The Shanghai Tea Ceremony Scam

Travelpilz starts the new year with a confession. After over 30 years of independent travel, I’ve finally been conned. I’ve survived India on my own. I outsmarted every trickster in Egypt. I’ve never had anything stolen in any of the 45 countries I’ve visited. But it’s finally happened. I’ve fallen for a textbook scam in Shanghai.

I am beetroot-red with shame. Because it gets worse. I only accepted that I have been scammed when I was back home and  Googled ‘scams in Shanghai’. And there it was. The Tea Ceremony Scam. The number one trick to extort money from unsuspecting foreigners.

How the Tea Ceremony Scam works

It’s always the same scenario. You are visiting Shanghai’s most popular spots. East Nanjing Road, the Bund or People’s Square and suddenly a couple of well dressed students start a conversation in good English. You feel grateful to have finally found someone who speaks your language. They’ll claim to be tourists visiting Shanghai. You have something in common.  You bond. Instantly. That’s what travel is all about. Maybe they’ll ask you to take their photo, then they’ll ask you to join them in their next sightseeing stop and experience the real Chinese tea ceremony. And you’ll think ‘ how cool is that’…

The Bund, Shanghai

At least I did when Sam, Fify and Emily,  fake students from Harbin in China’s far north, invited us after some animated chit chat to join them to celebrate the New Year at the tea festival in Bejing Road. I fell right into the trap. I hadn’t prepared myself for Shanghai. I’d been here 6 years ago, almost exactly to the day, wearing the exact same red coat, wandering around town on my own, fending off aggressive salespeople, scammers and potential pickpockets like the professional solo traveler I’d been for decades.

This time I was visiting with a travel companion on a 14 hour stop over. We were bone tired and massively jetlagged. It was meant to be an easy day, without plan, to get lost in the side streets of Nanjing Road, find interesting neighborhoods. A close encounter with Chinese students, hungry to absorb our language and share their culture was a perfect fit.

“Come. We drink tea from minority areas,’ Sam  said, holding up a tourist map of Shanghai identical to mine. ” Here. We booked it this morning. It’s New Year. We go to tea festival.”

Celebrating Western New Year with a tea festival? A red flag? Maybe.  But it felt right somehow to do this. To jointly celebrate a New Year that had begun with an unthinkable tragedy.  Less than 36 hours ago 36 mostly young people had been killed in a stampede at the Bund.

Mourners pay respect to stampede victims at the Bund, Shanghai

Paying respects to the victims of the New Year’s Eve Stampede

I hang my head in shame and admit that I paid absolutely no attention to where we were going or what the place was called. It’s totally against my rules and gut instinct. But Sam, Fify and Emily had so many interesting stories to tell about Harbin, the ice castle, their lives, their grandmothers for whom they were buying tea. They taught me to say ‘yummy’ in Mandarin and praised my pronunciation. I was flattered. It felt so real, so authentic. By the time we sat down, we were best friends.

Fake tea ceremony ShanghaiSo what if the teafestival turned out to be a tea ceremony? Surely it was an error of translation. And the ethnic minorities were only dots on a map Emily interpreted for me. “Look here, very good tea, rolled by hand to catch the morning dew.”

I  didn’t bother to question the English price list. I presumed that the charge of Y 49 per tea would be per pot, shared by all five of us. Surely a Chinese student wouldn’t be paying the equivalent of AUD 10 per tiny cup of tea.

The tea master who spoke no English made us taste six different teas accompanied by much ritual and skillful filling and emptying of cups, pots and cleansing of utensils. Fruity tea, 10 year old tea wrapped individually in white paper, tea cups that changed colour, jasmine tea that opened up into a flower inside a wineglass.

But no photos, please, he requested after I had taken his photo. People might copy his set up, Sam translated. Another red flag? It’s no secret that the Chinese are masters at copying anything and everything. They produce the best fakes. But fake cultural experiences? It couldn’t be. It was too convincingly enacted, too elaborate. To round it off, we even got a lengthy fable about tea and Confucius, first in Chinese, then in Sam’s laboured  rapid fire translation in an increasingly incomprehensible accent. Who would go to so much effort in the name of extortion? It couldn’t be.  Surely.

Fake student at teaceremony scam in Shanghai


Then it was time to shop. “What was your favourite tea?” “I like the green tea, very good for you,” said Fify. The  tea master handed us the menu. There were three different sizes, beginning at Y 270. But he’d run out of small gift boxes. I’d have to buy the next size up starting at Y 370, approximately AUD 74 for 100gr of tea.

It did occur to me that these prices were either incredibly high or the guy at the currency exchange at the airport had given us the wrong rate. Surely he must have been wrong.  Surely our new friends couldn’t be wrong. They were busy choosing pretty gift boxes and buying expensive tea for their elderly relatives back home. “It’s our tradition. Our elders are important,” Emily said.

I was too tired to do the sums and my phone had run out of juice. That meant I couldn’t check the currency converter. Gut instinct told us not to buy any gifts. But that’s where my gut instinct stopped. Unbelievable. I continued to believe the scam even as I followed the corrupt tea master (or perhaps he too was a fake) and Sam the fake engineering student to the ATM to withdraw five times the amount of money we had budgeted for. Was I crazy? But Sam, using the ATM next to mine, was withdrawing a similar amount of money.

He suggested to share the bill and cover for Fify, the youngest and poorest. “It’s a Chinese tradition to share all of the bill,” said Sam. Including their gifts for their aging relatives? Now that seemed outrageous and alarm bells started to go off but Sam put on an Oscar worthy performance. He apologised, much embarassed, for the cultural misunderstanding. Of course we wouldn’t have to share that part. “It’s Chinese tradition. I am so sorry.”

Gift from Shanghai scammers“I am so sorry about this misunderstanding,” Fify  seemed genuinely flustered. “Please allow me to buy for you the cup you liked so much. The one that changes colour. It’s the couples’ cup.” She insisted we take it.

Last time I had visited Shanghai, I had come with my Intercultural Communication students. Rule number one is never to make a Chinese person loose face. So how could I question the fact that these students were paying an outrageous amount for tiny sips of six different teas? Emily and Sam handed over the equivalent of AUD  $150. How could I not do the same?

“Next time you come visit us in Harbin. We will show you the real China,” Emily was unstoppable in her enthusiasm. We exchanged email addresses and parted on friendly terms. “We hope you enjoy New Year,” they pointed us towards the Bund and then excused themselves. Fify needed to find a toilet, after all that tea. Of course, we understood. I was feeling severely sick by now. Was I the one who had lost face?

Dumplings in Shanghai

Before returning to the airport we stopped for dinner in a simple eatery. A man was making dumplings by hand, two elderly women in white aprons took orders. We pointed to a plate of steamed pork dumplings. How much? We had no idea what the woman in the white apron said. I handed her 10 yuan. She shook her head. Not enough. Of course. Not when a tiny cup of tea costs  Y 49. I handed her Y 20. She handed it back. Still not enough? Two shy fingers slipped into my wallet. She took a 1 yuan note. She could have taken anything, I would have believed her.


The moral of the story? How to avoid scams

  • Don’t trust friendly strangers. Don’t allow a stranger to distract you through rapid talking. Never go anywhere with a total stranger. It’s the lesson every parent teaches their child. But if you’d never disobeyed your parents, would you have had much fun? Go with your gut instinct. Be alert, not alarmed.
  • Learn to walk like the Chinese. Take note of what goes on around you but don’t engage, don’t make eye contact. Walk as if your peripheral vision has been deactivated. Just keep walking. Scammers will soon focus on the next victim.
  • Prepare yourself for your destination. Even if you are only visiting for a stop over, know the basics of where you are going. Take extra care when you are tired. After long flights your senses and body clock will be out of sync. Don’t let your guard down.
  • Download Google Maps and find your position via GPS. I find it useful to know how to orientate myself from North to South.
  • Find out about common scams. Google is your best friend. At  www.smartshanghai you’ll find a comprehensive list of the 10 most common scams; Tripadvisor also has a useful list. But don’t become intimidated by the cascade of scam stories. Keep an open mind and stay focused.
  • Download a currency converter app to your phone and get an idea of prices before you arrive. That way you’ll know immediately if something seems outrageously overpriced.


What I’ve learned?

Never be discouraged.  Shanghai is a very safe city. Chinese people will be respectful of you. They may be loud and plentiful, but they will not approach unless they want their photo taken with you. This  is very common and usually harmless. Violent crime is very low in Shanghai. Keep an open mind and go with your gut instinct. And don’t leave your common sense in a locker at the airport like I did.

Have you been victim of a scam in Shanghai? Please share your story.








Kerstin Pilz

Author at Travelpilz
I am Kerstin Pilz, PhD, recovering academic, travel blogger based in Mission Beach, Far North Queensland.

22 thoughts on “The Shanghai Tea Ceremony Scam

  1. Amanda Kendle

    Oh no! Just goes to show, even experienced travellers can fall for these things sometimes and it certainly sounds like they were extremely convincing! I think I would have fallen for it too.

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Thanks for your comments Amanda. Yes they were pros. I’ve found other blogs and online forums that mention what sounds like this group of three students operating from the same spot at People’s Square. It must be their main business, but it seemed so improbable, because there were hardly any tourists about on the morning we visited.

  2. Jacque Duffy

    Was it an enjoyable experience even if it was a scam?
    I have to say, they worked hard for their money, and put in the hours Kerstin. It seems even the scammers don’t expect to make a killing. $150 split four ways, take out the cost of the props… perhaps by their standards a good nights work?

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Yes it was kind of fun and I try not to think about the money lost, cause it was of course 2x$150, but still it seems a moderate amount compared with the effort, but then again it was two hours work, during the day, for the three for them, so all considered, not too bad. But we did wonder how they could expect to make a living, given that there were no other tourists around on that particular morning. That’s also why it took so long to accept that it had been a scam :)

  3. Janson G

    Hi, found your post by searching for Tea scams in China on google. My brother was recently taken for this scam, and he is posting on the internet all over about it.
    He was taken for $350 at Dashan qing tea house.
    Da shan qing tea house is in Beijing on Nan chizi street. His experience with the scam was particularly memorable, as there was another foreigner, or a white guy who grew up in china, helping the scammers. This white guy could speak fluent mandarin!

    His best post is here… But he has posted others all across the internet warning other tourists.
    You can check it out and read his experience.

    It really is terrible this scam is STILL going on after so many years and i hate to hear that you were scammed too.
    Better luck next time, and do NOT trust strangers!


    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Hi Janson,
      thank you for visiting my blog and sharing your brother’s story. It was by reading blogs like your brothers that I realised it had indeed been a scam. Amazing how well they enact the scan, like you say, involving a Mandarin speaking Western guy. We actually lost about $300 as well (2x$150), so yes, very bad experience, but I’ll be more alert next time.
      thanks for sharing your brother’s blog post,
      cheers Kerstin

  4. Said

    Oh my god, I fell for the exact same scam, and I it was the exact same modus operandi.

    I think it was the same tea house, do you remember where it was? I am trying to find it.

    The girls who approched were extremely convincing, I am normally very suspicious but they got me good. If they were pretty i would have been more suspicious but they looked like ordinary girls despertae to meet a foreigner.

    They even walked me back to the hotel, which was incredible. Scammers normnally disappesr as soon as they have the money. (halfway I told them we can split and finished on my own). We even exchanged Wechats after the ceremony and she did send me a smiley.

    you live and learn, I have been travelling for 5 months and this the first time ( i nearly fell for the milk powder scam in Cambodia though)

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Hi Said,
      yes, it’s scary to think how professional the whole scam really is. Like you, I am usually very good at smelling a rat, but this scam had me fooled almost to the end. Maybe it’s some kind of test all long term travelers have to pass, as you say, we need to be philosophical about it, live and learn and let go. Wishing you happy and safe travels :)

  5. Amjad

    Hi Kerstin,

    Do you remember roughly where the tea house is roughly, I was scammed by the same one I think.

    Thanks a lot.

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Hi Amjad,
      sorry it took so long to reply to this. We walked there from People’s Square, it was in a quiet side street, maybe 10 minutes from the Square; afterwards they walked us back to Nanjing Road which wasn’t very far. I have posted a photo of the teamaster on my blog but unfortunately I didn’t get one of the three fake students. Sorry I can’t remember the exact location. Let me know if you find the tea house that scammed you, but yes it’s very likely that it was the same place. I know, it’s really infuriating when it first happens, but now, that 5 months have passed, I look back at it, as one of the many memories I’ve collected during my travels. Wishing you safe and happy travels :)

  6. Drew M

    Hi there Travelpilz! We posted here before, myself and my bro! I have an update. May 2015…. Just returned from China not long ago. It turns out, the guy ” tye dye man” was more of a pawn than I was. He was dating one of these girls involved in the actual day- 2 -day scamming. It was his girlfriend, and sometimes he would just like to hang out with her.

    He said he broke up with her. This guy actually lives close to the Wangfujing street, and invited me to eat at his friends home FOR FREE. He doesnt even know it, I posted his picture up, But I don’t feel good about putting his picture up with those people… Because now that I think about it, He was consistently telling me ” the prices are expensive” Like he was trying to warn me. As i mentioned in the original report… It was the girl with the dog whom told me ” we will make this more affordable” But “tye dye man ” was saying…. “Its too expensive ”

    Tye dye man isn’t a scammer, just so everyone knows. He has compassion and he was clearly deeply troubled by what was going on inside that tea house. I can see that now, and as I thought about it and the events that transpired more, It became more clear to me. Also I know if he truly was a scam artist, he would never have allowed anyone to take his picture with the girls.

    In regards to my money, I got it all back except 200. So truthfully i wasn’t scammed at all, even by the girl with dog and the other one! I got my 2000 back when I went back to Dashanqing in April. They were actually more than happy to give me my money back. But they were really anxious about getting me out of the tea house. So, I probably would have to say they are maybe…. border-line illegal. But they definitely have some criminal activities going on!

    So thats that. Just wanted to let everyone know what happened.

  7. martin


    we met our chinese “friends” in metro station near yuyuan. they call(ed) themselves linda and lee. linda said, she is student living in shanghai and lee is her friend from xi’an, who wants to see traditional tea ceremony. it cost us rmb700 in total for 2 people… :)

    tearoom is located at 29 jiang xi nan lu, huangpu qu, shanghai (江西南路29号) on the 1st floor.
    here you can find few photos of linda and lee and the building, where the tearoom is located.

    martin :)

  8. Guillaume

    This scam still working :

    Very interesting post. I am going to share my own experience.

    I got trapped by this famous tea ceremony scam at Yu Garden during my first week in Shanghai.
    I have now being living for 1 year in china and have dated a Chinese girlfriend for more than 6 months. We decided to go visit shanghai for the week-end and went to Yu Garden when in front of my eyes I saw the same modus operandi I experienced: a young Chinese couple asking a foreign guy to take a picture and then … All the same gestures. I then told my girlfriend “see, this is the scam I told you about”.
    At that moment I felt guilty to just watch the scene. This guy was just like me one year before. When our walk led us close to the scene, I could not prevent myself to say discretely to the guy ” don’t go, this is a trap”
    Two seconds later the chinese couple started to insult me in english “what do you say, this is our friend”, “you f*cker” …

    We then sneaked away from that place to avoid any more troubles.
    Then happened the most interesting part of this story when we were 200m away. The same couple came back to us : “What did you say to the guy ?”. “We can call the police”( I understood they might think that me and my girlfriend were foreigners and are not able to explain anything to the police anyway.)
    I then answered in mandarin “it’s okay, calm down. We just go.” My girlfriend also talked to the girl to calm here down.
    This uncomfortable moment ended when I heard the couple say to each other ” we go, they speak mandarin”
    They just added a “just go, this is none of your business” and went back to their working place.

    I felt really stupid with what I done for the whole day. I surely put my girlfriend and I in danger. I also figured out how uncomfortable she might have been during the all process. All countries have their bad people and the guy was true, this is surely none of my business.

    As a conclusion I would recommande to avoid any troubles with those people. In case you have to explain what happened to the police, you would always be wrong and you might even pay more.

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story and for pointing out that as a foreigner we will always be in a vulnerable position, so best to walk away without too much confrontation once you’ve been lured into a scam. Yet, I still think you did the right thing to warn the unsuspecting tourist.

  9. OoopsiDavey

    Man the same thing just happpened to me yesterday. $350. Man they were good! Just got chatting to 3 people on the Bund 1st day after I helped take thier photo. What an idiot! Oh well determined not to let it ruin my stay. What was I thinking!

  10. uriengill

    Hi Kirsten Pilz,

    Here are the same girls and tea server on this video. This one was filmed by a Dutch guy. The video is in Dutch, but the interaction with the girls are in English. What a small world…

    PS: I guess they only scam foreigners that are non oriental. It may help if you travel with a Chinese friend.

  11. Phillipa

    Hook, line and sinker!

    Lol this happened to me yesterday with two female students! I am a world solo female travelled and pride myself on being super cautious, I’ve never been robbed, mugged or pick pocketed. Funny thing, red flags began to go up when we began looking for the tea house and the location was very dodgy. The ceremony seemed so authentic that I soon felt very much at ease until the bill arrived, and I too, not being versed with the culture had no idea what the cost of a ceremony like this was worth, and looking at the girls faces they seemed a little taken aback by the cost but one went down to an atm to get some more money as between them they did not have enough. She even returned with what appeared to be an ATM receipt. BTW this was at Yu Gardens shopping area. I’m still in awe that I was conned so completely. Even after the fact, I could not wrap myself around the idea that it was an elaborate con. When I did ask a local later that afternoon he assured me that unfortunately it was. Even then it was hard ffor me to believe. When it finally hit me I could hardly contain a huge smile, these girls should win academy awards, they were brilliant! Well that’s how I choose to look at it, I paid USD 85 approx for an elaborate show, including tea! Plus I have a great story to tell friends and family. I will try to forget how very exposed I felt, and what an idiot I was for being so vulnerable. It’s a life lesson that’s for sure! I’d love to be a ‘phony tourist’ with a hidden cam and con the con artists :)

    1. Kerstin Pilz Post author

      Thank you for sharing your experience. They certainly are worthy of an Academy Award! That makes two us of, seasoned solo travellers who finally got conned. I like your attitude in handling it as one of life’s lessons. But yes, it does make you feel quite vulnerable and exposed when it happens. But at the end of the day, as you say, it’s only cash that we lost :)

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