Here is how the Shanghai Tea House Scam starts....
There you are, awestruck by Shanghai’s spectacular skyscape and buzz.
Perhaps you are on a 3-day no-cost Visa.
Perhaps you are jetlagged and cloudy-brained.
You have wandered into the old section of Shanghai, where every inch has the feel of an authentic China of olden times.
Potions, trinkets, strange foods, red and gold brocades with dangling red lanterns abound. This is the Old China you had imagined.
Then come the Shanghai Tea House Scammers...
They are a young couple you bump into on the street as you are gawking at the sights.
He is on the large side with perfect English and an avuncular style.
His companion is not his flame, but rather is his poorer cousin. She is a hardworking school teacher with a modest salary, just in from the countryside for a city experience.
It’s his day off and he is treating her to a Chinese tea ritual.
As you walk on, he explains that Shanghai is the most expensive Chinese city to live in. He hopes to some day return to the countryside . For now, he is making his nest egg in the big city, where his job in real estate keeps him relatively well-heeled.
As he continues in this personal vein, you may be thinking, "What a treasure! We have found a real person with insights into the city and culture who is so open and friendly and happy to share."
Then he says, "Oh, by any chance, would you possibly have interest in joining him and his cousin in the tea house ritual?”, explaining that this would be good luck for them and an honor.
“Why not!”, you think. An adventure!
In a Shanghai alley--- somewhere...Where the Tea House Scam Continues
Winding off the main drag you find yourself following them into a street more alley than road.
You stop in front of a dilapidated house or store, not exactly clear which.
A woman, slightly older, answers the door with a big smile, and guides you up the rickety steps to a small room for the tea ceremony. The young man urges caution and care.
Small though the room may be, the tea hostess talks with a booming voice. She could easily conquer a large auditorium without a mic.
Later, you will find yourself wondering if she was once part of the Chinese Opera, because THAT would have been a much better show.
Meet the Shanghai Tea House Scam Con Artists
Expect the young man to enlist your help to decide on the breadth of the ceremony today. Should you have two, five or eight teas for the ceremony? He asks you to concur with five, the middle way, perhaps because a moderate middle way conveys a trustworthy reasonableness.
He is quite talkative.
"Oh how lucky the husband is to have such a beautiful and smart wife!" "How lucky the wife is to have such an athletic and handsome husband!" And how lucky he and his cousin are to have made new friends!
Meanwhile the tea demo actress continues to boom her spiel—showing you the proper hand position on the tea cup, explaining what different gestures mean, the luck significance of numbers, and more.
Tea is poured from pot to cup with great flourish and handed to each guest with ceremonial pomp.
How did you fall for this obvious scam?
First, you’d totally missed the warning siren that should have steered you clear of the scam.
20-somethings don’t befriend 60-somethings, period.
This is China, and not a place like Vietnam, where college students truly crave the company of Americans so that they can practice their English in hopes of getting a better job. But you-- in your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s or 70’s -- would be well-advised to remember your invisibility to most 20-somethings who have eyes for their peers alone—China, America: same.
Why is the tea hostess conducting herself like she is a Roman orator in the Coliseum?
Perhaps it is nothing more than a tried and true tactic to add to the dissonance that puts you off kilter.
Shanghai Tea House Scam: A Study in Cognitive Dissonance
This study in cognitive dissonance admittedly does have some very amusing turns.
From the assertions of different teas’ healing powers and mood making yin or yang, the little drama morphs into a demo of the magic tea boy—a rubber toy who gets filled with tea and then pees.
Soon, a pod bursts in a hot tea cup revealing a paper mache flower floating in the water—which you are told has very, very special healing powers. You remember you had party favors like this in the 1970’s that at that time were “Made in Japan”—clams that would open and blossom into a bouquet for a magical moment in a Sweet 16 celebration.
You steal furtive glances at one another.
Gosh this small room in this Shanghai Tea House feels cramped...
...but by now you know what is coming.
The young uncle says the bill is US$300 or $500.
You don’t know where you are. There are three of them and one or two of you. The door is blocked.
Young uncle boy chatters on, suggesting that he can take on most of the bill because he is so in-the-money working in Shanghai real estate and you perhaps are a pensioner on a fixed income?
You remember that you’ve only been in Shanghai two days but have seen three violent incidents already: first, a senior woman in her 70’s+ with an obvious black eye and other signs of recent battering; second, a policeman with a menacing looking baton lording over a man sprawled on the street who had apparently caused a bicycle-drawn cart and car collision;
and just a few hours before, a full-blown fisticuffs brawl by a small store where men in work uniforms were slugging at others including swatting and screaming women.
Since you had never heard of Shanghai being especially violent and you know two days is scarcely enough to get a feel of anywhere, this just seemed more weird than anything else.
Then again, back home you've hosted so many out-of-town guests that seem to totally lack danger vs. safe radar, easy to do when you don’t know the culture or terrain.
Scenes of you squandering your last day in Shanghai trying to file a police report flash before you.
It's the Shanghai Tea House Scam…what to do?
One suggestion-- take some USD 20's out of your wallet leaving the hidden money belt hidden as it should be in claustrophobic tea houses.
Explain you are a pensioner.
Thank uncle boy profusely for such a meaningful and memorable experience and insight into the culture. Ask if you can take pictures of them, your newfound friends, as you will treasure them forever!
You too may also be given a tea boy souvenir and some red tassles. How thoughtful!
Pay Your Tourist Street Taxes!
Consider the US$50+ or so as tourist street taxes. Pay more if your sense of danger tells you to do so.
Last step: email your Shanghai Tea House Scam story and pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.