The Tea Scam: Tea Lovers Beware

Beware of the China Tea Scam

By Michael Kliewer

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, where the author met his 'new friends.' and the Chinese tea scam. photos by Michael Kliewer.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, where the author met his ‘new friends.’ and the China tea scam. photos by Michael Kliewer.

Years on the road have taught me to avoid all the scams that the scum of the world can throw at me. But every now and again, usually at the start of a trip, I forget what life on the road can be like, and end up as the sucker.

It was my first week back on the road after a brief four-month work stint back home in Canada. I flew into Beijing and was wandering around Tiananmen square when I was approached by a lovely young Chinese couple.

As we wandered around the square together, it came to surface that the man was an English teacher from a nearby town, and the woman was his pupil. We chatted about each other’s cultures, families, and anything else that came to mind.

“Have Lunch with Us”

As we left the square, they invited me out to join them for lunch and drinks. I gladly obliged. ‘This is why I travel!’ I thought to myself. Making local friends in a strange country, I could not think of anything else in the world I would rather be doing.

My two new friends recommended a local tea house they knew of in the vicinity, and we headed for an afternoon of tea sampling. The tea house was a small building, and the three of us got tucked away into a small curtained off room, with our own private tea waitress.

My new friends explained that we would sample ten different teas, all brought in from various regions throughout China. Our petite, pretty server would prep a tea in front of us, say something about it regarding origin and taste, which my new friends would translate, before pouring each of us a small 2 oz glass.

Tái Chi in a Beijing park. photo by Marilyn Pennell.
Tái Chi in a Beijing park. photo by Marilyn Pennell.

I was having a great time. As I sat in our curtained off room munching on shrimp dumplings and sipping on local teas, my two new acquaintances were quickly transforming into great friends. They were heading back to their hometown the following day, and I was already planning a stop off there.

The man had offered me a place in his home for as long as I wanted, and his pupil said she would be able to bring me out for a few nights on the town with all her friends.

I was having a great time! The randomness and amazingness of what I was currently experiencing were exactly why I traveled! With every new shot of tea, the smile on my face grew.

A Ridiculous Bill

After two hours in the teahouse, getting to know each other on a fairly personal level, we asked for a bill. The cheque arrived and was a whopping 2000 Yuan. At a 6.5 exchange rate to the dollar, that was in the vicinity of $300U.S. My jaw dropped.

I pulled out my pocket full of cash – 600Yuan. My first gut instinct was that I felt bad, I did not even have enough to cover my share, I was about to be embarrassed in front of my new friends. The man wanted to split the bill two ways and treat the lady.

The tea house would accept my credit cards he offered. Despite my brief moment of stupidity, I was drawing the line at handing over a credit card to a Chinese tea house that just pulled out a ridiculous bill.

As I sat there holding out my 600Yuan, confused to hell as to what was happening, my ‘friend’ was quick to accept my slightly smaller share and treat me for the rest of it, throwing his credit card down.

Was China really this expensive? Was I just in the nicest tea house in all of downtown Beijing? Did these two locals just spend a month’s wages to treat me to an incredible experience? Or had I just been scammed? No, that was impossible – these people were my friends, why would they scam me?

As we left the tea house, my two friends were still willing to hang out for the duration of the day, we had made plans together to head to various tourist sights, and they were still willing to take me, despite having to pay for me since I had no money left on me.

Beware of the tea selling scam! photo
Beware of the tea selling scam! photo

Why would they offer to hang out if they had already scammed me and knew I had no money left? I thought briefly about going along. Despite it all, I could not bring myself to accept the fact that these people were not my friends.

Being Scammed

However, if they had just scammed me, I should probably get as far away from them as possible, and if they had not scammed me, and that was a real, legit, bill, then I should probably feel like a real loser for not being able to pay my share and get away from them. I thanked them for their hospitality and headed for home.

As I walked away, the truth finally dawned on me and with every passing step I grew more pissed off and annoyed. Mostly, however, I felt betrayed. There was no question about it. Those bastards had scammed me and were they ever good at what they did.

Had this same experience happened to me after a few weeks of traveling, I would have been smart enough to spot it, but fresh from the safety net of North America, I was unable to see through such a simple scam. As I arrived back in the hostel, I noticed a sign on the wall warning of the famous ‘Chinese tea scam.’ I was apparently one of many suckers who made friends way too quickly.

To Syria for Tea

Losing $100 is not the end of the world, the deeper implications of what happened to me that day did not arise until four months later when my trip brought me into Syria and the northern town of Aleppo. My first night in town, as I meandered the streets, a man approached me and we began to chat.

Michael Kliewer with the Great Wall behind him.
Michael Kliewer with the Great Wall behind him.

He showed me to an internet café, a nice restaurant, and was incredibly helpful as he answered all my questions. He then offered to take me out for a cup of tea. I nearly laughed in his face. I would not be stupid enough to fall for the same scam again.

Different country, nearly a different continent, but yet still the same stupid ploys to rip off tourists. How shameful. I walked away from the man, proud that I had learned my lesson months earlier.

At the end of my stay in Syria two weeks later, I looked back on that first day and realized I had likely made the wrong decision – again. Never in my life had I received such hospitality and friendliness as I had in Syria.

As opposed to many countries where the first English words learned are ‘money’ and ‘I’m hungry,’ the Syrians had learned ‘Welcome to Syria!’ which they would shout boisterously at any tourist in eyesight, and ‘Can I help you?’ Invites for dinner, and free rides were plentiful.

I look back on that first day in Aleppo and realized that I missed a chance to have a cup of tea with a genuinely nice, friendly man. And that was the real cost of what happened to me that day in Beijing.

Beware of the SI ZHU XIANG Tea House in Beijing!

Read about other scams that are common in Beijing on

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One thought on “The Tea Scam: Tea Lovers Beware

  1. I really enjoyed reading this story. No comments though, so I thought I would write one. I wish you good travels and many more amazing stories to share! Now I wonder what the story would have been like if you did you with the Syrian man.

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