no such thing as a free lunch

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.” ― S.J. Watson

Money saved sometimes can still lead to money lost or wasted, and that’s how my mom and I learned that the hard way during our week long tour through Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Tian Bao Travel offers incredibly cheap tour packages to former Chinese citizens who now reside in the US, Canada, and Australia. These “government sponsored” “Beautiful China” tours take Chinese ex-pats and their families across China, hitting up cultural destinations, but the real focus is on the mattress, tea, pearl, jade, and silk factories. No doubt our tour leader and local tour guides make commission on every sale made, so naturally there is aggressive advertising before we get to the locations and spectacular exhibitions by the companies on location.

For about $800-900 USD per person, it covered two round trip fares (New York to Guangzhou and Guangzhou to Shanghai). Buying this package saved $600 USD per person for airfare and the Shanghai tour itself cost about $50 USD, which includes hotel, transport, and most meals. People wet met who were only flying round-trip from cities in Canada paid anywhere between $150 to $500 Canadian dollars. From the sound of it, you probably think: what a steal! Again, as a tour that focuses primarily on shopping for expensive goods, this is a dangerous bargain, as tourists are unwittingly being swindled.

How? These factories that we are taken to cater almost exclusively to Chinese ex-pats and other international travelers. There has to be some reason why domestic travelers steer clear, and that’s because the prices they advertise are not as great of deals as they want you to believe. This is a Reddit thread that I found detailing the psychology behind successful scams in China. These are all strategies I encountered at every sales destination, and realizing how easily employees can tempt people make me a little sick. While I’m not claiming we have been sold fake products, I am doubtful that we paid a reasonable price for most, if not all, of our goods.

How we also got scammed in Shanghai

The worst part of this tour was the last day and one of our last stops at Tianmai Jewelry. where a handful of us were duped into buying products whose prices were grossly marked up. A little bit of internet search at the time would have led me to this Medium article, How We Got Scammed out of $100,000 in Shanghai. That “CEO” played my tour group nearly the exact same way as he did two years ago: giving away jade coins, taking us into the VIP room and showing us products from the vault, talking about how hard it is to earn money, and playing into my mother’s heart and grabbing thousands of dollars.

The CEO showed my mom a pair of twin jade pendants that he was planning to bring to an exhibition but would instead sell to us at a discounted price AND gift us a set of dark green jade pendants with gold animal zodiac signs. The sales associate assisting was on point with his acting, asking how the CEO can so “foolishly” throw away profits like that. How could we even question the expertise and generosity of this CEO? Knowing my mom wasn’t able to pay completely upfront, I tried to dissuade her with no luck and part of me began doubting my own suspicions. Maybe this guy was that “generous.” What makes me even more mad is that David, the writers’ tour guide, was also my tour guide, and he’s been disgustingly complicit for a number of years.

The suspicion of foul play was initially brought up by M, a fellow tourist we befriended shortly after leaving Tianmai. How could so many people have gotten such a good deal on the jade pendants and other jewelry? But the conversation and mounting heartbreak really started between my mom and K, another person we befriended on the tour, at the airport when our flights were delayed for hours. K insisted that we had been victimized and who even knew whether the jade pieces we bought were even real. She said she would get them appraised as soon as she got to Guangzhou and encouraged us to do the same. The night we came back from Shanghai I searched online and I found the above articles and more scam stories, making the hole in my stomach widen even more, and couldn’t sleep until the middle of the night.

the aftermath

The next morning, with a local friend of my mom’s, we found Guangdong Geology, which is a government agency that examines precious gemstones and metals. The man confirmed that the twin jade pendants we bought were, in fact, real and the zodiac pendants were not worth much money, although the sales associate and CEO insisted that the set of 12 (which we were gifted with the purchase of the two jade pendants) was worth enough to be an asset to be passed on for generations. Unfortunately, he did not do monetary appraisals, but he did engage in general conversation about value. We told him how much we paid for everything and although he did not verbally or physically react, I believe I saw shock pass through his face, indicating that we grossly overpaid.

Because we determined that the pendants were real, my mom decided there was not much else we could do, as it is not quite a crime to overcharge as it is to complete fraud by selling quartz as jade. Another strategy was to prove that we were sold products that we did not agree to, meaning that there was a switch, and there very well might have been because we did not take the pendants with us when we went to pay. But my mom was resigned and so was I, a little bit.

Few were tech savvy enough to do sufficient research on the merits of such a tour. Even those who have gone on this type of tour before were too timid (or self interested?) to warn their fellow travelers. But even more despicably, they were actively advised against interfering with sales by David, our guide.

I was one of the three youngest people on this tour. One was a six year old boy and the other was an 18 year old from Canada, who I conversed with about the aftermath of this tour. But he, too, went with his mom to get the jade necklace they bought at a different store on the tour appraised and found they overpaid by 2000-3000 RMB. It only makes me wonder how much we were tricked out of at Tianmai.

lessons learned

If you think something is too good to be true, it probably is.

I hope this post can serve as a warning to those who are looking to, or whose parents are, join a cheap Chinese tour like with Tian Bao. I beg of you to not pay money for this kind of shopping tour, as it is a disgrace to China and all of the meaningful cultural experiences you can have on a real tour. If you’re looking to save money, you will get what you pay for, and I hate to have even more people deceived by companies and people looking to make quick profits.

If you’re interested about what we did on the tour, please read the complementary post here.

no such thing as a free lunch