Shanghai Surprises: Beware!

It’s always a good idea to check exchange rates before you head off to an international destination but how often do you check for the latest scams? Hawkers and scam artists are always coming up with new stuff, of course, but there are a few that are so prevalent that the news of them is widespread.

On Day One in Beijing I learned from the school of hard knocks about the ubiquitous art student, the Chinese youth who speaks good English (a welcome rarity) and is studying to be an artist. He or she has just had her first exhibition at a building nearby (vague gesture to that impressive bank with the big lobby). What sells it is they look so nice, not the shifty guy with the leather jacket and a little calling card with a half-naked woman: “Want to go club sir?” My Day One artist was going to the Art Institute in Chicago next month for a student exchange. She was a bit nerdy and sweet, wore big rimmed glasses, gentle manner. Next thing I knew I was looking at some crappy reproduced art of no particular style in a small studio in the building behind the big bank. Soft sell became hard sell, but I politely excused myself with wallet intact.

The next day a fellow traveler took a bicycle taxi from the Forbidden City after settling on an oddly cheap price back to his hotel. Halfway there, the taxi took a “shortcut” to the driver’s two partners who put our unwary traveler up against a wall and demanded cash. He gave over 100 yuan (about $15) and was let go, his wallet still in his front pocket fortunately. Most offenses, however, are far less blatant or dangerous, just annoying. “Excuse me, sir. Watches? Bags? Socks?” or the seedy “Massage?” (“mah-SAHG-jay?”)

Which brings me to a little surprise I had when I moved on to Shanghai. I stayed at Shanghai Everbright Hotel, an alleged four-start hotel with a visible contingent of bell hops and security personnel in the classy lobby. I passed the reception desk to the elevators, stepped inside one, and pressed my floor. I heard footsteps rushing to catch up to the open door and I held it. A Chinese woman said thank you in English and stepped on. She checked her hair in the mirrored wall. I noticed she didn’t press a floor so I assumed she was staying on my floor. Well, not quite. When we stepped off she turned to me and said, “Massage-y?” I declined and headed for my room. “Sex?” she added as I closed my door behind me. You could never have known by looking at her. I have come to call them “plainclothes prostitutes.”

Methods for keeping them at bay other than constantly chanting No thank you? I used my MP3 player and ignored them. I also pretended to be Turkish a couple times. (Helps to know another language – no, Spanish, French, Italian or German probably won’t work here.) And finally, to get a little entertainment out of it, I took to recording them which makes them skittish. (See here)

Today I witnessed a perfect trick of the more innocent variety while crossing People’s Square on my way to the Shanghai Museum. Three young, friendly Chinese: two guys, one girl, standing in front of the fountain area: “Sir, can you take our photo?” Of course. I took their camera, snapped the shot. Then the Where you from? conversation ensued. They shared lots of personal information.

Two of them were from Suzhou, a nearby town famous for its gardens and silk production. They work for an electronics company. They have only been to Shanghai a few times before. They asked me questions about why I was in China. Really it was a pleasant conversation. They even showed me what direction to go for my next two intended stops on the other side of People’s Square. They told me they were off to have tea at a famous tea garden just on the other side of “Capital Land” skyscraper which I could see from where we stood. “Hey, maybe you can join us?” I squinted at them, thought through the whole story, and shrugged. A tea garden in the heart of downtown. What could be the risk here?

I started to walk with them and then I just thought, no way, this could be like the Cuban mojito scam, where Havana locals whisk you off to a place where Hemingway used to drink at (that’s basically everywhere) and you end up paying for one round (if you’re lucky) of exorbitantly priced drinks because your new friends have no money and you have no clue where you are and the bouncer doesn’t look too patient. Was this an overpriced tea service for the whole lot of us? Or were they just hired bait for a teahouse desperate for business? I bailed saying I had to get work done (which was true). They seemed disappointed but they never pushed me beyond that and they took my email and such. They waved as they headed off toward Capital Land.

I really felt bad about it, how the constant badgering by hawkers was so quickly jading me. I had their names and a photo of them. It is a downer to feel so cynical and the knee jerk reaction to strangers prevents a person from really getting to meet locals which is often one of the great rewards of travel.

With I sigh I shuffled over to the museum for an hour of Chinese arts and history. I came outside an hour later and waiting by the steps were three people — one girl, two guys – who asked me to take their picture. Well, I’ll be damned. They weren’t nearly as smooth and in between my answers they seemed to be discussing the strategy in hushed tones as if I might suddenly understand Mandarin. I cut this one short and they said they were going to a tea garden on the other side of Capital Land. No kidding. I split. An hour later after visiting a silk showroom, I passed another threesome in the square in need of a photographer. This time I just smiled and said, “No thanks. I don’t really like tea.”

That got a smiling blush and giggle from the girl.

I didn’t have time to go look and see what was on the other side of Capital Land. I had a pretty good guess though.

From the front of Shanghai Museum: a hawker preying on an unsuspecting tourist?

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