by a Chinese girl, who asks me about English vocabulary. If brought into an obscure bar with luxury furniture, yes. If a normal restaurant by a main road, no. Could they afterwards claim that the price was 100 yuan? Sure. Could they get away with it? Hardly, with all the other guests and the people in the street overhearing the discussion.

I have been in many situations that could have gone seriously wrong if I had been unfortunate. (Like walking in some parts of Manhattan late at night.) However, not even once anything really bad has actually happened to me. And if I had avoided all those situations, I would have missed a lot of experiences.

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Lu    1,849
Lu

Me and some friends were on a small island in a lake (I think Erhu) in Yunnan. We came to a very nice temple. Inside the temple were some women urging us to take pictures. It was a nice temple, so it made sense to take pictures. One of my friends asked the women how much for a picture (with our own cameras!), the women said Y1. Even though that's hardly anything, we felt cheated. They should have told us the price BEFORE urging us to take pictures.

Same island: some people invited us for tea, brought us into a tea house, and almost started pouring the tea. They had seemed so friendly, we assumed we were being invited, but then found out we were supposed to pay.

Apparently this is quite common in China, sell something and only tell the price afterwards. If you don't know this you can be cheated quite easily.

But I experienced this the other way around as well. I had gone to Liulichang once or twice, and chatted with the guy who can paint inside bottles. But the bottles were quite expensive (they were worth it, being all hand-painted, but I just didn't have much money), so I had never bought one. Then when I was looking for a present for my mother I decided to buy a inside-painted snuff bottle for her, so I went back to my Liulichang pengyou and chose a nice one. He offered to write something inside it for my mom, I agreed. He painted it all (zhu ni shou bi Nanshan, something along that line) and then told me: 'This is XX yuan per character...' I felt cheated, he hadn't named a price for that! '...but because we're pengyou it's free for you.'

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ord100    10
ord100

I just got back from a week in Beijing (third visit). I think the vast majority of the people I dealt with were honest but was still subject to these scams.

1) taxi with no visible meter/high proposed fare. The driver of the 2Y/k black taxi had the meter hidden in the storage space in the driver door (I was in the front seat)... he produced a receipt only after I rejected the high fare & asked for a receipt. Driver smiled as I read him the receipt amount.

2) Inflated restaurant bill... after I saw menu (duh). Corrected after I explained error (mei you...). Waitress & manager smiled at me.

3) Tour guide "forgot" to pay entrance ticket on prepaid tour. He smiled a lot too!

4) "Student Art Exhibition" I was sucked into attending this in the Museum of the Revolution (east side of Tiananmen) had mediocre art and no prices...but the two women, soon followed by a male friend, were great scammers - I got out FAST when I realized the scam. "Sorry, no time to shop or have drinks".

After all this in the first few days I blew off every one of the many attempts to approach me around Chang An Jie and Wanfujing (unavoidable as hotel was in area). If I return to Beijing, I will simply avoid all these tourist places.

My assumption is that I will not be scammed, or scammed much less, If I am outside the tourist zone (wanfujing to Forbidden city/Tiananmen). Agree/Disagree?

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roddy    3,564
roddy
Apparently this is quite common in China, sell something and only tell the price afterwards.

Not in the sense of 'don't tell them the price so you can cheat them later', no. That's very rare indeed. It's not uncommon to not ask the price of something very cheap - a bowl of noodles / a pedicab ride - but that's because it's understood there will be a reasonable, cheap price, and any attempt to ask for anything else will cause problems.

My assumption is that I will not be scammed, or scammed much less, If I am outside the tourist zone (wanfujing to Forbidden city/Tiananmen). Agree/Disagree?

Agree. I go about my daily life quite happily, and the only strangers who approach me are very rare (and genuine) English students, and the odd beggar. Both can be given the body swerve very easily.

On begging, keep an eye out for the ones who work in small groups and pretend to not be beggars - they usually start with 'Can you tell us how to get to Pingguoyuan?' or 'We're really hungry, is there anywhere we can get a bowl of noodles near here' and then follow up with 'Ah, well actually we haven't got any money for the bus / noodle shop, I don't suppose you could . . .'

Oh, and you also get the odd laptop / watch / camera seller. I'm not sure if those are genuine stolen goods merchants, a bait and switch scam, or what, but I dodge them anyway. And nor have I seen any around for ages.

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yingguoguy    9
yingguoguy

Not a scam as such, but when I was travelling, just out of curiosity, I went into an upmarket antiques shop in Suzhou where everything was priced at 10,000 yuan or above. I don't know how much was because I looked like a poor backpacker and how much was because of my rudimentary Chinese, but immediately after saying “你好" and “我看一看" I was offered a blanket 90% off anything in the store. I left immediately.

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HashiriKata    14
HashiriKata
some people invited us for tea, brought us into a tea house, and almost started pouring the tea. They had seemed so friendly, we assumed we were being invited, but then found out we were supposed to pay.
During my short Beijing visit, I was also invited to try some nice green tea (jinglongcha?) at two different nice places attended by nice & well trained young ladies. What was the catch? Nothing, they just want to introduce you to some expensive nice tea with the hope that you would buy some after trying it. I didn't even experience any pressure into buying.

(PS: You'd know that you're in one of these kinds of shops if you see shelves of lots of small jars of tea and expensive-looking, traditional Chinese ceramic teasets on display :mrgreen: )

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Ferno    10
Ferno
Let's just say that a girl leads you past an alley with the pretext to introduce you to her family, who of course doesn't live there at all. Then someone else simply mugs you. Not much you could have done there. If you find a nice Chinese friend, you cannot insist on staying in well lit open public places for ever. Some time you have to actually start trusting him/her, or accept a boring life. It is not easy to choose when to start trusting someone, and even clever people will make mistakes.

hmm

how much leeway do foreigners have when it comes to the law in China? do they have any at all? (ie if you get into a fight, etc..) I'm pretty sure that in places like ie Mexico police will treat the locals much worse than a tourist because Mexico's economy survives partly on tourism. China doesn't have any foreign tourism industry to speak of, but would they cut a foreigner some slack if only to avoid any bad publicity?

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skylee    1,903
skylee
China doesn't have any foreign tourism industry to speak of

What do you mean?

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adrianlondon    62
adrianlondon

On my first day in Beijing, my first time to China, I got "scammed" like this. I got chatting with two Chinese girls who said they were English teachers. We went for tea.

I had really lovely tea (I've always been in to Chinese tea so like to think I know good from bad), we chatted lots about all sorts of things. As it was my first trip to China I had a lot to learn. The girls were really friendly, happy to chat about everything, and taught me a lot. The tea ceremony itself was great fun, too. I didn't buy any tea to take home (I went to the fake TenRen shop for that) and ended up paying just udner £40 for the thee of us. I thought it was great value for money and I did enjoy their company.

I'm sure everyone made a healthy financial profit from my £40, but I consider it money well spent. Can't go up to someone in Caffe Nero in central London and have all that company and coffee for £40 :-)

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