One of the most popular locations for a foreigner in Shanghai is Nanjing Road. It has the light, it has the shopping, it has the food, it has the bund, and it has the scams. If you look and act like a foreigner around People’s Square, odds are that you will be approached by some younger Chinese girls and it will begin…

Chinese Girl 1: “Hi, where are you from?”

Foreigner: “I am from the USA”

Chinese Girl 2: “Oh, I love the USA! Are you here on vacation?”

Foreigner: “Yes…”

Chinese Girl 1: “So are we!”

Chinese Girl 1: “We heard about this nice tea ceremony nearby. It gives the full Shanghai experience. Want to join us?”

Foreigner: *thinking that he should get the Chinese experience and enjoying the company of Chinese girls* “Sure!”

What Happens Next…

The foreigner / foreigners (let’s just keep it plural for now) accompany the Chinese girls to a local tea shop where they sit and talk to the girls while having tea presented to them. Expecting the bill to be no more than 20 RMB a person, the foreigners don’t give much thought to the event and are happy to have the chance to experience the culture as insiders.

The problems arise when the bill appears and the foreigners see a bill of 200+ RMB per person. If the foreigners complain about the price, so do the girls. The girls reluctantly pay. Because the guys don’t want to look cheap in front of the girls, they do as well.

The foreign guys leave the ceremony with a funny feeling. They feel ripped off, they feel bad for the girls who paid too much, but they also got a bit of the Chinese culture. After thinking about it a bit, the foreigners figure they just paid for a story to tell their friends. Not a big deal and not worth ruining their vacation worrying about. This is, unless they accompany the girls to the acrobat show after the tea ceremony…

What Really Happens

The Chinese girls are employed by the tea store to bring in clueless foreigners to pay inflated prices for the tea ceremony. They know that single foreign males likely won’t turn down the advances of friendly Chinese girls and will have too much pride to complain about prices in front of girls, so they are the perfect candidate. The girls pay for the tea with money given to them from the tea shop and only pretend to be upset by the final cost. Later that day, they go back and get a portion of all revenue made.

Stories of the Tea Scam

When I first arrived in Shanghai I was approached by tea scammers a few times. They all had similar stories. While I actually wish I went with them one time to be able to tell the story first-hand, I can’t say I’ve experienced the actual tea ceremony. However, I’ve met two guys who had. The first guy I met in an airport. He had a 6 hour layover and decided to check out People’s Square. The above story happened to him. He felt a bit funny about paying so much, but overall thought the tea scam was a fun event. I felt bad for him, but it led me to realize that those getting scammed aren’t always aware of it, even when the scam is over. The second guy was one of my friends — same thing, complained that it was a bit expensive, but was actually gloating about how he met some local girls.

However, I read one story on Shanghai Expat regarding the tea ceremony scheme that is far more entertaining…

They were strolling along the Bund taking in the beautiful views of the construction near the intersection with East Nanjing Road when they were approached by two girls who wanted to take their picture with them, then they got chatting and the two scammers said they were from Hainan which my mates remembered as they said the “Hawaii of China” and then said they were going to watch a tea ceremony would they like to come….

So my mates being plonkers said yes and went with them to a tea house – 22 Tianjin Road to be exact – and before they knew it an hour had passed and they both paid 580RMB!! My friends are trolley dolleys like i was so they’ve been around the world, i thought they were smart. I kept saying ‘You wouldn’t go with some random you met in London so why do it in Shanghai?’

My friends didn’t actually have enough cash on them so the two scammers actually walked them to cash machine to get more out!!! Then followed them around for the next hour trying to get them to hire a car for day and drive around Shanghai on some tour, but they said they felt uneasy at that point and were making excuses to get away.

When i met them at the hotel and asked them what they’d been up to and they said “We had a tea ceremony” the look on my face must have said it all because they then admitted they didn’t feel right about paying that much, then i explained it was a scam etc etc and then with hindsight they could see all the warning signs and the things that weren’t quite right. They said they didn’t want to pay that much but felt under pressure because the scammers were so nice.

The story gets better… my mates were RAGING to say the least and went straight over to the hotel manager explained what happened and he was also angry….so he marched us to the police station, and then like some ruccus about to happen 3 police officers, the three of us, the hotel manager and two bell boys bowled down to the tea house – it was only 5 mins from the hotel – and basically went in, the two scammers were sitting there on their mobiles just having a chat with the other workers in there and then loads of shouting began and 5 minutes later they had their money back!!!!!!!!!

I was so impressed because i kept saying it was a lost cause, but my friends were soooo pissed off they were going to go down there with or without the police. But the look on the girls’ face when my friends returned with the police was priceless!!!! – Miss_T from ShanghaiExpat.com

Conclusion

The Shanghai Tea Scam is a popular, but not overly harmful scam. However, it is always fun to talk about. Do you have a story about this scam happening to you? Please tell in the comments section!

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6 COMMENTS

  1. My girlfriend, German, and me, Spanish, were approached this afternoon near the hotel where we stay (my girlfriend works there and we live together at a hotel room) Two innocent and young Chinese girls said hello to us as we walked along yu garden area.

    Timidly they asked where we were from, what we were doing in Shanghai in a very good English considering Chinese standards. Then they asked us to join them for the tea ceremony (the literally said “to see the tea ceremony”).

    They couldn’t make it yesterday so they were coming back to give it another try. We decided to come along and 5 mins later we were in a very small room sitting and checking the tea list menu. The cheapest one was 48 RMB.

    At that point I thought to myself: “well, one cup of tea and we’re out of here” However, before we couldn’t react or say anything, the ceremony started with the perfect explanations from one of the Chinese girls. We realized there were 6 jars containing 6 different kinds of tea. I thought we would end up paying a bit more (6 teas x 50). Afterwards we were showed another menu with the prices of different- sizes tea cans to take away.

    We didn’t buy anything. They both bought one. The bill was 1800 RMB. We paid 630 altogether. As we didn’t have cash, both girls and the ceremony girl accompanied us to the nearest ATM (I doubt that one was the nearest) We handed over the money and left a bit worried about the price we paid for the whole thing. At the end of the day, you feel morally forced to pay for the bill, even if that wasn’t what you expected. But you think to yourself: “It was my mistake not to have checked beforehand the exact amount I was going to pay” 2 hours later, the feeling of having been ripped off was growing so I checked on the internet and then It hit me.

    We were just another couple of foreigners who swallowed the bait 🙁
    Having travelled to many places I’ve found loads of people on the streets willing to help or start a conversation and many times It was the real thing as you get to discover the hidden sights of the city you’re visiting. I even stayed at many of those people houses with not a single bad experience.

    Things I suspected:
    – The girls knew too many complicated words related to tea and the whole process. Words she wouldn’t know another person with her level of English

    – It seemed the girl knew the story by heart.

    – The place from the outside looked like a plain shop with no tea signs or anything

    Extra info:
    – they were two English language students from northern China on a holiday (“skipping classes”) in Shanghai. They asked us about the city, what to do, where to go, I guess to make their story more believable.

    – we took some pictures from the inside, some with the girls
    We’are pretty upset about it and as I have time to spare (I’m studying Chinese just in the mornings) tomorrow I will be across the street from the shop waiting for some clueless foreigners to approach them and let them know my story. Two things can happen: Whether I get tired of waiting and go to a random food stall to stuff myself 😉 or I reached an “agreement” with the shop owners: I get my money back and I’m out of here.

    I’m gonna take it as a game know. “You played with us, now It’s my turn to play with you” Fingers crossed.

    I would appreciate some feedback from you guys. Anyway, spread the story to prevent others from being scammed.

    Regards / saludos.

  2. I arrived in Shanghai a couple of days ago from the US on business. My coworkers don’t arrive until the weekend, so I decided to go out and explore the city. Long story short, I took a taxi to the subway station and rode the subway to People’s Square. I’m 6’4″, 40 y/o and white…in other words, a target. Within 5 minutes I was approached by some young people, and I just kept walking, never acknowledging them. I must’ve been approached 10 or more times walking down Nanjing Road…again, I never acknowledged any of them…just kept walking with a purpose. I finally arrived at the Bund and stopped to take a break while overlooking the river and Pudong. I also decided to finally take out my camera to snap some photos, knowing that this would make me a bigger target. Sure enough, I was approached by two young girls who asked me to take their photo. My guard immediately went up, but I played along. They began talking about how they are also traveling to Shanghai from elsewhere in China. It was actually a very pleasant conversation. Then it happened…they invited me to accompany them to a tea ceremony a few blocks away, so that I could experience the “real” China. I politely, but assuredly, informed them that I was there on business, and that I had to get back to work. I excused myself and walked away. I had read about this scam online, so I was overly-cautious about being approached. I literally had one conversation all day, and it was with a scammer. I walked back down the Nanjing Road gauntlet, being approached the whole way with merchants. Unfortunately, I actually wanted do do some casual shopping for my wife and daughters, but I felt as if I had to keep walking. The people were mostly harmless, and there’s no foul as long as I don’t take out my wallet. However, I just “knew” that I would’ve been swarmed if I had stopped to browse. It was fun to visit that area, but I’d feel more comfortable if I were accompanied by a local or a seasoned pro. Oddly enough, I ended up scamming myself before the day was over. I paid the first cabbie $20 USD for fare, because I assumed it was calculated in dollars as a convenience to me, and I didnt want to offend or upset him. He gladly accepted the $20. Later that day, I decided to pay the second cabbie in RMB, and that was the correct currency. I basically paid about 6-7x too much for the first ride. Oh well; chalk it up to experience. For the record, I’ve heard that pickpockets are rampant in Shanghai. I bought a cheap money belt ahead of my visit, and it gave me some confidence. I don’t think that I encountered any potential pickpockets, but the people tend to get very close to you by Western standards, so awareness is the order of the day…just an FYI. If you are non-Chinese, you will be approached multiple times. Depending on your comfort level, just keep walking and abandon your Western “politeness” for the moment. By the way, I found this little adventure to be very rewarding and exciting, and I would d it again without hesitation. Enjoy!

  3. I am so glad I read about this scam before I went to Shanghai, because it happened exactly like you’ve said. Two plain-looking Chinese girls approached me on the Bund, at 9 a.m., and asked me to take their picture with their camera, then offered to take one of me with my camera. It all seemed so natural. One did all the talking. She told me her friend was visiting from Beijing and she was showing her around. She asked where I was from, asked why I was in Shanghai. Just pleasant conversation. Then she told me they were on their way to a…..Shanghai Tea Ceremony. Red flag went up and I realized I was being scammed. And I have to tell you, they were so good at the scam that had I not read about it, I would have definitely taken the bait and gone. But when I tried to get away from them, politely, she put on the pressure: “Why not? We have a fun time at traditional Shanghai ceremony. You can talk to local girls and learn about local customs.” She tried everything until I basically walked away. As others have noted, Nanjing Street was an awful place to walk for a Westerner too. Girls approach you every few seconds, mostly offering “lady massage.” They are not prostitutes, but want to bring you to a place where the girls are.

  4. I was also a “victim” of this scam. it actually happened to me and two of my friends the day before yesterday.

    Two girls, who supposedly were from Beijing, asked us to take a picture of them (at people’s square), then we started talking and they told us they were on their way to a Chinese tea ceremony. they invited us to go, and after a short while we decided to join them. when we got there and i saw the prices i felt weird, but i just thought, maybe it is a little expensive, taking part in ceremonies like these.

    Well, the whole ceremony cost us 600 yuan each. after that the girls wanted us to join them for a performance of the shanghai acrobats. we were tired and wanted to go home. after a while, again, we decided to buy tickets for a show for the next day. they were 280 yuan each (front section).

    So when we show up the next day for shanghai acrobats, 5 minutes late, we can’t see the girls anywhere. we decide to go in and see the show by ourselves. we never heard anything from the girls, and the email addresses we got from them were probably fake.

    I liked the tea ceremony and the performance by the shanghai acrobats, but of course it wasn’t nice to be scammed. but what’s done is done, at least we know better now 🙂

  5. I just had a walk around People Square, and can confirm that this scam is still there. For me it was first not only 2 girls, but a group that really looked like students. They asked me to take photo. A bit of strange it was already that I took 3 pictures but they didn’t want to stay there for the 3rd even. They didn’t even check if picture was good or not. Then only 2 girls and 1 boy stayed there to talk. This was already suspicious, as if they are on vacation together, why do they let their group away. Also they seemed to be older than a university student.

    Anyway I started to talk with them. It has been started with the usual where are you from, what are you doing here stuff. They were very informed, although I am coming from a small country, they immediately knew capitol city, neighboring countries, some information. During our conversation they seemed to be more cautious, they were asking if I spoke Chinese or not. After I ensured them that I can’t speak Chinese, they started to talk about nice places, what to visit. As they said they were university students from Beijing. Finally they came to the point. They have asked about my plans, and if I wanted to join them for a tea ceremony.

    As I knew this was a scam, I told them that I am tired and I need to go back to hotel, and left them. So I can’t tell current tea ceremony location and current prices, just can confirm that you need to be still careful at touristic places. Just additional information: I exited metro line 2 at Century Avenue and was walking down to the Pearl Tower. It was really nice, and noone was asking / stopping me. If you are not affraid of walking about 4kms, I recommend that completely.

  6. The tea ceremony scam is still alive and well… We were approached twice today at People’s Square. “You’re both so tall and handsome”; “Which country are you from?”. We just smiled politely and walked away. We’re currently staying on the Bund, and last night walking too and from a restaurant we must have been offered “massage from very pretty lady” at least ten times. It’s a good idea to walk away from that one, too…

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