08 May 2011

The Tea Scam

It was hard not to follow Janie. She wanted to practice her English with us. She complemented our beautiful skin. And she offered to lead us out of the cold and away from the swarms of other tourists.

After a long night at the ice bar in Hong Kong and an early morning flight, we were exhausted when we arrived in Beijing. Despite our fatigue, we'd adopted the traveler's "I'll sleep when I get home" mentality, so we headed out to visit Tiananmens Square.

The sun lay close to the horizon for more than half the day, reminding us that we were across the world from home. When it finally did go down, we found ourselves buying expired "2008 Olympics" beanies to stay warm.

When Janie approached us I wondered how she found us, or why she chose us, in the sea of other visitors at the world's largest city square. When I look back at the photos and consider our head wear, I realize how easy it was for her to spot us, even from across the site's 440,000 square meters.

When Janie spoke our language and offered to lead us to a restaurant with some of China's most authentic cuisine, we gladly accepted her invitation. We followed her white leather-shoed footsteps out of the square and into a series of dark streets, all lined with tall brick walls. She adjusted her sparkling headband often, chatting away about her love for the American Pie movies and the Backstreet Boys. We adjusted our beanies further down over our ears as the cold night set in, and continued to follow this stranger who promised a Chinese experience different than the tourist trap at the Square.

We emerged out of the walled alley ways onto a busy street with red lanterns hanging across skyscrapers above. Janie led us to a small restaurant brimming with eaters and imbibers. "It's too busy here," she complained. "Let's go get a beer first."

So we followed her again through the maze of brick walls, disappearing again into the dark network of alleyways. This time when we came out, we were on a darker, quiet street. I wished there were lanterns -it was so dark, and bitter cold, and I was starting to wonder why we'd walked so far for a brew. Wasn't there alcohol on the busy street we'd been on before?

Janie knocked on a dark green door. A grandmother-like woman silently opened it up and motioned for us to come inside. She counted the eight of us, and corralled four of my friends into one small room, and four of us into another. Before I could ask where the beer was and what the hell we were doing, another woman came in and delivered teacups and a variety of herbs to our table. She didn't speak either, but she began filling our cups with samples of tea - ginseng, jasmine, fruit tea, wheat tea, green tea, black tea.

Janie translated. "This is a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. These small cups are meant to be drank in three sips. Place your pointer finger and thumb around the rim of the cup and your middle finger underneath. Go ahead, try it."

We drank the small cups of tea in three sips each. Janie instructed the guys in our group to stack up their other two fingers underneath their middle fingers while drinking, and the girls to point theirs out. This was a sign of male professionalism and female beauty, she said. I wondered if my other four friends were also stacking their fingers in the other tiny room.

Janie taught us "Gan Bei," or cheers, and encouraged us to keep trying the different varieties of tea. I had no idea where in China I was, how I would get back to my hostel, or where the food and beer I'd been promised was, but the tea was delicious so I kept sipping.

Ten varieties of tea later, and yet another woman came in to deliver receipts. They were written in Chinese, obviously, so Janie continued translating. "500 Yuan... each." 

My friends and I stared at each other in shock. We hadn't been given a menu, and we had never expected to rack up a bill of $75 American dollars each. We looked to Janie hoping to find similar shock in her face, but all we saw were her sparkling headband and cheerful smile flashing back at us.

So we paid. We came out of the little room to find our four other friends similarly awestruck by the price of the tea ceremony, and the distinct suspicion that we'd all been scammed.

Janie stayed behind at the tea house, where she had clearly come from in the first place, and bid us farewell before we walked back out into the cold, dark alleyway. We walked away in silence, with absolutely no idea where we were going. We pulled our beanies back down over our ears.


  1. Yikes! I've been in China a couple of months now and I can't tell you how many people I know this has happened to. It's such a shame because it makes it impossible to trust anyone, and in China there really ARE a lot of legit English students who just want to hang out.

  2. Ah, I'm so sorry this happened to you! It's a popular scam in China. I gave a whole lesson to my class this past week on how to approach a foreigner and I explained this scam. They were in shock and disbelief their own people would do this to a foreigner. It's really difficult to know who to trust on the streets in China but there really is legit Chinese people who really would have taken you out for local eats and beers. I think Beijing and Shanghai are the most popular cities for scams. You won't have to worry as much in other cities.

  3. sorry to hear that you've been scammedin beijing... i was in beijing a couple of weeks ago and have heard about this... good thing our hostel posted some warning note about different scams that every traveller should know in beijing...

  4. Wow! What an unfortunate experience. It is a shame that some locals scam tourists as their job. Even if it's a small percentage of them, it makes the traveler a bit weary to trust. I have been traveling in Latin America, and I wish I felt I could trust people more.

  5. untamedaims09 May, 2011

    This has inspired me to create a post about my own scam experience in India! Very well written.

  6. I find it so fascinating hearing about the different scams around the world.
    I've experienced the myriad of scams around most of asia but yet to visit China.

    Great read.

  7. Anonymous09 May, 2011

    Never follow any strangers in China even she speaks fluent English and looks friendly and sweet. Even we Chinese as tourists encounter such scams so regularly, not to mention those who are not familiar with the language and culture. Next time call the police first before you pay such unreasonable price.

  8. I'm glad I shared this- it's good to know that this happens often, especially for future travelers.

    It's also good to know, though, that this situation isn't specific to China. Scams can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. While I did fall victim to this ploy, I readily walked into it without skepticism.

    Thanks everyone for the comments and dialogue.

  9. Anonymous10 May, 2011

    Great to read this online!

    I have travelled to China since 1994 and speak fluent Chinese (which I studied at university). Together with a good friend, we fell victim of a similar tea scam near the Tian'anmen. My friend, who is a movie director, and myself paid 800 yuan each and just knew we had been cheated ... but ...

    we admired the couple of young Chinese who did play their role with verve during 3 hours!!!!
    Even on the video footgage, which we scanned afterwards, their is no virtual sign that anything was 'wrong' until the bill came.

    In the 17 years I have worked and travelled in China, this is the first time I have had this experience, so ...

    Please rest assured that 99.9% of Chinese offering their help to you on the street are genuine warmhearted wellcoming people!

    Greetings to all,


  10. While scams do happen, just like anywhere else in the world, following the advice of Anonymous about not following any strangers in China is the worst and you could miss out on a lot of great experiences. I've followed several people and were nearly always given such wonderful hospitality. I've been invited to homes and most of the time the Chinese demanded they pay for meals. Sometimes it's a hit or miss other times it's instincts.
    Keep the articles coming, Em. :)

  11. Anonymous19 May, 2011

    @Michael, I think to get scammed is something even worse than being cautious about strangers approaching. It is surely a blessing to have enjoyable experience travelling there other than being scammed considering you have such a confidence to follow whoever offers the hospitality. Undeniably, Chinese people in general are friendly and are with great hospitality, but increasingly there are numerous kinds of scams and tricks going on. 500 yuan for each of the 6 samples of tea sums up much higher than the average monthly salary there - that's how people would take the risk to scam as such money is so easy to get, especially from westerner tourists. To be careful is no such "worst" thing, it simply provides an extra layer of protection for your money and yourself (think about illegal organ trafficking reported).

  12. Thanks for your comments everyone!