The Beijing Teahouse Scam (trolling the trolls)

Introducing the Beijing Teahouse Scam:

“So, how about going for tea?” she suggested.

“Sounds good,” I replied, “but actually, I think I’d prefer a coffee right now.”

“Oh… but, coffee is too strong for us Chinese, we can’t drink it,” she bullshitted (all evidence to the contrary).

“Okay, well how about Starbucks?” I said, pointing to the mall behind her which I knew had a Starbucks downstairs (even though Chinese apparently can’t drink coffee). “I can get a coffee and you can have tea.”

“Oh, I don’t want to sit inside though… I know a nice teahouse near here, they also sell coffee, and we can sit outside. It’s this way,” she said, indicating the nearby hutong (alleyway) which I knew led to certain scammery.

“Hmm… it’s a bit cold to sit outside though,” I countered (and so it was – probably minus 2 Celsius, it was a crazy suggestion!), “but if you really want to, how about the drinks kiosk over there?” indicating the drinks stand in the middle of Wangfujing shopping street where we were standing, which I knew wasn’t part of the Beijing Teahouse Scam.

“Oh… but, we can’t smoke there and I’d like to smoke, so we should go to the teahouse… don’t you want to smoke?”

“Well, actually I hate smoking you see… so lets just go to Starbucks, okay?”

“Oh, the teahouse is no smoking too, so we can go there!”

“…hang on, I thought you just said you could smoke there?”

“…yes… outside… but it’s ok, I don’t mind about smoking actually, we can sit inside!”

“Ok great, so let’s go to Starbucks!”

“No, I want to sit outside!”

“What? Ok, the kiosk over there then!”

“No. I want to smoke.”

“You just said you didn’t!”

“I changed my mind!”

She was certainly well-practised at this game, but even though she had a response lined up and ready to go for every objection I might raise, it was obvious that these responses didn’t form part of any cohesive narrative and so she was contradicting herself; she was getting stroppy now, realising there was no way I was falling for the scam and she was wasting her time. As for me, I was just trying to see if it was remotely possible to get any of these teahouse touts to genuinely go for a non-scam drink…

“So, you don’t wanna go to teahouse with me?”

“No chance.”

…and with that, she spun on her heel and walked away, to go look for other potential victims in the crowds of shoppers and tourists.

Wangfujing shopping street

Wangfujing shopping street – wandering around here makes you a prime target (photo credit: see below)

I’d gone to Wangfujing that evening with the sole intention of wandering up and down looking like an easy mark, a tourist with time on my hands and no clue about Beijing or China, to see how long it took them to target me, what sort of BS they’d come up with to get me to go with them, and whether or not I could get any of them to visit Starbucks instead… or, put more simply, I was basically out trolling the trolls.

The mechanics of the Beijing Teahouse Scam

The teahouse scam is well-established, in both Beijing and Shanghai, and has taken many, many victims – a quick search on Google will bring up a whole bunch of blog posts and articles written by some of them! For example, check out this one in Beijing and this great report of one in Shanghai. The basic pattern goes like this; when wandering around Tiananmen Square or Wangfujing (or in Shanghai, the Nanjing Road shopping area), tourists are approached by one or two friendly young Chinese (if you’re alone, they’ll usually approach alone, especially if you’re a guy; if you’re in a group, they’ll approach as a two), usually women, who strike up a conversation along the lines of “where are you from?”, “may we practise our English with you?”, “how is your trip going?”, and so on. After building some rapport, they make the innocuous enough suggestion of going for tea; and for most visitors, it’s an attractive offer. After all, you’re in Beijing for the first time, you’ve got no plans for the next hour or two, and these guys are so friendly and it seems like it’s going to be a great travel experience.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is also prime target territory, especially around the southern gate of the Forbidden City (where Mao’s portrait hangs)

So you go with them as they lead you down a complicated series of back alleys, eventually arriving at a teahouse you could’ve actually reached with a short walk straight along the road. In you go, and it’s great; it’s all so traditional, these guys are just so friendly, you swap stories about your country and theirs, and you drink some very pleasant tea. And then you get the bill, and the penny drops; you’ve just been fleeced, and are now being asked to pay a crazy price for a pot of tea, in some cases many hundreds of dollars.

Protest that you don’t have cash, and a card reader will be proffered; refuse to pay, and you’ll find the way out blocked by some solid looking blokes who weren’t there when you arrived. If you find yourself in this situation, keep your cool but argue with them (politely) to get the price down as much as possible (e.g. refusing to pay for any drinks your new ‘friends’ had, and only for your own, seems to get it down a bit, though yours will always be the luxury super-expensive one); once it’s as low as you’re getting it, either pay up using cash and leave, or perhaps you could try paying by card and then as soon as you’re safely away calling your card company to report it as a fraudulent transaction. Personally I wouldn’t let them get their grubby little fingers anywhere near my credit card, especially as there’s no guarantee the bank will cancel the payment. Then, either choose to just write the money off to experience (as my friends did – see below), or make sure that you know exactly where you are and where the teahouse is and how to get back there, and go to the police and report it. From online write-ups of this scam, it seems the police are very reluctant and slow to help victims deal with it, but that if you really dig your heels in and stick to your guns, you can get the police to go with you and get you your money back. Given that these teahouses are in a specific area (an area well-known even to foreigners who’ve lived in Beijing for just a few months), and that they’ve been pulling this scam there for well over a decade, there is absolutely no way the police don’t know all about it, exactly where it takes place, and exactly who is running it; my guess is therefore that the police are getting their cut, so they turn a blind eye (although encouragingly, recent reports like this and this suggest that in Shanghai, at least, the police are now actually taking this scam seriously).

Avoiding the Beijing Teahouse Scam

The best approach, of course, is to just not go with them in the first place. It sucks to have to be so on your guard about getting scammed – you’re travelling, and you want to be open to people and experiences. But here’s the thing; go and walk around another part of Beijing, say Guomao or Wudaokou, and see how many times you get approached by random people wanting to befriend you. Chances are it will be none (though it could happen); but go and wander around Wangfujing, and you’ll likely be approached within minutes, and if you keep wandering around you’ll probably continue to be approached every ten minutes or so. I know this because I tested it that night! It just isn’t normal behaviour in China for people to come and strike up conversation with you like that in the middle of the street. If you’re at a major tourist attraction like the Summer Palace or Great Wall, or riding a train, or climbing a mountain, or in a restaurant, that’s a different matter – Chinese people are friendly and curious about foreigners and will want to chat to you and take pictures with you. I have loads of pictures of the random people who shook my hand on mountain paths or ducked into my train compartment for a chat, and those are all great memories. But it isn’t normal behaviour out on the street in the middle of the city. Anyone approaching you in Wangfujing or Tiananmen (yes, that’s a major tourist attraction too of course – but, crucially, it’s one without an entrance fee) for a friendly chat is likely after something, and if they mention going for tea that’s an absolute red flag – but not the only one. There are a couple of other scams around there too, another being fake art students inviting you to their bullshit ‘art show’. It’s understandable that you might not want to shut down every stranger who starts a conversation with you in the area though, so if you do chat to someone and you do think they’re genuine and do want to hang out with them, the best advice I’d say is to take charge of choosing the venue and go to a place you already know is legit (like Starbucks if you’re in Wangfujing, or there are some good bars along the alleys in Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, also the city’s greatest concentration of hostels and an area you may well be staying in anyway).

Making new friends(?) in Tiananmen Square

I think these two set out to scam us, but ended up partying with us instead!

Partying with a pair of probable scammers

In fact, on this crazy first weekend I ever had in Beijing, I think we unknowingly took a couple of Beijing teahouse scam artists along with us for a night out… I was with my two travel companions Ross & Mike, plus a guy called Ben from the hostel, and a friendly couple approached us in Tiananmen. Students, visiting from out of town they said; we chatted, took pictures, they suggested hanging out together, we said we wanted to eat grilled insects in Wangfujing (there’s a snack street there with fried bugs for the tourists), and they said they’d take us there… in those pre-smartphone days they were awfully familiar with the layout of Beijing for a couple of out-of-towners allegedly on their first trip to the capital, and I know for a fact they took us the long way to Wangfujing along a detour past where the teahouses are (see the map at the bottom of the post)… as we walked through the hutongs they suggested tea, but we just derailed them and took them along for the ride, first to eat bugs, and then in a taxi (after she made one last futile attempt to suggest tea) to eat Peking duck, and then to get drunk in Sanlitun (Beijing’s most notorious drinking street). They weren’t big drinkers and called it an early night, and we arranged to meet them the following night near Tiananmen.

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Mike and I ended up having an all-night bender that night and then sightseeing all day on zero sleep, so by the following night we were absolutely done for; but Ross and Ben went off to meet the couple again, and got stood up. They never showed up, but, of course, there were plenty more scammers about and the two lads got targeted by two young lasses and ended up going with them to a teahouse. Ross and Ben only had a couple of beers while the girls had tea, and they were duly presented with a bullshit bill – but not so enormous that it ruined their trip or even their night, so they just paid it and chalked it off as experience. After all, they said, they’d actually had a fun couple of hours hanging out with those girls, even though there was a bad aftertaste from realising it wasn’t genuine. The teahouse had a bathroom sign which Ross found hilarious and took as a souvenir, to get a little more money’s worth from the expensive night – asking one of the girls about it, she’d explained that, “In China, we scared of big shit!” and this became a running in-joke for our toilet humour (which is a necessary defence mechanism for many Chinese toilets) for the rest of the trip. After Ross & Mike flew home, I even got us all a nice Chinese calligraphy scroll done of the sign’s message in Yangshuo (the calligraphy guy thought it was great). You can read about that crazy weekend in full here

Amusing toilet sign, Beijing

Ross’ souvenir teahouse toilet sign

Anyway, at the time we never suspected that couple might be out to scam us, and we ended up having a lot of fun with them because we just took them along with what we were already planning to do, instead of doing what they suggested. If you take this approach, if they’re genuine then it’s all good; if they’re scammers, they’ll either refuse to come with you and go look for someone easier, or try to change your mind with a load of pre-practised objections, or just maybe they’ll give up on scamming you and actually come along for fun as happened to us that time. I didn’t even twig that they were probably scammers until the next time I went to Beijing a few years later, and had a few scammers approach me around Tiananmen; asking my (local) friend about it, she explained that for these touts, it’s just a job. The teahouses pay them a commission to bring people in, and it’s the teahouse operators that are the real scammers. To my mind, that doesn’t make it okay – the touts are still knowingly taking part, for financial gain – but as my friend explained, to them it’s basically just a job, and there are plenty of other dishonest jobs out there. As she suggested, the most effective way to deal with it is very simple – just don’t go with them.

But I was curious, and have always been a bit cat-like in my inability to master my curiosity. I wanted to go and chat to these scammers intentionally, just to see what crap I could get them to come out with. Also, when I’d explained to Mike that I thought that couple had initially been out to scam us, he was resistant to the idea and thought I was being harsh on them; there’s no way we’ll ever know for sure, but that was another thing I wanted to test – could I get any of the scammers who approached me to come along and do what I suggested, instead of going to their bullshit teahouses?

Trolling the trolls

So, there I was in Wangfujing that night, wandering around looking aimless and clueless, checking out the photography boards exhibited down the middle of the pedestrianised street at the time. The first approach came within ten minutes, but she didn’t waste much time and made her move quickly; and when I suggested Starbucks instead, she didn’t waste any time in bailing out. A short while later another came and tried, and then another; a 20-something girl each time, approaching alone. But the third one, I followed at a surreptitious distance after our conversation was over; I saw her walk back up the street to find her partner, another 20-something girl, and then followed the two of them until they approached a group of western tourists. A guy and a girl stopped me to try the art show bullshit but I wasn’t interested in that and told them to fuck off, and then I got approached again by another girl, and once again followed her afterwards and observed her meeting back up with her waiting partner; seems these girls usually work in pairs, and now I followed this pair until they spotted a solo tourist, and one of them split off to approach him while the other waited. I thought maybe I should’ve warned him, or the other group I’d seen getting approached, but start doing that and you’ll likely soon be in an angry confrontation, not to mention you’d be giving yourself an impossible job – there’s no way to patrol the whole of Wangfujing and Tiananmen! I estimated that there were at least half a dozen pairs of scammers working Wangfujing that midweek evening, plus however many over in Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen is huge, there could be tons of them there at any given time).

Then I was approached again, by the girl at the top of this post that I had the most amusing conversation with. The others had all given up quite quickly after I suggested a different place, but that particular girl was really persistent. Perhaps that was because she’d invested more time in striking up a natural conversation and building rapport at the start (quite well too, I thought, and her English was great), and I’d given the appearance of opening up to her; so when I suggested Starbucks, she persisted and ended up tying herself up in knots about sitting inside or outside and smoking or not, before giving up and walking off. I did actually momentarily consider going with her, just to see what these places were like inside and whether I could manage to get myself out of the scam after knowingly walking into it; but I reminded myself that curiosity killed the cat, and by that point I was getting back towards the Wangfujing station end of the street so decided to call it a night and made for the station. It was then that one last girl approached; we had a chat, I vaguely made out I was a businessman, she suggested tea, and this time to my surprise she agreed to go to Starbucks instead!

I came to suspect this was because I’d said I was a businessman, and therefore presented myself as someone potentially with money to burn; once we got into the mall, she suddenly said she didn’t want Starbucks (“oh, the coffee is too strong…”) and suggested ice cream instead. Sure, I dig ice cream; so we went for ice cream. She led the way (mistake right there) to the Haagen Dazs place in the basement of the mall, the most expensive ice cream place I’ve ever been to, where she ordered herself the most expensive ice cream on the menu! Haha, I thought, she’s struck out on scamming anyone to a teahouse tonight, so she’s just out to milk me for whatever free shit she can get! We sat there eating our ice creams while she was suggesting restaurants and bars we could visit next, all in the priciest end of town of course; meanwhile I skirted her attempts to steer us to a swanky restaurant (where I would no doubt be expected to pick up the bill for a meal ruined by having to suffer her lousy company), and made my own attempts to actually have a genuine conversation with her, get a feel for who she was and what she was about. And I have to say, she came across as a rather nasty piece of work, bitching about this, that, and everything else, casually dropping racist remarks here and there, and giving the general impression of being as unpleasant, materialistic, and narcissistic an individual as I’ve ever encountered. Maybe she really was like that, or maybe she was laying it on thick to avoid any genuine interaction developing; but given what she was doing for money, I reckoned it was probably the former, and either way, talking to her completely sucked, being only marginally less unpleasant than, say, chewing broken glass.

The ice cream was delicious, but as soon as we’d eaten it I was looking to get rid of her; I even considered excusing myself to head to the bathroom and leaving her there to pick up the tab. As we were in the mall, the bathrooms were located around the corner; it would’ve been easy to do a runner on her, and I definitely would’ve liked to to give her a little taste of getting ripped off. But I also thought maybe she’d just run off herself, and then maybe the poor waiter would be forced to cover the unpaid bill, so decided not to. I just figured that I’d pay for my ice cream and refuse to shout hers – but then, of course, she beat me to it and excused herself to head to the bathroom (with handbag), and I knew full well she wasn’t coming back. I picked up the bill, which was absolutely ridiculous by Beijing standards (but not a scam – this was a Haagen Dazs place in Beijing’s most upmarket mall where pretty much everything’s overpriced, plus the prices were marked on the menu in the first place), tried not to wince as I paid it, and left; maybe she came back, probably she didn’t, but I didn’t stick about to find out. And really, I have to say bravo to her… can’t trick this guy into going to a scam teahouse with you? Fuck it, rip him off for a delicious ice cream instead! Haha, well played, lady, and fuck you too!

Beijing teahouse scam map

Red: the usual approach area. Green: the hutong area where the teahouses are located. Blue: the route our new ‘friends’ took us from Tiananmen to Wangfujing

Where the Beijing Teahouse Scam happens

They’ll approach you anywhere around Tiananmen Square, Wangfujing shopping street, and the stretch of Chang’an Street connecting them (shaded red on the map). The teahouses are located in the hutong area between the Forbidden City and Wangfujing, shaded green on the map.

How to avoid the Beijing Teahouse Scam

As explained above, just don’t go with them. Instead, invite them to go with you to a place you already know, or ignore them, or swear at them. Up to you! But absolutely, if anyone approaches you around there and starts steering you towards the green-shaded area on the above map, set your alarm bells and red flags and however friendly they seem, don’t go with them!

Have you experienced the Beijing Teahouse Scam? Leave a comment below!

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(Wangfujing photo credit: IQRemix, Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licence)


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