that time i (sort of) went to shanghai

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I was halfway through writing a recap about my trip to Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces before I truly discovered and realized the dark reality of the kind of shopping-centric tour my mom and I joined. I don’t look back on this trip fondly and instead it fills me with disappointment and absolute rage as I remember our naïveté. My only solace is that there are others like us on the tour and in the past and that our feelings can be shared with each other and with the world through writing and exposure.

Here is a recap of the mix of cultural and shopping related destinations on our week long tour with Tian Bao Travel and why I ultimately would advise against paying money for this bullshit.

SHANGHAI (上海)

Our first night in Shanghai was our only independent travel time, so my mom scheduled a meet-up with an old friend currently working in the city to take us around for a few hours. We explored Yuyuan Bazaar or Chenghuangmiao, which is the commercial area surrounding the City Temple of Shanghai. Of course, I had to get eat some xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and shengjian mantou (pan-fried baozi) while I was in Shanghai.

After eating a light dinner, we walked over to see the Bund at night, which is the classic tourist thing to do. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen it so many times over my friends’ Instagram accounts but I was a little underwhelmed. The thing that I noticed the most was the sheer number of people out and about Shanghai’s downtown at night. It’s seriously suffocating and Shanghai really takes the term crowded to a whole new level for me.

One of my favorite things to do in new cities is take their metro system, so I was happy we got to take the train to a stop closest to the hotel and then a taxi back. Watching the hundreds of people pay for tickets, enter and exit the station, and walking to and from was a whole new experience. People are ruthless when it comes to getting on and off trains. In the few days I’ve been in China, I’ve learned to enter and exit trains with purpose and speed or else you’ll just get shoved aside.

The next morning we met up with our tour group in the lobby and then the 38 of us set out to the city. We ended up visiting Yuyuan Bazaar and the Bund again, neither of which is as exciting in the daylight in my opinion. We only had about half an hour at each location, so we were both glad we went the night before on our own time and being able to thoroughly enjoy them.

HANGZHOU (杭州)

After lunch in Shanghai, we headed to a latex foam mattress showplace and factory for Sealy and with their own products labeled Artiflam. We witnessed the salesperson test the elasticity of a cheaper Costco brand and their brand’s using eggs and dropping a weight on them. The egg broke between the Costco brand, but not for their brand. We even went as far as having a tourist volunteer to put their arm in between two of their pillows and have a weight drop on it (naturally, his arm was fine). Then we as a group spent two and a half hours testing and buying mattresses and pillows, as well as talking to the multiple salespeople in the room.

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From there, we got to Hangzhou and picked up our local tour guide, who would be spending the next day showing us around the city and explaining the culture. Our cultural destination for the day was City God’s Pavilion. We got to the top just a little after sunset and from the third floor, we had a sweeping view of the mountains and West Lake.

On the morning of our third day, our first destination was a teahouse. We learned about what kinds of health benefits longjing tea provides and what conditions produce high quality tea leaves. I was told tea leaves picked in March produce the highest quality tea, while April tea leaves produces the next best quality and is often most common. They cautioned against tea leaves picked in May and anytime after.

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A popular thing to for many people to do in China is infuse bottled water or boiled tap water with tea leaves and other ingredients to make the water taste better. The saleslady showed us that supposedly you can tell what tea leaves are organic by spinning your water bottle and see if the bubbles produced will defuse quickly or not. If the bubbles stay, that means there were pesticides added and therefore not organically grown. I don’t know if there’s any truth to her words.

I was disappointed we didn’t get to tour the tea fields, even though I wasn’t expecting us to. The teahouse was set in the middle of terraced hills cultivated to grow tea leaves. The rolling countryside looked so beautiful. After we ate lunch and dropped off our local guide in the city, we drove on to Wuxi.

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WUXI (无锡)

After lunch, we visited this CCTV period drama filming set and amusement park-type place, where we took a 20-minute boat excursion on Lake Taihu and then watched a 15-minute imperial period military performance.

The next morning, our first stop was a pearl jewelry corporation. I learned that it’s possible for humans to raise clams to produce pearls, although they are valued much less than pearls produced in the wild. I even got to see what it’s like to harvest pearls from a clam, as one of the sales associates cracked a clam open as part of the demonstration.

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While in Wuxi, we also visited Shuaiyuan Redware Museum, which is dedicated to the local craftsmanship of yixing clay teapots, but is also a commercial demonstration store. Yixing clay is also known as zi sha and has been in use since as early as the Song dynasty (10th century). Teapots made from this clay have very special characteristics, including its porous nature and mineral content which enable them to retain the taste of the specific tea variety used with them after a long period of time. Such teapots can range from a few dozen yuan to hundreds of thousands of yuan, and its value depends on the type of clay, artist, and style among other factors.

Fine craftsmanship of a zi sha teapot is demonstrated how the water flows out of the pot and its proportions. Is the water a continuous stream? Can the flow be stopped by plugging a small hole? Does the lid fit perfectly? It was pretty exciting to see the demonstrations and to read about the history of yixing clay and pottery.

NANJING (南京)

We had a long drive to Nanjing after the morning shopping spree and lunch and picked up our local tour guide for the day and a half. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Purple Mountain or Zhongshan Mountain National Park, which contains four famous scenic areas and is known for being enveloped by purple clouds during dawn and dusk. We visited Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum where Sun Yat-sen, who is considered the founder of the Republic of China, is buried. It’s located on the second peak of Purple Mountain and it takes 394 steps to get up there, but the view is stunning and there is so much cultural significance in the whole park. Unfortunately we only had 30 minutes to walk there and back to the meeting point, so I didn’t get to enjoy the view for too long.

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After dinner, we went to see the nightlife in the city near Nanjing Fuzimiao, which literally means Confucian Temple, and is located on the banks of the Qinhuai River. We had about half an hour to explore the dining and shopping streets. I opted to get a large xiao long bao with crab meat because it came with a straw and looked fun.

The next morning our first shopping stop was a jade store called Tian Fu Jewelry. We learned about different types of jade and some signs for distinguishing real from fake, including the way it sounds and how it scratches glass. Like all the other shopping destinations, we spent about 2-3 hours in this shop.

We also went to “reverse glass painting” or “inner painting” artwork showcase, which was being hosted in one of the towers of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Inner painting is a complex Chinese art form which involves elaborate pieces of art being painted inside glass bottles. Due to the strain on the eyes, given the fine brush marks and small viewing hole, many masters retire as early as the age of 50. Chang Feng‘s art was on display and his pieces went from 300 RMB to a few thousand. The artist was also in residence working periodically on a small flask-shaped bottle during the duration of our visit.

SUZHOU (苏州)

In Suzhou, we had another local tour guide who took us on a boat tour when we arrived, as the city is famous for its canals, stone bridges, and pagodas. Afterward we went to see the city skyline on the bank of Jinji Lake. One of the most famous buildings is Gate to the East, which was just recently completed in 2016, and can be seen to the left of the picture below. We were also able to see the sunset and that had everyone oo-ing and ah-ing. Two people were even getting their wedding photos done on the lakeside.

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The next morning we visited a silk store where we were advertised silk blankets and bedding, as well as scarves and other articles of clothing. It was so hectic since our tour guide kept rushing shoppers and only bringing out limited numbers of products for people to choose from. She really made it seem like people had to buy them now or regret it later.

SHANGHAI AGAIN

We returned to Shanghai for lunch and then set off for our second jade stop of the week, called Tian Mai Jewelry. I wrote a separate more detailed post about the exploitation of foreign shoppers that happens within this store. This stop ultimately ruined the trip for me, as I am still reeling at how complicit so many people can be (our tour guide, the sales associates, the “CEO”) in misleading shoppers and grossly marking up prices.

We also made a stop at a place specializing in Chinese medicine, where we also received foot baths and massages. Eastern medicine doctors gave interested people consultations about their health and then made recommendations for medicinal packages, which turned out to be another low-key scam situation. My mom talked about how sometimes she gets bruising and swelling on her legs (due to insufficient exercise and other issues) and the doctor recommended medicine that would cost 900 RMB a month for an unspecified length of time. Thankfully my mom didn’t take the bait on this one, knowing how the effects of medicine must be evaluated over a long period of time and requires constant consultation and conversation with the doctor.

After dinner, we made our final stop of the trip by seeing an acrobatic show and “multimedia spectacular” called ERA: Intersection of Time. Acts included a man balancing on a board on top of a rolling cylinder while flipping bowls onto his head, women doing tricks on bicycles, a man throwing a large porcelain vase and being able to catch it on top of his head, men doing tricks on a spinning giant wheel with three smaller wheels attached, and motorcyclists within a gated sphere. I fell asleep multiple times during the second portion after intermission, mostly because it was bedtime (9pm lol) and less because of a lack of interest.

THE VERDICT

I did feel like I gained some cultural exposure on this trip by learning about tea, yixing clay, and inner painting, as well as visiting Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. There were things that I would not have experienced on any other kind of tour or even of my own discovery, like seeing the inside of a pearl-producing clam. For a $50 USD base fee, we did a lot, ate a lot, and slept well (usually at least 4 star hotels but one night was pretty awful).

However, the fact that it was a shopping-centric tour really kills it for me. Despite being told we were getting special deals and great discounts, we were often paying market price and more for products. Furthermore, we would be stuck at locations for 2-3 hours until people bought enough to satisfy the corporations. In contrast, we would spend about a half hour at scenic destinations. Of course, I didn’t know what I was going to be in for since my mom made the travel arrangements. I don’t even know if her travel agent or friends who advised her “see but not buy” understand how fucked up the sales strategies and set-ups are.

For people looking to save a few hundred bucks on airfare to China, this kind of tour is usually a recommended remedy. I say just pay the few hundred bucks and save yourself from shopping-induced heartache and not being fulfilled on a trip. Join a real tour that will take you on the fun destinations and let you spend more than 30 minutes there. You usually get what you pay for, so at least make sure your hard earned money is going to reputable sources and supporting the right organizations and people.

I look forward to going back to Shanghai in the future and actually seeing the city by traveling independently. I want to enjoy the recommendations my friend kindly sent to me from her time abroad and more importantly, visit Disneyland.

that time i (sort of) went to shanghai

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