Sunday, July 22, 2012

How we busted a Chinese tea scam

In our first 24 hours in Shanghai, we were victims of the famous Chinese tea scam. Here is the story of how we got scammed and fought back.

The act -
We came to Shanghai to attend a training program. Surabhi, a colleague of mine and I arrived a day early so we went to check out the nearby locale. We were strolling close to People's square which is one of the busiest tourist junctions of the city when we asked a passer by to click a picture for us. It turned out that she was part of a group of students from Beijing visiting Shanghai. The group consisted of 3 girls and a guy and appeared friendly. They started chatting with us as to where we were from and what we were doing in Shanghai and explained their side of the story. They were headed to a Kung fu tea ceremony closeby.  We were fairly keen to explore the Chinese  culture and thought it would be cool to experience a city through the locals. They asked us if we would like to accompany them and we agreed.

Now, this group was all over us. They would just not stop talking. I was overwhelmed. While we were walking to the ceremonial place, each one of us was accompanied by two of them. The girl walking with me kept asking me questions about my background, family, girlfriends and I was confused as to how these people were so open given that most Chinese students I met previously weren't. I was lying to half the questions. Now, the problem was with two people firing questions from both directions, I wasn't really keeping track of where we were walking to. The path involved a lot of turns so I was just following them. They were puny, so  I just couldn't imagine them being of any harm to me.

So, we reached the destination. I expected  a grand theater for a Kung fu performance but this was this smallish ~200 sq ft place with several small rooms which can seat 5-6 people. Before we can sense the place better, we are rushed into one of the rooms. The room consisted of a table with several tea equipment on it and 5-6 chairs for us to sit on. The presenter entered and stood in front of the table in traditional Chinese clothing. There was no Kung fu happening here for sure.  Surabhi suggested that the place looked a little shady. I looked around at the faces of all the girls and the presenter and just couldn't imagine them to cause me any harm. There were no sopranos/ big bulky guys around whom I should have been scared of. I looked at the room and the setup, see no webcams or weapons or anything fishy and the place was in a shopping mall. So, I told her that it's OK, lets just go with the flow.

We were presented a menu of different tea varieties. Much of it was in Chinese but the prices were mentioned in English. Everything was around 30-40 yuan but it was tough to make out how they added up for the entire ceremony. The presenter didn't speak English so there was no chance of clarifying directly. The group with us mentioned that we would be tasting 6 different teas. I run a quick calculation - 35*6 + 30 (cover charge) =240 yuan per person. Hmm…, this sounds a little expensive. We had just arrived in China and weren't really sure of the price calibration but everything on the street seemed much cheaper. But I wasn't also not sure if this is the actual price, could it just be 35 yuan per tea per group? But even if it was not, I triangulate this with wine tasting and thought that maybe these are exotic teas and so it could be comparable to wine prices and basically convince myself that the pricing was OK.

Now, the tea ceremony begins. They made us taste one tea after another and I must say, they were splendid. I drink a lot of green tea but each of those were out of the world. The presenter spoke in Chinese and the group translated it for us in English. Each tea was prepared in traditional style and served to us in traditional small glasses. The group accompanying us is still rambling on. With all the tea and the talking, it started becoming quite heavy and overwhelming for us. Anyways, we completed the ceremony, having tasted some excellent teas. The presenter then offered if we would like to buy any gifts. The prices looked expensive so we declined. The group however gets some. Surabhi just opens one of the gift boxes and finds it empty. "Ahh… these are just traditional boxes, the tea is being given to them separately." Ok? Surabhi eventually gets some tea as well.

Finally, we asked for the bill which comes out to 3600 yuan! That's a lot of money (32-33k INR, 600 USD). One of them proposes that we split it 4-ways because two of them are students and don’t have much money. Surabhi pushes back and says we are going to split it 6 ways only. I thought, I haven't bought anything, maybe I should pay a little less, but in the spirit of going dutch, I go along. At this point, the girl next to me pays 200 yuan to the presenter and gets Surabhi and me some gifts - some tea and two Chinese wrist bands. This was a masterstroke, for now it rendered us not in a position to push back. Not only has the group matched us in what we pay, they have overpaid to get us some gifts.  So we pay up, exchange numbers, take a few photographs and walk out with a feeling of both happiness of having experienced wonderful tea but also the guilt of paying so much for it. For much of the evening, we had a slight feeling that we were scammed, but just can't convince ourselves one way or the other.

The revenge
The next morning, I woke up, and with an intent to find out more about teas, google "Shanghai tea". Pop came several pages mentioning the Shanghai Tea scam. I read through the blogs and realized that we have been scammed. They mentioned the exact same mechanism of scamsters meeting tourists in People's square misappropriating as Chinese students. One blog even has pictures of the con girls and I identified one of them.

Now, I was furious. All my nice touristy mood was gone and I was keen to beat the shit out of the tea place. I showed the blogs to Surabhi who is equally keen to fight back. We ask another friend of ours who had joined us by then in Shanghai to come along. He is understandably concerned about safety and doesn't think we have a chance to get our money back but still sheepishly agrees to come with us. The three of us leave to go back to the tea place to fight it out with them. On the way we realized that we don't have much of an argument. Sure the place was overpriced but they showed us the menu. If we didn't understand it, we should have clarified. For them, the group came together, how we split the bill amongst us is not their issue. The only argument was that we knew and the world knows that this was malpractice, so you better give us our money back if you didn’t want us to take action (which we weren't really sure what it could be).

Anyways, we never really had an argument because we just weren't able to find the place. They had taken us there through such a path that even after spending almost an hour searching through the locale, we weren't able to locate the tea shop.  In the interest of time, we head back. I was still not settled. I couldn't let them get away that easily. It wasn't about money anymore, it was about self esteem. I didn't want to be that guy who comes to a new country and gets duped.

As a last resort, I called up Shanghai police. I figured that at worst they would be unhelpful. To my surprise though, the police was really responsive. Within 30 seconds they got an English interpreter on a conference with me and the police officer. I explained the situation, they asked for my location. By the time I got down to the hotel lobby, the police was already there.  It took Shanghai police literally 2 minutes to reach me after being contacted. Wow !

I presented my passport and explained the situation. Surabhi also joined us. They asked us the amount we paid and if we could identify the place. We told them that we could try. So, we ended up going around the city looking for the tea house in a police car. Luckily, thanks to Surabhi's excellent sense of direction (which if I may point out didn't work the first time we went looking for the place) and the police officers sense of where it could be, we found the tea place. Now, we were about to raid a tea house accompanied by Chinese police officers. This I felt was totally worth 600 yuan.

We reached the place, the employees there recognized us with a smile which suddenly turned to an open mouth when they saw the police officers walking behind. The police officers raided each of the small rooms and one of them had a job in progress. Bingo! All the con girls were on their knees now. They were cheating a Mexican couple to whom we explained the story. They of course considered us messiahs. We think, even if we don't get our money back, at least we saved two other tourists. All of us are taken back to a police station.

We were asked to sit in one of the bigger rooms at the police station while the police dealt with the con girls. The police called the owner of the tea place. Once he arrived, I am asked to come to see him. He is shit scared. The police officer asked me the amount I paid and the amount I would like to get back. I looked at the owner and his situation right now is that even if I ask him to pay back double the amount, he will. I demand 1100 yuan back. The officer smiles with a feeling best expressed in hindi- "Haath diya toh tum gala pakad loge?" Finally, we settle at what would be the right price and I walk out of the police station with 800 yuan.

As I reflect back sitting in the bullet train from Shanghai to China with the display in front of me clocking 305 Km/h, "24 hours in China and we were scammed by a Chinese tea shop, toured Shanghai in a police car, saved a tourist couple, and busted a Chinese Tea scam. Not bad...


  1. sounds more like yet another Adventure of TinTin..

  2. Kudos man. All that fun you guys had is simply priceless!

  3. I got scammed in Yu garden train station in Shanghai from three "students" Alex, Angus and Claire. Got them back by saving others!