I got off the train at East Nanjing Road Station. As soon as I was out on the street a girl approached me. It was already past 11 pm.
‘Ni hao.’ She said something in Chinese.
‘Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,’ I said.
‘Korean?’ she asked.
‘No, I’m Japanese.’
She started speaking broken Japanese. ‘Would you like a massage? We have cute girls,’ she said.
As soon as I heard this, I started walking away. I knew what she was up to. You don’t trust people who randomly speak Japanese to you in a touristy place.
But she followed me. ‘Cute girls, look, look!’ She took out some photos and waved them in front of me. I didn’t pay any attention. She kept following me for a while but eventually gave up.
‘So this is how things work here,’ I thought. ‘It’s not too different from Japan.’
After exploring the pedestrian area a little bit, I decided to go to the hotel.
I was waiting at a red light when somebody said ‘ni hao’ to me. I said I didn’t speak Chinese and they switched to English. There were three Chinese women. All of them were a little older than me.
I thought that they were up to something, but I didn’t know what it was. I was expecting them to offer me something but they just kept talking.
‘So what are you guys doing?’ I asked casually.
‘Well, we are just walking around. We are tourists but it’s hot during the day, so we prefer going out at night.’
Even though it was late, there were many people on the street. It was a touristy part of the city with a lot of western shops: the Apple Store, H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Starbucks, etc.
‘What do you guys do? What are your jobs?’ I was cross-examining them.
‘I work at an insurance company,’ one of the women said. They were not very good-looking (it would have been even more suspicious if they had been) but if I had to choose, she was the cutest one.
The light turned to green. I could just go. But one thought held me back: I wanted to find out what kind of seedy business they were up to.
‘Let’s go somewhere,’ the oldest one said.
‘Well, I don’t know, I’m kind of tired,’ I said. I was still hesitant. This was clearly a trap. I thought about risks. Would they rip me off completely and leave me in the middle of nowhere? Would they sell me something expensive? Would they ask me to join a suspicious organisation?
‘Come on, we are not bad girls,’ she said, sensing my suspicion.
‘I’m not sure. I just arrived. I haven’t even checked into the hotel,’ I said, gaining more time to decide. ‘If you want to talk, we can always talk outside. There are benches here,’ I said.
‘What? Where? We don’t want to stay outside,’ the oldest one said.
I had two choices: 1. Leave and be free from the trouble. 2. Find out what their true motives were. I am usually quite cautious in this kind of situation and say no, but that night it was different. I felt like my trips were too trouble-free; I felt like there weren’t enough things to write about; I felt like I needed to pretend to fall for their trap. Curiosity won.
‘All right, let’s go then,’ I said, making up my mind.
I was still very cautious and tried to think how I could avoid the worst. I was making some internal rules: I wouldn’t let them decide the place, because they might take me somewhere seedy; I wouldn’t drink anything suspicious and would make sure they didn’t put anything into my drink.
There was one bar I’d found earlier that night and I thought about suggesting it, but it was a bit far.
‘How about that place?’ the oldest one said. She said it in such a way that she sounded as if she had just found the bar by chance. In hindsight, she might have been acting, but I fell for it. We were still in the busy pedestrian area and that was one of the reasons the place didn’t look too alarming.
‘Where, exactly?’ I asked.
‘There,’ she said, pointing out the upper part of the building.
It was a normal-looking café. It was spacious and there were a few groups of people inside. When we entered they took us to a seat by the window.
They brought us a menu.
‘So, what would you like to drink?’ the oldest one asked.
‘Well, do they have some kind of fresh juice?’ I asked. I didn’t want to drink any alcohol.
I looked at the menu. They had a wide variety of beverages and the prices were normal. There was fresh juice called ‘Love Fresh Juice’. ‘Interesting name,’ I thought. The price was 38 Yuan ($5).
‘Hey, what’s this ‘Love Fresh Juice?’ I asked.
She asked the waiter and translated what he said. It was grapefruit and watermelon juice. I ordered it.
When the drinks were served, I didn’t drink it immediately just in case. I’d watched to make sure they didn’t do anything suspicious to the drink, and they didn’t, but I tried to be extra careful. I slowly sipped the drink to see if there would be any effect. It did nothing. It was just fresh juice.
I noticed that they also ordered some fruit.
‘Try it,’ they said. I picked a piece of watermelon. They were also eating fruit from the same dish so I didn’t worry much about drugs.
Our conversation was very general. I was expecting them to drop some hint about what their true purposes were but I didn’t get any.
I was sitting facing the oldest one. Next to me was the cute one and she was the one who talked to me the most. I forget what I talked about. Our conversation wasn’t that interesting. The other one was next to the oldest one.
‘So are you guys married or have boyfriends?’ I asked.
‘No, we aren’t. If we were married, we would be travelling with our husbands,’ the oldest one said.
‘So how do you meet guys in China?’ I asked.
‘Well, usually they are friends of friends. Or somebody introduces a guy to you,’ the oldest one said.
‘My parents constantly introduce guys to me,’ the cute one said.
‘Do you want to marry a Japanese girl?’ the oldest one asked.
‘Well, I am not sure if I want to get married but if I do, I don’t really care about nationality,’ I said.
‘How about Chinese girls, Thai girls, or Russian girls?’ the oldest one said.
‘Maybe. Some of them are pretty,’ I said.
‘I think Russian girls are cute. There are many Japanese men who marry Russian girls, right?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say many but yeah, some do.’
I wondered if they would start offering me girls (not for free, obviously) but they didn’t.
‘I’m going to the bathroom,’ the oldest one said.
‘She has some woman’s problem,’ the cute one said, giggling. The oldest one repeatedly went to the restroom. I wasn’t sure what exactly the ‘woman’s problem’ was but didn’t say anything.
‘Hey, what are you doing tomorrow? You are travelling, we are travelling, so we can travel together,’ the oldest one said when she came back.
‘Well, maybe. I’m not sure. I might be tired. I’m not staying too long. I want to get some sleep,’ I said.
I had read a scam story from the Philippines. A friendly old woman would approach you and make friends with you. She would invite you to her house and introduce you to her family. After gaining your trust, she would invite you on a trip. You would get into their car. They would offer you a drink. And that’s as far as you would remember. You would later learn that in the middle of the trip, they ripped you off and left you in a remote place.
I was expecting something like this.
I noticed they ordered some whisky. ‘I thought we were just drinking tea,’ I said to myself. The oldest one poured whisky into everyone’s glass.
‘Cheers,’ they said.
‘Cheers,’ I said. I brought the glass to my mouth and pretended to drink. I was sure that it was safe. We were drinking from the same bottle and I saw her pouring the whisky so it was unlikely that she had had a chance to put something into it. But I didn’t want to drink any strong alcohol. I needed to keep my thinking sharp.
‘Japanese people are so thin. You are very thin,’ the oldest one said, ‘and you have great skin. Show me your arms.’ She touched my skin and said, ‘See, it’s very smooth.’
‘Yeah, it’s smooth,’ the cute one said. ‘Look at my skin. My skin is kind of rough, but yours is really nice.’
And so, three Chinese women complimented me on my skin.
‘Hey do you want to dance?’ the oldest one asked.
‘Well, I love dancing but not tonight. I’m tried,’ I said.
‘Come on, it will be fun. You are on vacation; you should enjoy it,’ she said.
‘Not tonight,’ I said. It seemed a very bad idea. I didn’t know the city at all and I didn’t want to go anywhere far from the hotel. Also, it would be easier for them to do something seedy in a dark nightclub.
‘Oh, I guess they are closing,’ she remarked. I looked around and sure enough, we were the only ones in the café.
Then they brought the bill.
The total amount was 2,100 Yuan ($340). They pushed the check towards me.
So that was what they were up to. I was almost glad that I found this out. It was like reading a crime story and finding out who the murderer was. The murderer wasn’t the one I was suspecting. I didn’t see that coming. It was a good mystery. I was also a bit relieved that it didn’t turn out to be something violent.
I felt that my job was done, except it wasn’t. Now I had to deal with the consequence. ‘How do I get away with this?’ I thought.
‘What? Are you expecting me to pay this? No way. I’m not paying,’ I said.
‘You should pay. You are the guy. Chinese guys always pay,’ the oldest one said. By this time, it was quite clear that she was the leader.
‘This is not right. Let me call the police and see what they say,’ I said. It was a bluff. I didn’t even know how to call the police. (Admittedly, it was bad practice that I hadn’t written down the police number. If you want to know, it’s 110. It’s the same as in Japan.)
‘No, no, no. You pay first,’ they said.
‘Let me go down the street and talk to security. You can follow me if you want. I’m not running away,’ I said.
‘No, you pay first, then go,’ they said. There were two Chinese waiters beside me blocking the way.
I realised that it would be difficult to get away with this.
So I started haggling.
‘Come on, there’s no way I should pay. This is not right. I didn’t even order any of these,’ I resisted again.
‘You drank and ate.’
‘That’s not true. I only ate one piece of watermelon and drank a glass of fresh juice. I didn’t consume any other stuff.’
‘How are we supposed to pay? We don’t have enough money.’
‘Look, I didn’t order this. How can you assume that I have that much money?’
‘Uh, maybe we can all pay?’ the cute one said, seeing that this wasn’t going anywhere.
‘How much do you have?’ I asked.
‘We have…’ she took out her wallet and started counting money.
‘Let me count,’ I took the money from her and counted.
She had about 600 Yuan ($100): 1,500 Yuan ($240) more to go.
‘Hey, that’s still very expensive for the stuff you ordered. There’s no way I can pay that much money,’ I said, ‘I want to call the police. Let me just go outside and ask someone to call them.’
‘Chinese people don’t like Japanese people. They’ll beat you up,’ the leader said. ‘Do you want to make the Chinese-Japanese relationship worse?’
It was of course a ridiculous claim, but I refrained from making fun of it.
‘Are you, by any chance, threatening me? Because if you are, that would be a problem,’ I said.
‘We can pay half. We pay 1,000, you pay 1,000.’ The cute one lowered the price.
‘1,000? I don’t even have that much money,’ I said. I actually didn’t, although I wouldn’t have paid even if I did.
‘Do you have a credit card? I think a Japanese credit card works; you can try.’
‘I am not using my credit card,’ I said firmly.
I thought of making an offer. ‘How much would I be willing to pay?’ I asked myself. After thinking briefly – it was quite difficult think calmly in this particular situation – I came to the conclusion that 500 Yuan ($80) would be the acceptable rip-off price. It would still be a rip-off but much more affordable. I could easily spend $80 on a single date in Tokyo.
Obviously, I didn’t offer the target price immediately. This was a negotiation. You should start with a lower price.
‘All right, I could pay 300,’ I said.
‘No, no, no, you pay half, and we pay half,’ the leader said.
‘If you don’t pay half, you pay the full price,’ one of the waiters said.
I had noticed that the cute one was holding my arm the whole time. Was she doing this so that I couldn’t escape? Or for some psychological effect, that she was on my side?
They were playing different roles. The leader was the angry one. She was speaking non-stop in an agitated manner. She was to pressure me and make me unable to think straight. The cute one was the kind one. She was like the sweet girl who rescues a little boy from bullies. They must have thought that this was an effective method. When someone is nice to you while you are under attack, you tend to listen to the nice one and jump at the offer that one makes. Little do you know that the nice offer was their goal in the first place.
The other woman wasn’t doing anything in particular. She tried to say something angrily, but her thick Chinese accent was almost incomprehensible. Was she there because they thought adding more people would make it easier to pressure the person?
‘You are the man, so you need to pay. Chinese men always pay.’ The leader was repeating the same stuff over and over again.
‘I don’t even have 1,000. There’s absolutely no way I can pay that,’ I was also repeating.
‘How much do you have?’ the cute one said.
‘Well, I certainly don’t have 1,000,’ I said.
‘Take out your wallet. Let me see how much you have,’ the leader said.
‘What? No! I’m not taking out my wallet. That’s my private stuff,’ I said. ‘Let me pay 300,’ I offered again. Come to think about it, 300 Yuan could have been the actual price for what was on the table considering the café’s price range.
‘Maybe 600?’ the cute one said.
I smiled without smiling. It was coming close to my price.
‘600 is still expensive though. Look, I only drank a glass of fruit juice which was 36, so 36 is the only amount I am supposed to pay. But I’m saying that I’m willing to pay 300. Isn’t that enough?’ I said.
‘No, you pay 600 or you pay the full price,’ the waiter repeated.
‘OK, how about 500?’ I made a final attempt.
‘No, 600,’ the cute one said.
I looked around. All eyes were on me. The leader was quiet now. In fact, everybody was quiet. I suddenly felt the heaviness of the air. It was getting late, almost midnight. I was tired and probably so were they. We were at an impasse.
‘All right, 600. Are you guys happy with that?’ I finally said.
‘Let me use your pen and paper,’ I said. The waiter handed me the pen. I flipped the bill and wrote a large 600 on it. ‘I’ll pay 600, and I will go. Deal? Shake my hand,’ I said.
I shook hands with one of the waiters and the cute one. I took out my wallet and carefully produced 600 notes while not showing the contents of the wallet. I paid.
They were dead silent. Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. They almost looked tired of the long haggling. The leader kept the angry face.
‘Uh, I’m going,’ I said.
They didn’t say anything.
I grabbed my backpack and took off.
I took a final glance at them. They still remained immobile like stones. It was as if time had stopped. Their facial expressions were frozen like statues. It was kind of comical, I thought.
I think this was a very popular scam. I was also approached by a couple who asked me to take a picture and unnaturally started a conversation afterwards. They invited me for tea. There was also a middle-aged guy with a map who asked me for directions. He also tried to talk to me and follow me as I left.
It’s actually quite easy to avoid them. There are quite obvious but in this article, I practically asked for the rip-off for experience’s sake. So if you are going to Shanghai, don’t worry about it. Shanghai was a nice place to travel and I had a positive experience overall. The city also felt quite safe and easy to navigate.