The Great Mall of China

What happens when you come across a travel offer that seems too good to be true? Alison Westwood bought a nine-day ‘Glimpse of China’ tour for herself and her mom and discovered how some discounted deals go down.

Our tour group, which had been sullenly heckling the jade saleswoman a few moments earlier, was now eating out of the master craftsman’s hands.

We were in Shanghai and it was the last day of our week-long tour of eastern China. This was the third jade ‘museum’ we’d visited, and the second that wasn’t on our itinerary. As someone observed when we filed off the tour bus like recalcitrant cattle, we’d become somewhat jaded.

But apparently this was our lucky day. While we sat in the imposing boardroom enduring yet another sales pitch for exorbitant jewellery, a well-dressed man walked past, greeted us with a nod, and went into an office.

The saleswoman told us reverently that we had just met Mr Kevin Woo, master jade craftsman, sculptor of a priceless cabbage, and owner of this establishment. A few moments later, Mr Woo came out and introduced himself.

Apologising for his (perfect) English, he chatted to us charmingly about our tour. He too was a keen traveller; he’d even been to South Africa. He pulled out his iPhone and showed us photos of a recent trip to Tibet.

Seamlessly, Mr Woo segued on to jade. ‘I want people who appreciate my work to enjoy it,’ he said. ‘It’s not about money for me. I want to do something special for you.’ Holding up a jade bangle, he said, ‘Normally I sell this for ¥1,200 (about R2,000), but I’ll give it to you for ¥300 (about R500). This is only the cost of the unworked jade.’

Beckoning the saleswoman, who had gone from looking worshipful to scandalised, he commanded her to bring more jewellery. ‘These are my designs,’ he said, waving handfuls of pendants, ‘and I want you to have them.’

Won over by Mr Woo and his spectacular discounts, we selected items shoved at us by ostensibly outraged assistants. A jade pendant seemed a bargain at ¥160 (about R260) and my mother insisted on buying it for me.

I googled Mr Woo when I got home. Although I couldn’t find his museum, or his cabbage, I did find a comment on TripAdvisor about shopping scams. It mentioned Kevin Woo by name and described his little theatre production exactly as we’d experienced it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, if something seems too good to be true … well, you know.

But, what would you say to this? A Groupon discounted deal for nine days in China, visiting six of its biggest, most beautiful and historical cities, with everything but flights included. Five-star hotels, meals and drinks, tour guides and transfers, rickshaw rides and river cruises, acrobat shows, a bullet train and the chance to climb the Great Wall. All for just R4,400 a person sharing.

Of course, there’s a catch. Unbeknown to you and your 42 bargain-hunting bus companions, this is really a shopping tour sponsored by various Chinese businesses. Sprinkled through the itinerary, between the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Peking duck dinner, are innocuous items like ‘jade museum’, ‘medicine shop’, ‘silk factory’ and ‘foot massage’.

Although they sound interesting and educational, they are, in fact, compulsory wallet-extraction stops. We discovered this on day four, in Nanjing, when we unanimously objected to a second jade museum visit.

The first had been annoying enough: an unscheduled two-hour stop on our way to the Great Wall, where we were given a presentation on the wonders of jade carving, then left to roam listlessly around showrooms full of countless cabbages and pixiu wealth dragons. I amused myself by hunting for the most expensive piece and found a bangle with a price tag of more than R1,4 million. A smiling assistant asked if I’d like to try it on. I backed away.

After that, we felt we’d seen all the jade we ever wanted to and said as much to our tour guide in Nanjing. Sorry, he said, this stop is compulsory. Your tour has been sponsored by these businesses. That is how it can be so cheap.

It was an interesting moment on the bus. Thirty-eight South Africans, four Australians and one American, all accustomed to plain dealing, all suddenly realising they’d kinda, sorta been conned.

It had started on our first day in Beijing, when we were taken to Tong Ren Tang, a famous Chinese medicine shop where ‘doctors’ in white coats gave us a free examination. In a crowded, cacophonous classroom, we stuck out our tongues and had our pulses felt. Each of us was then diagnosed with a complaint, coincidentally curable by surprisingly pricey Chinese medicine.

Then there was the reflexology institute in the Beijing Olympics complex, where we spent a bored and hungry hour waiting for a ‘free’ (and painful) foot massage. Once again, this turned out to be an opportunity to sell our captive group ‘pedicures’ (don’t ask) and astoundingly expensive Tibetan herbs for footbaths.

The sheer showmanship of the sales techniques proved almost irresistible to most of us. At the Meijiawu tea plantation in Hangzhou, a demonstration of how green tea magically cleared an iodine and rice mixture convinced me to spend R1,200 on tea leaves. And at the silk factory in Suzhou, my normally sensible mother was somehow persuaded that a silkworm poo pillow would lower her blood pressure.

Don’t get me wrong. My mom and I had a marvellous time. After all, the tour did deliver everything promised. We were well fed, luxuriously accommodated, safely transported and taken care of by expert guides for an unbelievably low price.

And we did climb the Great Wall – all the way to the top, where we gaped at its vertiginous magnificence. We went on a night-time rickshaw ride through a Beijing hutong (a traditional neighborhood with narrow alleys and courtyard houses) and enjoyed a home-cooked meal with a local family. We strolled through clouds of cherry blossoms on the shores of Hangzhou’s magical West Lake and got lost in the timeless courtyards of the Lingering Garden in Suzhou. In Dong Shuiguan Park in Nanjing, I even sang Nkosi Sikeleli at the invitation of a friendly lady with a portable karaoke set.

Upon reflection, my mom and I decided we enjoyed most of the shopping stops too. It was fascinating to see an oyster opened, revealing dozens of pink pearls; to watch invisible yet unbreakable thread being unravelled from silkworm cocoons; to observe an artist delicately painting the inside of a crystal ball with strange, curved brushes. And all of the shopping stops – even the jade museums – furnished us with intriguing insights into Chinese culture.

Indeed, our group would have been perfectly happy with the arrangement if the Groupon offer and travel agency had simply been upfront about it. But, when I emailed the marketing director of Charming Asia Tours and asked her about the sponsorships our guide mentioned, she wrote back that ‘because of the language barrier’ the guide must have ‘translated incorrectly’. Only when pressed did she finally admit that, ‘Yes, the shopping stops in China are compulsory and sponsored’.

Intrigued as to why she’d prevaricate, I did a little digging. It turns out that forced shopping tours have become such a problem in China that the government passed a law against them last year.

The Chinese consul general in Cape Town seemed amused by the story when I telephoned him. He’s aware of the new tourism law and the prevalence of shopping tours, but said we should have made a complaint while we were in China. (He agreed this would have been tricky, especially as we don’t speak Chinese.) He pointed out that ‘no free fruit falls from the tree’ and advised the use of a reputable travel agency.

As for me, I’ll keep sipping my Emperor’s green tea and wearing what I like to think is a genuine jade necklace sold to me by an authentic actor.

Originally published in Getaway Magazine, August 2014

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