Travel Scams in Shanghai, China

My first day in Shanghai on an open-ended solo trip, I take a walk through People’s Square and pass by a group of Chinese students posing for a photo. I approach the photographer and offer to take a picture of them together. They seem extremely excited to meet me and ask where I’m from and what I’m doing in China (not an uncommon reaction for most travelers). I reciprocate and discover they are students visiting their friend (the photographer) for the weekend. I ask him if he has any recommendations for local hangouts in Shanghai. Why yes, he says, I was just about to take my friends to a tea ceremony if you’d like to join. Of course I would!

Shanghai skyline

We walk a couple of blocks to a two-story mall, down a side hallway and into an unmarked door. Inside were three adjoining tea rooms, and one of the students translated to me that we would be viewing a private ceremony. The woman, dressed in traditional Chinese robes, would be conducting the ceremony in Mandarin, while the students translated. She handed me what looked like a price list, but the students seemed so excited to ask me questions, that I wasn’t able to get a good look at the sheet before it is whisked away. The ceremony lasts about an hour and we try five different thimble sized teas. At the end of the ceremony, we are encouraged to buy the tea for $150 a bag, which seems pretty steep, so I turn it down. All the students buy a bag of tea, divide the bill, and it comes out to $200 a person. I ask why it is so much and they explain the ceremony is $75 plus the bags of tea. It is custom in China to always split the bill evenly, no matter what, one of the students says with a stern face. I say that because I’m on a budget, I cannot afford to split it that way. Already starting to feel uneasy about the situation, I put down $75 and leave.

It was my second day on the trip and I’d already fallen victim to a very common travel scam. The students had a deal with the tea shop, if they brought in a tourist and pretended to pay, they got a certain cut of the profit. When the tea list is shown, they distract you with constant questions and nonstop chatter. I approached them. I cringed thinking back on this afternoon. That was the worst part about it. I completely walked into the situation. When traveling alone, always research known travel scams. After this incident, I googled Shanghai scams, and found that countless travelers had fallen for this ploy and the students matched the descriptions of many other stories.

students and Tess at the tea house

Here are some other travel scams to watch out for:

–    If someone approaches you to tell you the major sites in the city are closed due to a holiday or protest. They will then offer to take you around to “local” spots and charge a very expensive fee.

–    A student wants to go to a cafe and practice English, the bill is outrageously expensive and the student gets a commission.

–    An art student wants to show you art work in their gallery and upon leaving the gallery you find out there is an enormous fee.

–    Any time a cab offers to take you to a good hotel, it is usually a friends business.

–    When a bus stops at an office before border crossings and offers to take care of visa’s beforehand because it won’t be possible at the border (usually upon getting to the border you discover its much cheaper than through the agency).

Shanghai tea ceremony

It’s good to always be aware of possible travel scams and your surroundings, but also don’t let them impact your travels. Many wonderful experiences can arise from trusting locals and opening yourself up to new experience. Proceed with a cautious openness.

~ Tess Murphy, a San Francisco native, traveled for 18 months in 2012-14 around Asia and Australia. She now manages her blogging site about her wanderings in San Francisco. You can also follow her on Twitter @tesstravels.

Asian dinner party

I have hosted a good number of dinner parties over the years, ranging in many themes from Moroccan, tapas, global pizza to Hawaiian and game night. This past weekend, I decided to have an Asian inspired dinner party. Each couple brought a dish and I prepared a few things to round out our four-course meal.

We started with a cold Sake since it was a warm evening. It was something I had picked up on my last visit to Hong Kong, a light refreshing drink. The first course was Chicken Chow Fun, which is normally had as a main course. It is fresh thick noodles cooked with chicken and vegetables in a spicy black bean sauce.

The second course was a bok choy salad and a green papaya salad. If you have never tasted green papaya before (as I had not until now), I strong encourage you to try it.  You must buy a green unripe papaya for this recipe (which I have shared with you).

For the main course, I bought whole tilapias (cleaned) and marinated them with a seasoning of olive oil, cilantro and garlic. I let the fishes absorb the flavors in the refrigerator for couple of hours, before wrapping them in banana leaves and grilling them on an outdoor grill. The banana leaves do two things for the fish. They retain the moisture and juices of the fish and give it a steamy affect without burning the meat. Secondly, they release fragrance to the fish allowing for an extra dimension in flavor. I served each person their own whole fish wrapped in banana leaves along with orange infused sticky rice. We took part in communal fish wrapping which made the party even more fun and my guests actually learned something new.

Banana leaves are available at Asian farmer’s markets for about $2-3 per bundle. The bundle I purchased was more than enough for 8 fishes, plus I had a lot left over that I later used as table mats. The key to grilling banana leaves is that you first need to prep them. Either microwave each leaf on high for 1 minute or grill it on an open fire on both sides. The leaves will contract and becoming more flexible for folding.

Our dessert consisted of a coconut gelato with pineapples that were soaked in rum and gently grilled. We wanted to stay with a Asian theme and incorporated all the fruits from the tropics.