Turn the clock back 10 years and one of my favourite stories when I was backpacking then was when I got scammed! – Danny Green had approached my two friends, Matt and Chris and myself and offered to show us around San Francisco, which indeed he did for three hours, and during that time he lead us to believe we had the chance to see Aerosmith and Pearl Jam at a secret gig that night. All we needed to do was to pay $10 each to get the official t-shirts so we could pretend to be in another band – sounded highly dodgy, I know, but when $10 equated to £5 each, back in 2007, we felt we had little to lose. Also, what sort of scammer would spend all the time he had already done with us to get so little in return? Well Danny Green obviously did as he walked away with our $30 leaving us in a hotel lobby! We actually felt however, that our sight-seeing tour had been worth $10 each even if we had been conned and never made it to the gig.
Now in present day Beijing and a similar thing happened to me, and again I was left feeling amused, not cross or cheated but that actually I had got huge value out of the con! Let me explain:-
I was approached in the famous Tiananmen Square in Beijing by a man who called himself ‘Wong’. He was probably in his mid 30’s, very polite and seemed well educated. He told me he was in the city on business from Shanghai and having arrived that morning, he had the rest of the day to do some sight seeing before attending meetings the next day. Naturally I was slightly guarded at this point as I did not know who he was but was happy to talk to him and answer his questions.
Wong told me he was going to visit the gardens next to the forbidden city and said if I had no plans I was more than welcome to join him. Having only just arrived in Beijing myself and was planning on spending my afternoon doing a bit of city sight-seeing so I thought joining him might be a good idea. My guard was lowered a little when he then paid for my entrance fee to the gardens and I started to believe he was a genuinely nice guy! He continued to engage in interesting conversation and his knowledge and interest in things like tax and exchange and interest rates showed he was clearly knowledgeable in this subject, he also taught me a lot about Chinese culture and customs, which was very interesting.
After spending an hour or so in the gardens, Wong started to say goodbye to me, explaining he was now heading to a large tea exhibition nearby. He asked if I would like to go with him, as I was enjoying his company I agreed to join him, he even paid for my subway ticket to get to the venue, it was then that he suggested going to a Tea House to have some tea before going to the exhibition. At this point I was mentally aware that the Tea House owner may well try to pressurise me into buying expensive teas or over charge me but I actually felt comfortable that Wong would help me with any such situation!
We sat in a nice room in the Tea House, I was treated to the special guest chair and over time proceeded to drink 10 different teas! Wong translated for me, explaining the owner’s description of each tea I was trying. The teas ranged from green, to Jasmine, to fruit to a strange tasting Buddha tea, I was genuinely having a good time and it was very interesting to taste and learn about each tea. Sadly though, at this point, Wong said that the owner had told him the tea exhibition was not on this afternoon and was only open in the morning!
As the tasting was coming to an end, I was asked if I would like to buy bags of the tea, but with prices ranging from ¥200-500 (about £20-£50) a bag I politely declined. My first real sense that this may be a scam came when I was told the tasting would cost ¥280 (£28)! A bit steep for 10 cups of tea, but having drunk them all already I had little choice but to pay. My fault for not agreeing a price before- hand I suppose. At this stage I only thought that it was the tea shop owner who may be conning me and not Wong himself.
Wong however purchased 2 bags of the tea and appeared to hand over his card to pay, and to sign a receipt for ¥600 (£60). He then realised that the ¥280 I had paid for the tea tasting must have been a price together and it was ¥140 each. My reply to him of ‘Oh, I see, well that’s fine then’ trying to show relief that I didn’t have to pay the full amount was misinterpreted or part of the con as Wong replied ‘Oh well that’s very kind of you, thank you very much’! Again, thinking Wong was genuine I thought, Ah well, in the grand scheme of things another ¥140 isn’t much to pay after all he had treated me to! As we left, Wong then offered to meet up later as he was staying in a lively part of town. He gave me his number, told me to WhatsApp him and he would show me some of the best bars in Beijing! Back at my hostel I was retelling my tale of the kind Chinese man, to some English guys who I had met on the Trans-Mongolian railway and it was then that one of them read a poster on the wall: 9 things to do to keep safe in Beijing’. Number 8:- ‘Don’t start a conversation when a stranger accosts. Avoid going to any teahouse introduced by strangers’. I suddenly realised that I did not just pay tourist prices for a tea tasting, but I was part of another, day long con! I checked my phone to see the message I had sent to Wong earlier and the message hadn’t been delivered, I just had to chuckle!
Just like the con in San Francisco, I was strangely glad it had happened!! For £28, I had a tour guide for over 3 hours around Beijing, got free entry into some gardens, a free metro ticket and tasted 10 teas. I was actually left feeling that Wong, like Danny Green before him, had succeeded more as a guide than a con man; is £28 a good return on investment for an afternoons work? Maybe it is, but it was for me too and the added benefit I got of course was this nice little anecdote, which you- the reader- then get, for no outlay whatsoever!