How to make friends and lose money: Getting scammed in Shanghai

By Erik Crouch, April 30, 2015

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For the first time in my life, I wish I owned a fanny pack. It would have completed the look. I’m standing at a busy intersection in Yu Yuan, watching Western tourists, maps in hands and baseball caps on heads, filtering through the streets. I’ve got a camera over my shoulder – a nice touch. I’m not here to take any pictures, though: I’m here to get scammed.

“Hey, boy!” And so it begins. “Take my photo?” A skinny, smiling 20-something man is thrusting his phone towards me.

He stands with his friend, a shorter man in a floral shirt. I snap a photo of Smiley and Floral in front of a drab building – not exactly a great shot. I give the phone back, and he doesn’t bother to check the photo.

“So where are you from? How long in Shanghai?” The questions pour out – Smiley’s English is pretty good. Floral isn’t saying anything, and has an expression of boredom like he’s watching a movie he’s already seen a dozen times today.

We’ve been talking for a little while now. Smiley says that they’re students, from Nanjing. I’m starting to get afraid that I’ve been too cynical, and this pair is actually just really friendly. Then, the line drops. “Do you want to see a Chinese tea ceremony?” Gleefully, I say “Yes.”

The so-called ‘Tea Scam’ is modern Shanghai’s most notorious con. Meet a friendly young English speaker or two at a touristy spot, join them for some tea (at their suggestion) and end up with a bill as high as a few thousand RMB. The scam is mentioned in nearly every English-language guidebook of the city, and many of Shanghai’s foreigner-friendly hotels and hostels feature warnings about tea-offering locals.

The ‘Tea Scam’ is modern Shanghai’s most notorious con.

Despite its cover being thoroughly blown, the scam is still big business. 

“The tea scam is so well documented on the internet now that people are pretty well warned,” says Jamie Barys, co-founder and ‘Chief Eating Officer’ at UnTour Shanghai. “That said, tourists still sometimes fall for it because the scammers are so charming.”

“In the lead up to the 2010 Expo, there was a crackdown on the tea scammers,” she continues. “The ‘Better City, Better Life’ campaign was trying to put a good face on China for foreign visitors, and there was a lot of police protection for the tourists coming into town.”

Despite police efforts, the tea scam – and others like it – weren’t so easy to stop. English-language searches on Google for terms like “Shanghai scam” peaked in the summer and fall of 2010 as foreigners poured into the city for the Expo, only to find themselves indulging in some extremely expensive drinks.

But they were hardly the first ones to get suckered; for as long as Shanghai has had foreigners, it has had con artists looking to charge them outrageous sums for tea ceremonies. In the early 1900’s, settlers living in the French Concession or International Settlement found themselves in a strikingly similar – although quite a bit less wholesome – scam.

While today’s tourists pay through the nose at popular sightseeing destinations, the credulous foreigners of yesteryear often found themselves relieved of their money in the city’s many brothels. If a young woman was trained in the arts of conversation and pouring tea, the rates of her services skyrocketed – a fact not known to her clients while they enjoyed their cha and a chat. 

The thought of a foreign colonialist getting his wallet emptied while visiting a brothel certainly has a certain aura of ‘serves him right.’ Even today, many scams in Shanghai read like bad letters to Penthouse, and are more likely to give a listener schadenfreude than sympathy. The “massages” gone awry, the flirtatious bar flies with surprisingly expensive tastes.

In Old Shanghai, “One way [for brothel-seeking settlers] to avoid wallet-breaking tea ceremonies,” says journalist and Shanghai-history expert Katya Knyazeva, “was to ‘accidentally’ meet a courtesan promenading inside Yu Garden.”

Many scams in Shanghai read like bad letters to Penthouse, and are more likely to give a listener schadenfreude than sympathy.

Once a place of respite from marauding scammers, Yu Yuan now joins Nanjing Dong Lu and People’s Square as one of their favorite locations. It’s where I am as Smiley, talking up a storm, regales me with advice for Shanghai spots to visit (he’s under the impression I’ve only just arrived). Floral has yet to speak a word, but Smiley has gone all out, and is pointing at a tourists’ map that he’s brought along.

There is a song and dance to Shanghai’s scams. It is very rare for a tourist to be mugged outright, and sometimes victims don’t even know that they’ve been had.

“One visitor told me he had this amazing tea ceremony for RMB2,000,” says Barys. “I tried to explain to him that he got ripped off and should go to the police, but he was absolutely convinced that these people were super nice and hadn’t stolen from him. I think that’s the mark of a really good con artist – when the victim doesn’t even know he was conned.” 

The scams of Old Shanghai could be even more elaborate. “The ‘fur coat’ scam from the 1930s was both glamorous and decadent – just like Shanghai’s reputation,” says Knyazeva. A man passing his time at a foreign bar or club would be approached by a beautiful woman – typically a Russian. She would charm him, and they may even have a brief courtship. When the man was thoroughly lovesick, the woman would request that he buy her a fantastically expensive coat. “Afterwards the girl – actually, a saleslady in the coat shop – would hang the coat back on the rack and split the profit with her boss.” The man would not hear from her again. 

Scams and organized crime were rampant in the Shanghai of the 1930s, leading to a sizable swath of the International Settlement being dubbed ‘The Badlands.’ According to Knyazeva, “even in daylight, The Badlands was a risky place to be.” Cons were common – notably, an abundance of ‘psychics’ who claimed abilities to communicate with the dead – but so were grittier crimes like kidnapping and gangland turf wars.

The Badlands disappeared with the closure of the International Settlement in 1941, and scams against foreigners dropped to essentially zero in the years after the Communist Revolution – the country’s ‘red light districts’ were thoroughly destroyed, and there were virtually no Westerners in China to be scammed in the first place.

Foreigners began trickling back into the country in the late 1970s, and much had changed since the wild days of Old Shanghai. One of the first modern guidebooks, Fodor’s 1979 People’s Republic of China Guide, noted “Any Chinese person stealing from a foreign visitor would not only be letting down his own country, but contradicting the widespread belief that socialism creates conditions which eliminate crime.” 

"As far as many Chinese are concerned, there’s no such thing as a poor foreigner."

Much changed in the following years, and by the early 2000s, the scams were back in full swing. “Beware various scam artists who will use the pretext of practicing their English to try and befriend you, all with the goal of separating you from your money. As far as many Chinese are concerned, there’s no such thing as a poor foreigner,” wrote Frommer’s 2004 guide to Shanghai. 

As the Expo drew nearer, more foreigners than ever – mostly short-term visitors who didn’t speak the language or have proper street smarts – poured into Shanghai. Police may have cracked down during the Expo itself, but they were too late: the city’s scammers had already figured out what worked and what didn’t, and they were sticking with the tea scam.

Smiley and Floral know exactly what they’re doing. We’ve walked down the street for a bit, and are about to turn into a mall. An image of a ‘tea house’ deep down some twisting corridor, with no easy exit, flashes through my mind, and I realize I’m pushing my luck. Tempting, as it is, to follow this story to the end, I opt to keep my RMB to myself. I bid my scammers-to-be goodbye as I duck into a nearby shop. 

After we part ways, I poke around a corner and spot the pair again – they’re back at the exact intersection as before, asking another foreigner to take their picture in front of the drab building. Smiley is chattering with excitement, and Floral is zoning out – the movie is playing again, with the same script, the same setting and supporting roles. All that’s changed is the lead, and he’d better keep his wits about him – or he’ll join the long line of foreigners who have been suckered in Shanghai.

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