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The China Tea House Scam post image

The China Tea House Scam

The Chinese have a saying, “We can always fool a foreigner,” and from watching how many foreigners are railroaded, cheated, and scammed in the tourist epicenters of this country it is my impression that they may be right.

The Chinese have a saying, “We can always fool a foreigner,” and from watching how many foreigners are railroaded, cheated, and scammed in the tourist epicenters of this country it is my impression that they may be right.

There are three major tourist scams in China, respectively involving either a tea house, an art gallery, or an antique shop that I project are old in this country as tourism itself. The scams works like this:

A friendly individual approaches you in the street. They speak good English — sometimes they say that they want to practice it with you — and they work to quickly build rapport. They smile a lot, they are friendly, they laugh if you make a joke, and they seem passive and harmless. They don’t look or act like the kind of people who are just about to rob you. They then offer to take you to a local tea house/ art gallery/ antique shop and show you a slice of “real China.” You are made to believe that you just made a local friend who can speak your language and is going to give you the cultural “in” on the country you traveled thousands of miles to see. What great luck! But by the end of the day it becomes apparent that it was your new Chinese friend who was actually got the in: their hand in your pocket.

I was walking along the Bund in Shanghai, hanging out, looking at the old buildings, doing what tourists do there. This area, along with the adjoining Nanjing Road corridor, probably ranks as one of the most annoying places in all of China to be in. In point, you’re money on legs here. The arrangement is overtly obvious, there are no grey-areas: the tourists spend money and the locals take it. There is little room for inter-cultural communion in this area that does not have a price tag attached. The Chinese will give you what you’re looking for — girls, drugs, booze, knock-off handbags, culture, apparent friendship — and you pay for it. It’s cut and dry tourism: nothing more, nothing less. But over the top of this fairly standard arrangement is a virtual army of hustlers running this district with impunity, and the number of foreigners being taken, cheated, and robbed by them daily rises like Southern Europe’s debt.

My leisurely walk along the Bund was, perhaps inevitably, interrupted. A young woman and a middle aged may strode to me quickly and with purpose. The woman was holding out a camera that was faced towards her and she was calling to me in English: “Will you take a picture of us? Will you take our picture, please?”

Was it the way they singled me out, the manner in which they raced over to me with a camera held in an unnatural, overtly obvious position, their exaggerated use of the English language, or the sinister glint in the older gentleman’s eye I don’t know, but I reacted quickly and told the couple to stay away from me in no uncertain terms. They tried to look sad. Bullshit.

I forgot about them, but not one minute later two Chinese ladies came racing up towards me with their camera faced back towards them asking in loud, boisterous English if I would take their photo in front of the old buildings. This was getting annoying, but I was getting curious — what scam was this? I took their photo, and then began talking with them. They told me that they were tourists from Xian, and they asked the pertinent details about my stay in China. I told them that I lived here, switched the language to Mandarin, and they split fast. Elbows and assholes.

I laughed a little, and carried on my walk. But less than a minute later I was accosted for a third time.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” a young Chinese woman approached as I crossed the street from the causeway.  “Will you take my picture in front of the building?”

It was clearly open season on my kind.

This time I decided to roll with the scam to find out where it would take me. Being asked by three different parties to take their picture within the span of five minutes was too much for my curiosity to bear. I took the girl’s photo and tried to put on my best “I’m a big, dumb white person” act.

She checked out the photo I’d just taken with her phone. “Oh, you are such a good photographer!” she squealed.

She was really laying it on thick now, the photo I snapped had her half in and half out of the frame — this drama queen was taking her act a little over the top.  In fact, everything about her was way too much. She was making some small talk banter with me but I was too transfixed by her odd appearance to really listen.

tea house scam

She was dressed as though she was in disguise. She had on a humongous pair of plastic sunglasses with dark lenses, she had a bulky truck driver-esque ball cap on her head that was pulled down real low over her face, she was wearing white gloves over her hands, and she covered it all up with a big umbrella. Now Chinese women tend to do all that they can to prevent being tanned by the sun, but they don’t go around dressed like this. This girl was in disguise.

“You look very special with your tattoos,” she commented with a big gasp and smile as she ran her gloved hand over my forearm. “Do they mean anything?”

“Yes, they’re the story of my travels,” I replied, thinking that “I just think they look cool” wouldn’t have sound naive enough.

She began looking at the tattoos on my neck. “Nooomaad,” she sounded one out. “Is that your name? Nomad?”

“Yes, my name is Nomad,” I replied, figuring this name to be as good as any.

“It is good to meet you, Nomad.”

I asked her if she had any tattoos, as her calling me Nomad was starting to make me feel weird, but she didn’t quit understand my question. Perhaps instinctively, I switched to Mandarin and immediately regretted it. But she was undaunted by this show that I had obviously been in China for a while. I was still a tourist at the Bund no doubt, still easy pickings.

“How long have you been in China?” she asked still using Mandarin.

“A long time,” I responded honestly.

“How many days are you in Shanghai?”

“Two days.”

“Are you here alone?”

“Yes, my wife and daughter are in Taizhou.”

“But you are alone in Shanghai?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been in Shanghai before?”

“Yes.”

“How many times?”

“Five or six.”

She was feeling me out and I began kicking myself in the ass for switching the language to Mandarin and for telling her abut my history in China, thinking I’d just given up the game. I wanted to find out what her scam was, and just when I though I’d blown it, like I did with the “tourists from Xian,” the girl in disguise came to her call of action:

“There is an international festival of tea here in Shanghai right now,” she exclaimed with excitement.

“Right now?” I responded with feigned surprise as the scam was thus unveiled.

“Yes, it is happening on Nanjing Road right now. Would you like to go to it with me? I can practice my English and you can practice Chinese. You want to come?”

“How much does it cost?”

“Not much. I am Chinese girl, I don’t pay much money.”

I’m sure you don’t.

We went.

“How much time did it take you to learn Chinese?” she asked.

I ignored the question, as whether or not I’ve actually learned Chinese is very much up for debate, and switched the conversation back to English.

“Are you here on the Bund to practice your English?” I asked, packing the bait ball ever bigger.

“Yes,” she replied, “I am on break from university. I study English and French.”

Good, I wouldn’t want any Francophones to be left out of this cultural experience.

“How often do you come here?” I asked.

“I come here sometimes,” she replied, but then quickly added, “but not very often.”

She then hopped back on top of the question asking:

“Do you know how many people are in Shanghai? Do you like Nanjing Road? What is your work?” On and on. The inane questions kept coming like rapid fire. I held up under the deluge. I was walking into some type of set up and I knew it. I felt confident that I could handle whatever I was being duped into, short of fighting off a gang of dudes with nunchucks and steel chains in some greasy walled ally behind a string of noodle restaurant — which, I had to admit, may have been what this was coming. We then turned off busy Nanjing Road onto a smaller street.

“You seem like a very wise person about the world,” she complimented me.

I thanked her but this was going a little too far. The psychology behind this statement was so right on I wanted to vomit. If you get someone to believe that that you think they are wise and worldly when conning them then their guard may be dropped a little more. Hey, wise and worldly people don’t get duped. 13 years of travel have taught me to treat compliments with suspicion — especially if they imply that I am the exact opposite of what I’d have to be in order to get scammed. Again, this girl was a little too much of a pro, and took her show way far over the top.

It was my turn now to play games, and I took photos of us in the street. I snickered to myself as I thought about how I could show her face to every tourist entering Shanghai with the message, “This girl will rob you” imposed over the top.

“Where is the international tea festival?” I asked as we walked out of the busy downtown and into a more residential area. Red brick apartments with laundry hanging out of the windows rose up on both sides of the street. This was getting stupid. She curbed my suspicions by saying that the festival was taking place very nearby. I thought of ditching her, but figured that I’d come this far, I may as well stick it out to the climax.

A block or two later we stopped in front of what appeared to be an abandoned storefront. The glass doors were covered in newspaper so there was no way to see inside. There was just a little computer print out stuck near the door handle that said a single word: Tea.

My companion knocked on the door, cracked it open a little and stuck her head inside. I tried to peak in. A worker came to the door and opened it a crack, motioning for me to enter quickly. I took in the scene:

The place looked like it was set up in under an hour on a 500 RMB budget. From what I could see there was two or three “rooms” made from flimsy particle board partitions. Mauve colored curtains covered the entrance to each cheap-o tea tasting booth. Truly ugly pink flower wall paper covered everything. There was a fold out table near the door with pots of tea on it.

These people were truly low budget scam artists.

I almost laughed. Usually the tea scam consists of taking tourists to tea houses that are are a little more legit than this. I was taken to some hacked-up hole in the wall joint. Was this the highest quality scam these people think I’m worth?

Then the notion overtook me that maybe this wasn’t a standard tea scam that I was being led into. The scene was pretty sketchy. The place looked as if it could be dismantled and moved out in a matter of moments, leaving only an empty room in it’s wake. The place already looked like an abandon shop from the street. There was no way for anyone to see what was going on inside, and there was no way any member of the general public was just going to saunter in for a cup of tea.

It was my original intention to go inside the tea house, take some photos, maybe shoot some video, and call out the people involved, but I decided that there was no way I was going to get locked up inside a place that sketchy looking.

I took off.

The tea house scam dissected

The China tea house scam is especially heinous because it not only makes a play on tourists’ pocketbook but their emotions. Just about everyone — especially tourists and newbie backpackers — dream that they are going to go abroad and make friends, learn about another culture, and maybe even have an up-close, unique, and personal experience with a place unlike any other tourist; the stuff of the tourism brochures, Hollywood, and National Geographic. Scam artists in China know of this desire, and the exploit it with expert precision.

Where the tea house scam ended for me is where it usually begins for many. Once inside, the foreigner and their new “friend” or “friends” — as sometimes they often work in groups — go into a private tea tasting booth. They order tea, drink it, have friendly conversation, and then the bill is presented. The number on the bottom line is invariably somewhere between 500 and 3000 RMB ($85 to $500).

Some foreigners probably just pay the amount, say “Wow, that was some expensive tea,” say goodbye to their new Chinese friends, and head for the door not even knowing that they were scammed. But others quickly realize that they have been duped.

The “friends” then try to reassure the foreigner that this is the actual price, that they were given the best tea in China, that they had to pay a seating fee, and, if the tourist becomes really upset, they try to reassure him or her by saying that they will split the bill evenly. A $500 tea house bill split two or three ways is still a lot of money lost (or gained, depending on how you look at it).

“It’s the Chinese way,” they say when all else fails.

Of course, the people that bring the tourist to the tea house receive a commission for their efforts — and some work there outright.

It is my impression that most foreigners bear the brunt of their error and pay up. Those that don’t are met with threats to call the police — something these scam artists won’t actually do, but the threat of a Chinese jail cell is often enough to get hands inserted into pockets and money passed across a counter.

As for the police? They all know about this scam, but they allow it to continue. More than likely, they receive a cut of the action. I have heard of incidences of foreigners getting the police involved, bringing them to the tea house where the infraction occurred, and sometimes getting their money refunded. But, ultimately, the police allow the scam to continue unabated.

“We can always fool a foreigner.” All Chinese know this, so what’s the point in trying to stop it?

The tea house scam and the other related ones have not changed one iota since I began traveling in China in 2005 — and even then they were old news. But they continue to work so well. If you do a quick internet search for “China tea house scam” you’re going to find dozens and dozens of testimonials from travelers who fell for the con like a leaden ball and lost a lot of cash. If you’re traveling in Beijing or Shanghai you will come face to face with hustlers inviting you to tea houses, bars, art galleries, or antique markets. If you don’t want to be robbed, don’t go with them. These scams are no secret, are out in the open, and are incredibly common.

It is sad that the places where the majority of tourists visit in China are those that are packed full of the people you do not want to meet, while the rest of the country is hospitable, overwhelmingly honest, and, for the most part, kind. This is perhaps the same of any country in the world, but, as with most everything else, in China it’s taken to the extreme. Here is one rule of thumb to follow:

If you’re traveling in China and you see other tourists around you, don’t trust anyone. Punto. There is an almost infinite number of “fools” being dumped into Shanghai, Beijing, and the tourist areas of China daily, and many unscrupulous Chinese are bent on proving their ignorant little saying is the truth.

Shanghai girl and Wade Shepard

Making friends in Shanghai

Filed under: China, Danger

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3542 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jack August 20, 2012, 2:01 am

    This is a scam I just didn’t know existed, but the elements of the scam, the friendliness and the fake compliments sorround scams just about anywhere and everywhere.

    From my experience and something other tourists should keep in mind: I’ve been taken out by Chinese people here in Western China on countless occasions and they won’t allow me to pay. Needing to pay anything(even a split bill) is a sign that you’re not getting an authentic Chinese experience.

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    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 5:59 am

      It is truly amazing to me how different the experience is between travel in tourist China and outside of it. It’s truly two different worlds. Whenever I’m in a big ticket tourist location I almost invariably find myself saying “wow, this sucks” over and over again. It’s not because I’m a conceded “off the beaten track” uber-alles sort of guy, but because it really does suck. I mean, who could enjoy being bothered by people trying to take your money when simply trying to exist somewhere looking at what you came to look at. But outside of the tourist realms, China is amazing. It’s full of people who are kind and generous who would never dream of taking your money.

      For sure, I also have no idea how many times I’ve been taken out for meals here without having to pay. It’s a rude awakening to go from interacting with people on this level to dealing with the Shanghai/ Beijing hustlers and people treating you like a fool.

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      • Félix August 30, 2012, 1:24 pm

        What Wade said. Wise words.

        The same can be applied in most countries in the world, though, but especially in China, being a safe and for the most part developed country where the only huge issue for most international tourists is communication. The (laowai) tourist trail in China indeed sucks ass, and as it is so tiny, I have no idea why anybody would want to spend much time on it.

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        • Wade Shepard August 31, 2012, 8:58 pm

          Right on. It’s truly amazing the difference between tourist China and normal China. What is more mind blowing is that you will very rarely meet another traveler outside of tourist China. The tourist bubble is incredibly thick here, and it’s truly a different world on the inside of it. This is a massive, amazing country, I also have no idea why 99.9% of the visitors only visit what I would call the worst parts of it.

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  • trevor August 20, 2012, 3:28 am

    yep….. the ‘will u take our photo please….. my friend is from out of town… u wanna join us to drink tea….. no u cant just watch, yes it is 500Rmb for the ‘session”’….. scam
    why u dont like tea? i do… i dont like the price……..i left, no ill feeling…..

    ask the price first or go out without any money on u.. and enjoy the tea…. LOL… leave the hotel key in the hotel. go out without 1 dime on u and rip off the chinese… LOL….

    :)))

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    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 4:53 am

      Wow, at least you got the price up front. Right on advice here. Nobody can force you to do anything. Funny that this scam is so common and has been running for so long. I mean, EVERYBODY that goes to the tourist areas of Shanghai and Beijing are hit. Crazy stuff.

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  • trevor August 20, 2012, 4:01 pm

    its true….. i met 2 chinese girls in Laos… and when i got to Shanghai, they took me out to lunch and dinner for 1 week….. they always paid, or they took me to meet a friend. and the friend paid… very kind!!! they refused point blank to allow me to pay..

    i asked how much the tea would cost…. it was funny cos i had come over land fromLaos and every one i met was so friendly and my guard was down….. i did not even know it was a scam to tell the truth…. until some one told me of the offer to go and drink tea….. from the Bund to a small tea shop….. i never do any thing without getting a price up front… ;))

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    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 7:27 pm

      Definitely, man. The “Chinese way” is that if someone invites you anywhere they pay. This scam is the most “un-Chinese” thing I think I’ve come upon yet. Sounds like you had a real good time in Shanghai. That place is real cool once you dig into it.

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  • mike October 5, 2012, 10:23 pm

    Does her hat say “Smooth”???

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    • Wade Shepard October 6, 2012, 2:26 am

      Haha, I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised:-)

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  • Dmitri December 28, 2012, 12:14 pm

    Thanks, this clarifies. But when this happened to me in Lima, Peru I kind of had the impression that I could just get robbed anyway.

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    • Wade Shepard December 28, 2012, 11:53 pm

      That’s true. At least they bother pulling a scam instead of just pulling out a gun haha.

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  • Hust January 17, 2015, 3:29 am

    Its my first day in China, and I almost had this scam pulled on me by 3 ladies. Funny that they did exactly what you mentioned in your post. I had just finished touring the Forbidden City when I met these ladies who claimed be English teachers on vacation. I figured that since they were not so attractive they were just being friendly, so I accepted their offer to have tea. As we walked, I continued to be aware of my surroundings, making sure someone was not about to come up from behind me and pick my pocket or hit me over the head. But before right before we arrived to the tea house I told them I was in a hurry and had to get back to my hotel. That’s when they became pushy and I finally realized they were trying to scam me. So, NO, they CAN’T fool any foreigner.
    I think the reason I almost fell for this is because I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin American countries where people are generally warm and friendly and its quite often they’ll buy you drinks and introduce you to their girlfriends just so they can hangout and show a foreigner a good time.
    Its only my first day here, so I really can’t pass judgement on the locals. But I like how you play a long with the scams.

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  • Mar June 30, 2015, 11:47 am

    Attach picture of the young couple who yesterday approached me and guided me to the tea ceremony here in ShangHai. They used same tactic: can you take a picture…where r u from….your Chinese is so good…..I’m from XiAn studying English in ShangHai, my friend isn’t my boyfriend, he is a real estate agent & doesn’t speak English….laughed lots, extremely friendly…..real professional show and obviously got away with their job.

    If I had read this forum earlier I could have used RMB600 in a massage, manicure, pedicure, facial….. Mind you, compared to other tea ceremonies I have been to (without been a victim) have to admit the tea girl was knowledgable, facts were accurate, time spent was pleasant, etc…trying hard to convince myself that I wasn’t a victim. The “student” even sent me an email suggesting other places I should visit. Feel like setting them a trap, unfortunately time is against as my return flight is tomorrow. Believe Karma will take care of it. Just in case you bump into them, or better they bump into you please see picture & be prepared.

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