Thursday, 16 August 2012

Beijing hair cuts and tea scams.

My second day in Beijing started out relatively quiet. I caught up with writing these blogs, before in the afternoon going out to find a snack and deciding to get my hair cut. I popped into a salon I walked by, and gestured I wanted my hair cut. I had my already clean hair washed before I was sat in the chair. Having my hair washed in a salon was a first for me. A wonderfully gay young hairdresser attentively cut my hair and chatted to me in understandable but limited English, before my hair was washed again, and I was off on my way looking sharper than I was before.
Getting my hair cut.
Walking though the hutongs.
I wanted to find Tiananmen Square, just for a look, having failed to find it the previous day. Somehow I made the same mistake with my miniature map and walked the same streets, I clearly needed a bigger map, as I couldn't see half of the streets I was walking on the version I had. I was looking at my map when a pretty and petite Chinese woman started speaking to me in good English. I told her I was looking for the square and she said she was heading that way, so she could walk with me if I wanted. Fair enough I thought, I'd already failed twice in finding it so some help couldn't hurt. We chatted as we walked along and she was very friendly and inquisitive. I found her mildly annoying but I was on my own so company was usually welcome, and I'd told myself to be open and accepting of new encounters and experiences. We walked for a while and she said she had a short wait before she was due to meet a friend, and would I want to grab a coffee with her. I thought ok, it's not often I get asked to coffee by strange women, but I couldn't see the harm and I had time to kill. I'm usually slightly suspicious of propositions like this, but I couldn't see any physical danger to me. After all we were in public in central Beijing and she was a small thing who wouldn't have stood a chance of mugging me with force, and she was being a bit flirty and my male brain thought you never know, I might get something out of this.

We popped into a place that served drinks, she asked if we wanted to sit at the seats on the pavement, but then suggested as if it was my idea that we went inside, it was humid after all. I went along with this and we went into a small private room with a table and a tv screen for karaoke. I was asked what I wanted, I wasn't fussed, and she suggested, again like it was my idea, that while I was in China I should drink the tea. I thought this was a good idea and accepted. First of all a beer arrived on the table, which I thought was slightly odd having said I'd have tea, but she had a beer too so thought perhaps she had ordered them. Whatever, I'll drink a beer, I thought. She said she had to call her friend she was meeting up with to tell her where she had gone, and within a minute her friend had arrived, which was slightly suspicious in hindsight but perhaps she was just in the neighbourhood. I asked them how they knew each other, I didn't pin down an exact answer, I thought she said from school and they were old friends, and I thought it strange that at 24 the friend was 5 years younger than the woman who had stopped me on the street. Something lost in translation I thought. Teas were brought to us, a big plate of watermelon and some crisp things, of which I ate one. I hadn't ordered it but I'd often experienced places bringing small plates of things out, often for free, when you go in for a drink. More beer was brought and my glass was constantly topped up. Slightly over the top hospitality - I thought. We chatted for a while about all sorts. They were very flirty, and I was slightly wary, not really going along with their attempted charms, finding it slightly unusual that strangers would behave like this, but I wasn't suspecting anything untoward, and I never felt threatened, they were fairly fragile and no match for even a skinny me. They said they liked to practice their English and they liked foreign men, I just thought I was having a drink with some slightly odd and potentially slutty women, but it was all nice enough. They'd talked of us going to some bars, perhaps to karaoke, but I shied away from this idea, I wasn't keen on spending an entire evening with them, it felt a little bit weird and I wanted to return to the hostel to do my own thing. I said maybe.

The bill arrived, and it puzzled me. I looked at it a couple of times, and the friend who had arrived was paying her share and had whipped out several 100 Yuan notes. I pulled a couple of the same notes out of my wallet, not fully adjusted to the currency and looked at the bill again. Was there a decimal place in there that I couldn't see? I couldn't see one, which meant the bill was over £130. I suddenly realised this was a scam, and I'd been taken for a ride. They'd had the few hundred (£10 each) notes off me I had in my hand by this time, and were demanding I pay the rest on my credit card. I tell them this is fucking ridiculous, it has to be a scam, there is no way this costs this amount. She said it's normal for special tea, the room hire cost, karaoke (which we didn't use), the food, the beer looked like it cost £15 on the bill, when in a restaurant it costs 50p. She turned quite aggressive and her teeth snarled like a dog's, she said had already paid over half of it and it wasn't fair that I wasn't paying my share, I stupidly let them take another note from me, and I became annoyed and my body language became aggressive. She kept going on about it being ok to use my credit card, but I told her to get fucked and there was no way I was handing over my card. I grabbed my camera, and slung the bag over my shoulder to leave. The three of them stood in my way, apparently unhappy that I hadn't paid my share. I pushed through them and yanked the door open to make my way to the street. They followed and I told them I knew I had just been scammed, they should be ashamed of themselves for what they'd managed to do. The one who first approached me did look ashamed and she tried to say it wasn't trick and was I coming to karaoke. I told them to go fuck themselves and skulked off back in the direction I had come from. I was angry and embarrassed that I had been mugged like this. I never saw it coming until 15 seconds after the bill arrived. I thought it was a bit weird, but I'd already been helped out by friendly strangers who wanted nothing in return, and I didn't see how this encounter could end badly. I was annoyed I had paid anything at all, I felt I should have just left a tenner which would have been more than fair, grabbed my stuff and pushed my way out, but instead I lost about four times this. I did have my camera with me though which is worth a hell of a lot of money, and in the back of my mind I didn't want the situation to turn any worse and end up risking this. At the best I thought I might have got a blow job out of the situation after their flirtatiousness, but I never expected to get fucked.

Later that evening I looked the scam up online and read hundreds of people recounting exactly the same story, and it's a very common trick. I'd never done any research and hadn't heard of it, so never saw the signs that it was coming. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I was willing to trust people and take them at face value, as most people who talk to you are genuinely friendly and curious. I half expect to be approached again during my time in Beijing. I'll know what to look out for, I just need to think of a way to turn the scam on it's head and end up screwing them over.

Exploring the side streets.

Someone's house?

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