Beware: The Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam

February 10, 2009 · Print This Article

Print This Article

The fireworks are blasting outside my window as I write. I happened to have arrived in Beijing on the night of the Festival of the Lanterns, which involves hours upon hours of continuous fireworks all over the city. Today is the 15th day after the Chinese New Year on January 26, and thus the fireworks. Here’s a photo from my hotel window about 20 minutes ago.

On the way from Chicago this afternoon, instead of flying West like I expected we would, our plane flew North to the North Pole, and then South down to China. Here’s a photo of what the map looked like from the video monitor on the plane seat. What an interesting way to view the Northern Hemisphere.

So after flying over Canada, the North Pole, Siberia, Russia, and Mongolia I landed in Beijing at 4:30pm this afternoon. I got into my hotel around 5:30pm and although tired decided I’d go out. I decided to go see Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City and walk around a bit.

Here’s where the scam begins.

Walking right in front of the Forbidden City, two English speaking Chinese students came up to me and asked if they could practice their English with me. Having seen plenty of pickpocketing during planned distractions throughout travels in Europe (especially in front of the Coliseum in Rome), I was very aware and was skeptical of what these two young girls were after. They were dressed conservatively, so it didn’t seem like they were trying to sell themselves.

I said sure to them practicing their English. They explained they were in Beijing for two weeks studying English and had decided to come out to see Tiananmen. They asked lots of questions and gave lots of compliments. After about fifteen minutes of talking and them explaining the Festival of the Lanterns and their backgrounds they frankly had gained my trust. Seemed like they were actually two 22 year old college students named Jing Li and Ling studying English. Since I didn’t have anything to do until the morning I said yes when they asked me to get tea with them.

We walked for about ten minutes and ended up at the Si Zhu Xiang Tea House at 15 Nan He Yan Street in the Dong Cheng District. We were led into a room where 10 very small sample teas (less than an ounce) were poured (without ever being provided a menu). When I got the bill for my tea, it was of course in Yuan. I foolishly didn’t know the exchange rate. So I paid the bill thinking to myself, OK 10 small tea samples adding up to about one full cup of tea, this can’t be more than US$20.

When I got back to the hotel, I checked the exchange rate and found out $1 was equal to 6.7 Yuan. They had charged me 2112 Yuan or in U.S. Dollars, $308.90 for the tea.

I then Googled the name of the place, Si Zhu Xiang Tea House and found that I wasn’t even close to being the first to get taken by the now infamous Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam. Those “friendly college students wanting to work on their English” are paid by the tea house. It seems that ‘entrepreneurship’ is alive and well here.

Yep, I was taken on my first night in Beijing. In the very first hour too. Here’s to Visa’s fraud protection.

And hey, I even got a picture with Jing Li in front of the Forbidden City. Here she is, the girl who scammed me with a victory sign…

At least I’ve got a good story now. :-) . Here’s to the Festival of the Lanterns and to “becoming a more experienced traveler.”

Tomorrow, the real work begins.


2 Responses to “Beware: The Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam”

  1. Jen on January 27th, 2010 11:47 pm

    Three times in this post you’ve spelt lanterns “laterns” – are you copy/pasting the “Festival of Laterns” or are you just unaware that it has an additional ‘n’ in it?

  2. Bluto on November 30th, 2011 6:06 pm

    While I was made aware of these scams before my first trip to Beijing I wasn’t prepared for the frequency with which they are attempted. I was staying near the major embassies and could easily walk to the buildings wherein I had business. At least twice a day (sometimes more) I was accosted by young Chinese “students” in the street ,always female, who wanted to “practice English” or invite me to an “art exhibition”. (Is there a book or a movie somewhere that depicts ALL westerners as being particularly obsessed with art ?”). Of course the fact that I was walking every where was part of the problem.

    In these situations I did what I had been advised to do – say nothing, break eye contact, and keep walking which was usually sufficient to shake them. Another time I had was tag-teamed by two extraordinarily persistent “students” who, despite my best efforts at ignoring them, kept following me saying “we want to practice English”. So I turned around and calmly said – “Okay – please repeat after me – We are now walking to the police station”. I’m not sure if they completely understood but they left abruptly. After about 2 days of this I started having some fun with it (probably not an advisable thing to do) – such as when they approached me with “practice English” I would speak French, which would throw most of them off completely.

    But then I encountered a real pro – I had just exited a coffee shop near the US embassy and an older woman came up to me asking for the time, which proceeded to some general smalltalk. She spoke excellent English – it was clear, concise, with proper use of tense, articles, subject-verb agreement along with a good vocabulary. So I’m thinking that I don’t know what she ultimately wants ,(if anything), but given that we were near the embassy perhaps she was employed there in some capacity. So I gave her, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt. I complimented her on her fluency and asked about her background and where she worked though her responses were vague – “Oh I’m in education and I’ve picked up a few words of English here and there – practice makes perfect you know”. Hmmmm….

    She continued with some generic comments about the weather and traffic and then said she knew of a place that provided introductory lessons on Chinese calligraphy and she would be happy to take me there. Hmm – no one had said anything about chinese calligraphy so the transition was quite clumsy – but there it was – a variation on the ole tea ceremony. I said “No thank you – I haven’t heard of that one before”. She didn’t like my response at all. Her eyes narrowed and she said to me in a sharp tone – “You have shifty eyes – like those of a criminal”. Wow. So now, in light of the fact that I had called her on the scam, she is accusing me of being the criminal ? Nice attempt at redirection. So I then asked her “so how do you know so much about criminals anyway?” She pretended not to understand and simply walked away to track another foreigner who had just passed by…..

    Since that time I’ve become practiced at sending out the “don’t bother me vibe” though not being readily identifiable as a tourist helps also.

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