We really stick out in a crowd in some places of the world, like a cat in a dog park. In these places, I don’t even bother trying to blend in. I wear my blue Columbia hiking shirt, my white Panama hat and sling my old DSLR with the big lens over my shoulder. I thought about carrying a big flag that says “TOURIST” but maybe that’s a little too much, huh?
It’s not surprising, then, that we were stopped on the street in Shanghai by a couple of Chinese kids. They were very friendly, spoke English well and asked us to take their picture in front of some very unremarkable building. They struck up a conversation and then mentioned how they were going to a special Chinese tea ceremony. Since we were being friendly, they put the pressure on us to join them, until Deena finally gave me the old “Kiwanis Club elbow” and said we should move on.
The “Chinese Tea Ceremony” scam is one of a few popular scams in Shanghai.1 The unsuspecting “mark” is taken through side streets and back alleys to someone’s room, served a few different cheap teas and handed a huge bill. I suppose one could argue about the bill and threaten to call the police, but most tourists just pay the bill out of embarrassment.
Shanghai is a city that loves to prey on tourists. Fortunately, we were warned about the tea ceremony scam on board the cruise ship.
In case you go to Shanghai, here are some other common scams to avoid:
- Art Student Exhibition: A young “art student” will ask you to attend his exhibition, or perhaps some other special art exhibition. At the “gallery” you will either be pressured into buying art (like the Persian rug salesman) or at the end, handed a large bill hoping you’ll be too embarrassed to argue.
- Short Change: You have to watch the Chinese merchants very closely as it’s not uncommon for them to try to short change you. Another Shanghai trick is to slip in a note from some other currency that looks similar but is not worth as much. They hope that, as a tourist, you’re not familiar enough with their currency to count the change correctly.
- Black Taxi Scam: While the regular taxis in Shanghai are reasonably priced, the unofficial taxis don’t have meters. They look for tourists and either charge them ridiculous prices, rob them or worse. (To be fair, unlicensed taxis are common in many tourist destinations around the world.) Make sure the cab you enter has a meter.2
- Fake 100rmb Scam: This is popular among taxi drivers, but also can happen in shops. You hand them a 100rmb note and instead of making change, they pretend to be testing it but use a little slight of hand to substitute a forgery. Then they hand it back complaining you gave them a forgery. Now you’ve lost 100 plus you still have to pay the bill.
- The Nut Cake Scam: In the marketplace, you might see a huge fruit cake that can be cut to size and paid for by the kilogram. No matter if you want a small sample, the merchant will cut a huge slice and then tell you it can’t be put back and you have to pay. Just stay away from the fruit cakes. Your aunt will send you one for Christmas anyway.
There are other scams, but these are the most popular. Shanghai has a reputation for a good reason. There isn’t a lot of violent crime in the city, though. It’s pretty safe if you can avoid the scams and there are many interesting locations in the city to visit.