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The great Beijing tea heist

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more

I was sitting in a traditional tea house in downtown Beijing. The door was shut, I was surrounded and had been presented with a jaw dropping bill of more than a thousand yen (around 100). I wouldn't mind but I'd only had a couple cups of tea and some nibbles. I'd been scammed, hook, line and sinkered, duped and done over. I was as angry with myself, as I was with the consipirators around me. And all for the sake of a pot of tea.

According to legend, the habit of drinking tea developed in China almost 5000 years ago. The emperor Shennong preferred his drinking water boiled. One time, a dead leaf from a wild tea bush flew into his boiled water. The servant gave the drink to his emperor. Luckily for the servant, the emperor was refreshed rather then furious and cha (tea) was invented.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of tea in China. Monks used tea to convey peace and humility. In the eigth century, Lu Yu's 'The Classic Art of Tea' was published, elevating the making of tea to an art form and ushered in tea ceremonies, still popular across China and Japan. It is still used for medicinal purposes today, from aiding digestion to complex and expensive remedies from the local herbalist.

It was a cold winter's day as I walked across Tianammen Square. I hadn't spoken more than a few words of English since I'd arrived in Beijing three days ago. A Chinese girl approached me, closely followed by two friends. 'Where you from?' they ask. I explain that I'm from London and they tell me that they are all students from Tsingtao - where the beer comes from. One was studying to be a teacher and wished to practice her English. I'm just happy to have a conversation and reluctant to pass up the opportunity to talk to a local. But I'm aware of the various tricks and misdirections used by thieves so I shift my backpack to my chest.

We were all headed to the Forbidden Palace but they rightly point out that it was too late to go there today. So instead we walk around the old neighbourhoods. We talk about how expensive city life is, how Beijingers often don't understand their regional dialect. We fuss about the weather and someone suggests we go for tea to thaw out. It's a reasonable suggestion. We'd been walking and talking for some two or three hours and the temperature hadn't risen much above freezing since I'd arrived in Beijing.

We walk through the public area of the tea house and into a private room around the back. It's panda friendly with mock bamboo walls, the table laid out a few snacks and pots of tea soon arrive. We are served green tea and oolong and drink from small cups. My new friends ask if there are many Chinese in London and I reply yes, I am married to one of them and show them a picture of my wife, Amy. Woah, they are explain, surprised. The conversation continues to roll along amiably. I was relaxed, my initial suspicions long since subsided. And then the bill arrived.

I look down at the scrap of paper and look up again. Everyone is looking at me expectantly. I can feel my blood running cold as if a draught had blown through the room. 'There must be some mistake', I protest. 'No, no', they say. I point to the prices on the wall, behind me. 'But it says there, 20 or 30 yen for a cup of tea', I explain. Ah, but those prices are for cups of tea, we ordered pots of tea, they explain. The proprietor moves a plant and the rest of the menu, previously concealed, is revealed. 380 yen for a pot of tea. Oh, that is clever...

My new friends scrape their money together. 'You don't have to pay everything', they explain, 'just your share'. I know I've been had, but having just spend the past three hours talking to these people, I still can't quite believe they're in on it. I figure I've had maybe half a dozen cups of tea, a few crisps and a bit of fruit. I put down 200 yen to cover my share of the bill. 'Oh, we don't have enough' they explain. I put down another 100 note, around 30 in total and firmly explain that's it. I get up to leave but it's awkward because we haven't yet covered the bill. One of them gets up with me, to go to the ATM. I quickly say goodbye, grab my bag and head out the door.

It's not until I return to my hotel, angry and shaken that I confirm my fears. A quick search on Google and it's clear that the tea heist is a notorious scam in Beijing. I could have kicked myself but the scam had been professionally executed. They had earned my trust first, concealing their intent beneath a deceitful friendship. I consult my travel companion, a collection of sayings by Confuscius, who offers some sympathy. 'It is easy to evade the lance but not the hidden sword'.

Blimey! Did you know Jon's New Zealand book Squashed Possums is out now - find out more


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