So today this little Chinese guy in a God Bless America baseball cap came up to me and asked, in perfect American English, why I was taking a picture of a map printed on the side of a wall. I explained it’s because I’m researching a tourist book.
We were in Yuyuan, which is a kitsch and chintzy Chinatown full of shops selling teapots and brushes and fans and so on, and there’s a famous teahouse that you reach over a zig zagging bridge. I got talking to this guy and he agreed with me, it’s cute but fake and too crowded and too expensive. I complained about the price of tea in the teahouse and he said he’d show me something more authentic.
He seemed ok, stooped, with white hair, personable, eager to please. Said he was a Buddhist, and retired, and these days he had nothing to do but walk around and do good deeds.
He took me up three sets of stairs to some kind of shop display and there was a tea set laid out, a lot of vials and pots, like a chemistry set, on a table that looked like a gnarled tree root (they’re just laquered concrete but they look real).
This girl in traditional dress, demure, good English, started making tea in a round earthenware pot.
The paintings raised my suspicions, they made the place resemble those fake art galleries in Beijing, where tourists are lured to ‘art shows’ by ‘art students’ then talked into parting with cash for worthless prints.
The girl was sweetly giving me a tea lecture and preparing all these different teas, each in a different pot, and some had to be poured from one pot to another, and some had to be smelled, and the guy talked on and on about tea culture. Here was green tea, which had to be drunk from a glass vessel so that it’s colour could be appreciated, and it was good for the digestion, and this bitter tea I would need because I looked like a person with a lot of heat.
I sampled three teas, in cups the size of thimbles, then abruptly stood and said that I had to go and meet my friend. Sure enough, the shy girl and the old guy said together, as if I’d known this all along and was being a bit obtuse, that of course I would have to pay, and that would be fifty yuan for each cup.
I’d only had three but there were nine or ten pots lined up – so if I’d had them all, they’d have been asking for more than fifty quid.
As they continued speaking I turned and walked briskly out, and I heard the old guy bark something, but of course nothing happened, there was nothing they could do. It was a good move I think just to leave rather than try to remonstrate. Later, though, I wished I’d stayed and had a go at them for their dirty little scam. I could see a lot of foreigners – who didn’t know the price of tea, say – just paying up, feeling uneasy about it but not wanting to give offence or make a scene.
When I got back to the hostel I saw a sign on the noticeboard that says, ‘beware the tea scam: I lost 500 dollars and 320 yuan. They will take all the money you have on you. Violence is used.’ The scam must be being repeated all over the city. Lucky I only had an old man and a girl to deal with.
My phone is broken. When I opened it the display showed, not the date and time, but a cartoon of a cow. I pressed some buttons and it changed to a blue screen, and now it won’t do anything. Why a cow? What does it mean? I never even used it once.
My bike, so far anyway, is fab. It’s a yellow fold-up with little wheels, and apart from the handlebars feeling like they’re about to come off, especially at busy junctions, it does the job nicely. Riding in Shanghai can be hairy, there are more scooters than bikes in the bike lanes and taxis and buses are likely to veer suddenly in and brake. Three wheeled delivery bikes and oldster mobiles – something like a motorised chair that geriatics potter along in – are wide and slow. But probably the worst menace is people stepping off the pavement in front of you. On those occasions you have to shout at them, a tinkle of the bell just doesn’t cut it. I think I yelled ‘What are you doing?’ Three or four times today. In English, not Chinese, they pay more attention.
After the yu yuan I took the bike round the old city, a dingy network of alleyways where the poor people live, and it was much more interesting than that kitsch pastiche. The alleys were full of bric-a-brac, with each rickety house leaning into its neighbour and the odd stone art deco façade falling into disrepair. Old people sat in bamboo chairs playing mah jong and cards, a woman was gutting fish and another squatted to repair a door, chillis were hung up to dry among the washing and the jerry rigged electric cables, cats and dogs ran around, and it all adding to an atmosphere of genteel decay. And of course there was no traffic, only bicycles, which by then was a real respite.