I made it safe and sound to Shanghai despite a nocturnal train ride from hell. It was early in the morning and I couldn't check-in for another two hours. So, I decided to take things slow. I sat down in the lobby area, ordered breakfast, pulled my book out of my backpack and started reading. Although I couldn't check-in before 11:00am, the receptionists still allowed me to get into my room and leave my backpack in my dedicated locker. And so I left the hostel and wandered around the city. I visited some of the nice spots such as The Bund (which offers a breathtaking view on the Shanghai's famous skyline), Tianzifang (a touristic arts and crafts enclave that has developed from a renovated traditional residential area in the French Concession area) and the Jing'an Temple (one of the most famous temples in Shanghai for its golden rooftop). I then went back to the hostel and rested a tried recovering from my previous night on the train.
The two ladies on the street
On my first evening in the "City Above the Sea", a few guys I met at the hostel and I decided to team up for some sightseeing around the Yuyuan Garden. On our way back from a full day of exploration, we decided to walk along the Huangpu River. As we were discussing while enjoying the skyscraper view along The Bund boardwalk, two ladies disturbed our friendly conversation by complimenting my outfit and uncommon haircut. Working in the apparel industry, my fashionhead couldn't help be to be flattered by those attentions. Although, I have to admit I was quite surprised that two Chinese women would approach us so openly. After all, I thought the Chinese culture was more prude and conservative. But, when they mentioned something about my hairdue, I should have known something was up! Normally, the comments I get about my hairstyle is often pejorative. We still got the talking started. My new buddy - Gregor from London - seemed to be hitting it off with one of the girls. I thought I'd be a good wingman and play along while I was casually trying to figure out (007-style) what these two were trying to pull. I guess Stone Cold Steve Austin taught me right when he said "Don't trust anybody!” Thank you, former WWE World Champion!
At some point during the conversation - between 'Where are you from?' and 'What do you do for a living?' - one of the ladies proposed to make our way to a bar to enjoy a cold one. I mean, it was probably 42°C all day and we've been walking around for quite a while already. Plus, we were looking for a nice place with air conditioning for the very same purpose anyway. We passed at least five decent venues with no reaction from our new friends whatsoever. The ladies had a plan! They brought us to a tiny bar on a sidestreet where there were barely any people walking. I remember very clearly thinking out loud: "This place is empty and there is nothing going on here! Why don't we go to a better one?" The plausibly over-rehearsed answer was that this place was "typical Chinese" - she said in a stereotypical broken English. We still made it into the bar. "We are already here, so we might as well!", said Gregor. I made sure that we ordered the cheapest item on the menu as I too “smelled what The Rock is cooking". Thank you, People's Champ!
So, the waiter came and took our orders. Two bottled and not draft Tsing Tao's, please! We never know what could be slipped into an open glass! The ladies scanned the menu at lightspeed and passed their order in Mandarin. Now, as mentioned before: I don’t trust anybody! And, I always said that God gave me those big eyes so I can use them appropriately. So, I made sure to lurk over one of the girl's shoulder to see which page she was on. "What did you order?" Did I ask? She was caught off guard. Her answer was very honest: "A bottle of Whiskey", she said. Now, who the hell orders a whole bottle of Whiskey without asking the men they're with if they'd fancy sharing it? At this specific moment, I told the ladies we had to leave. We found a bullshit excuse and made it out of the bar. We are nice guys, so we made sure to cancel our orders before getting through the door. The bartender did not surprised to see us leave so suddenly, as if he it happened often. There was my confirmation that we were just about the get scammed. Gregor still didn't quite understand why we left. So, I had to break it down for him, as the lyrics from the song "Elle donne son corps avant son nom" - from the famous French Rap collective IAM - came back to mind:
"Traitez les filles avec respect. Mais, attention! Prenez garde à celles qui ne donnent pas leur nom."
"Treat women with respect. But, beware of the ones who don't give out their names."
Everyone else on the street
As soon as you set foot on one of those tourist areas, you can literally count to 10 before someone approaches you with something to sell. My hostel was located in the Wai Tan district, just a block away from the East Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street - the main commercial street in downtown Shanghai. I've been walking up and down that street several times given its proximity to my hostel. I've been approached so many times that I even noticed a trend in their speech. Almost like a hierarchy of offerings that went from the most mainstream products all the way to the niche ones (for a specific audience). Though, this trendy speech had a few flaws: 1) the niche products were still offered to the broad audience; 2) the hierarchy between products escalated way to fast!!! It went: 1) Flashy bullshit toy, 2) Counterfeit brand watches, 3) Counterfeit brand purses, 4) Massage, 5) Lady!!! All of this in thirty seconds! So, within a thirty seconds timeframe, I was offered a variety of products going from a flashy bullshit toy to a lady for the night. Well, there is indeed something for everybody in Shanghai! The thing Gregor and I were laughing the most about was: How does the same person have access to such a wide range of products? THAT is what I call portfolio diversification. After all, they too should reduce their commercial risk. At one point, I was curious to know how much they were selling those flahy bullshit toys for. So, I made the mistake of asking how much to one of the people on the street. I made it clear that I was not interested to buy, I just wanted to know the price. It didn't matter. The intial price was 150 RMB (about 20€), which I found absolutely ridiculous. So, I walked away. The hustler followed me over 100m as she kept dropping the price by 20 RMB every 10m. She ended up with a final price of 20 RMB (about 2.50€) after 10 seconds. Again, Greg and I wondered how much was the cost price if they are able to sell those toys for so cheap and still make a profit?
Shanghai: Scam City
Ironically enough, I was telling those stories to one of my German buddies with a Chinese background. He has been here several times and even lived in this city for a six-month short term assignment last year. To him, Shanghai is his second home and yet, he had no idea that those scams were happening in the streets. Obviously, to the eye of a Shanghainese, my friend looks as Chinese as any of the other 25 million people in the city and therefore, not a prey of choice for vultures. I guess it's like everywhere else: for a given location, the experience will differ for sure from one person to another. It's pluralism. If you plan on visiting Shanghai, the best things you could do is to look up the info prior to your arrival. If you wait until being on-site, you won't have access to Google anymore and your search will be much more difficult (Thanks to the Other Great Wall of China). By browsing through the web you will find tons of information about the most common scams in Shanghai. They all apply the same scams in the same way! Literally! It really feels like there is a school for this where everyone needs to graduate from before working the streets. We must have been approached at least six more times by two ladies after our initial adventure at The Bund. There is probably a Shanghai Scam version of Barney Stinson's Playbook somewhere. How awesome would it be to find it!
THE MOST COMMON SCAMS IN SHANGHAI
The Going for Drinks to Practice English (The one we almost got caught with). Two ladies approach you and invite you to a bar to practice their English and make you pick up the bill at the end of the night. The ladies are hired by the low key bar to drive traffic and are paid by a percentage of the total bill.
The Tea Ceremony (Gregor got caught with this one). A lady asks you if you could take a picture of her (as if she was also a tourist). You two talk for a few minutes and then, she tells you about this traditional tea ceremony she is going to and asks you if you would fancy joining her to the venue. She brings you to a sketchy salon where an old lady serves you some cheap tea and then asks you to purchase some as souvenirs. The tea is worth pennies. But, it's sold at insanely high price.
The Art Student Exhibition. A lady asks you if you could take a picture of her (again!). You two talk for a few minutes and then, she tells you about this Art Student Exhibition and if you would like to check it out. When you arrive on site, there is nothing but a series a crappy art pieces that they are trying to sell you for crazy prices. Someone gets in front of the door and won't let you leave unless you buy something expensive.
The Fake Bill. You pay for an item at a store. The merchant switches your bill with a fake one while you are looking away. He gives you the fake bill back and asks you to provide a real one. Now you just paid twice the amount you were supposed to pay in exchange of the item you purchased and a fake bill.
The Unofficial Taxi. While in Shanghai, you will see numerous times some fancy cars stopping by and asking you if you need a taxi. These cars are often much better looking that official cars, so this impromptue proposal might be interesting to someone really looking to catch a cab. But, you neither know how much you will pay (as they don't have a counter), nor if you will make it to your destination (God forbid).
COMMON SENSE ADVICE TO AVOID GETTING SCAMMED
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The markets don't lie. If there was a crazy deal going on, people won't have to push to sell it.
- Ask yourself "why me?". Broadly speaking, Chinese are a very conservative culture and often need an introduction before they bother someone they don't know. If someone comes to you and starts talking to you - a stranger - they probably want something from you.
- Be aware of your surroundings. If you put yourself in a corner and start observing, you will see those scams happening to other tourists around you.
- Don't carry valuable things with you. Avoid drawing unnecessary attention on you. You are on vacation. You don't have to impress anyone. Walk around with the most basic t-shirt and shorts, no watch and no jewels. Only carry the money you need for one day. If you're going to a museum, estimate the entry fee plus transportation a maybe a snack on the road. At least, if you get conned, your loss will be minimized. You can always come back to your room for a refill.
- Let a local buy before you. Normally, as soon as you approach a booth and the salesman sees you're a tourist, he will approach you within seconds and try to close that deal as soon as possible before you overthink it. If you want to avoid paying the sucker price, just keep your distance from the booth and wait until you see a local buying the item that interests you. Then, approach the booth in full confidence in how much this item is worth. If the salesman asks for more money than the local, just walk away.
Shanghai is much more than just scams
Of course, Shanghai has much more to offer than scams and you should definitely spend time there. If you are aware that these scams happen, you will be in a better position to avoid those situations and truly enjoy the Chinese metropolis for what it truly stands for. What does Shanghai stand for? I've asked a colleague - born and raised Shanghainese - the very same question and he didn't know what to answer. And, I think that this was the true meaning of this megacity. It is nothing and everything at the same time. It's traditional buildings on one side and skyscrapers on the other, heritage buildings with a British or French flavor from the World War II Alliance's peace mission, businessmen and scammers walking on the same streets, dishes that brilliantly combine sweet and salty - a typical flavor of the city. I think my friend said it best when he continued his answer by finally defining Shanghai as "Organized Chaos".