My husband and I loved China, and I had read all about the scams before we left for our trip. But, on arriving, I had totally forgotten everything I had read!
We hadn't been in Beijing five hours (in the middle of winter on 26/12) and we were approached by a pretty girl wanting to chat to us about where we were from and wanting to go somewhere and have a cup of tea. Being in a new country (but not new to travelling) we didn't want to offend, but it was -12 degrees and we were tired. I don't think we would have gone with her anyway (I mean, we wouldn't at home, so why there???).
The next morning we were walking away from our hotel and came across two young girls claiming to be art students from Guilin (near Xi'an). Again, it didn't even cross my mind that I'd read all about this only a couple of months before....
I'm annoyed to admit this - but I do hope this helps someone else - we got chatting (they spoke really good English) and went to the art studio with them - and felt sorry for them and bought a couple of prints..... I know, I know.... Actually, if it had just been me, I wouldn't have even spoken with them (I'm hard) but my husband is too nice and doesn't like to offend. Basically, you just have to - whether they're honest or not. For instance, a couple of weeks later, we were in Shanghai and, having realised our mistake in Beijing, were really wary. We met this couple on the Bund who wanted us to take a photo of them.... they were Chinese, living on an island off Hong Kong. They seemed really nice and mentioned having lunch - alarm bells started and I had to say no.... It's a sad part of travelling wisely - you really never know who you can trust after only a few minutes....
Ok, if you travel the world enough, your able to deal with the "Hello do you speak English" or "Hello I'm a college student" lines.......and I must say...why do they continue to use these lines ??? It is because dumb people still fall for them !!!!!!! There all over the metro exist, and the main tourist attractions.......simple just ignore them, don't make eye contact or speak another langauge besides english and they'll leave you alone !!!!!! once they realize that your not paying attention they move on to there next victim !!!!!
Update May 2009:
I must say I was really surprised to see that the amount of "Hello do you speak English" people have almost disappeared, this is great !!!! We walked Tiananmen Square several times and weren't apporached once !!!! But there all at the Forbidden City.
I fell for the Art Student trap my first morning in Beijing on my way to Tianamen. The kid was pretty nice, spoke English well, and I followed him to his showroom. Some of the work was very good and some was not. We spoke for 30 minutes before the idea of a sale came up. I didn't think it was a scam until him and his "teacher" tried to hard to show me how legitimate they were.
I ended up buying a very large scroll for about $80. They originally wanted a lot more. I decided if it was original art I got a good deal. If it was a cheap reproduction it was still a lot cheaper then it would have been in the U.S.
I never felt like I was in any danger what-so-ever. I ended up paying with a credit card and my account hasn't been messed with. It was really just about sales and not about getting robbed. I might have been a little more suseptable to this as a former art student myself.
As soon as we stepped out of our hotel on our first day we were approached by two young Chinese students who were very nice and spoke good English. They were trying to get us to go to an art exhibition nearby. These students were everywhere and target tourists. They aren't aggressive or anything and if you fancy a few scrolls then it's probably safe enough to go with them. We went to a gallery (er, small shack) on a road alongside the forbidden city, where the shop holder did try a little bit of the hard sell and even begged for us to buy something in the end. We bought a cool scroll painting which now hangs in the living room.
Unique Suggestions: We ended up by having a bit of fun with the students in the end, by saying that we were English art students, that we had an exhibition of our own, and would they like to come along to buy something? They realised the game and laughed us off.
Fun Alternatives: This is an absolute tourist trap but the art work can be very beautiful and worth buying as a souvenier. So maybe choose the students that you like the best and let them sell you something.
Approached everytime I went to Tianemen Square by young males and females who all stated that they were art students and asking me to accompany them to a display of their work. They were very persistent talking to me for about 30mins. Finally just to get them off my back I agreed to go with them. Trust me this is a commercial process their job is to get you into a workshop where the proprietor will try and take as much money from you as possible.
Unique Suggestions: The party line is, I don't want any paintings, chinese caligraphy, tea or whatever else is fro sale. If you wan to practise your english I'm happy to talk to you but I'm not buying anything. The genuine people will understand and those who are working will simply leave you alone. I did this with a freindly smile and everytime we parted on amicable terms.
Fun Alternatives: Sorry, there isn't one if your going to the forbidden city or tianemen square. I was even accosted in modern mall in downtown beijing. Keep smiling and tell them your not buying. It never became heavy they finally left me alone. I believe it's more of a problem for european males travelling alone.
You know how it goes. A girl walks up to you and explains she is a art student selling her work. Next you know you are being dragged to behind the corner where some guy has set up a stand and you are given a rare chance to get some hand made, cheap but valuable original art. Beware, those are propably prints and worth about 1 euro.
Unique Suggestions: Take a look at what they have. The paintings are beatiful and you are not forced to buy anything if just stand firm.
Apparently Art School and English school go hand in hand, because some of the best English you will hear in Beijing is from Art Students who need your help to support the school's scholarship. They start of very friendly, and later ask to show you their exhibit. Not the worst scam in the world, and some of the art isn't bad, although it may be more mass produced and less likely to be hand made the student would have you believe.
In many places in downtown Beijing some youg students might approach you saying "Hello, we are art students! You want to see some calligraphy? Original Chinese art? Our university is very close by..."
Actually, this kind of approach is harmless and you will not go into a major trap. The thing that will happen: they will bring you to a closeby place, where they will show you calligraphy and Chinese paintings of moderate quality, sometimes very bad, sometimes quite good and they will talk a lot, introduce you to their teachers, maybe will tell you, that this school will move soon and that today is you only chance to buy something. Then they will try to sell the art for way too high prices. But you can always leave and will not be hindered.
The only thing is, that this "trick" - even though already well known - can get quite annoying, when every second young person in the pedestrian zone states to be an art student. Just nodd friendly and continue walking or say hello and continue your direction, but dont get involved in a talk.
Unique Suggestions: bring someone who can judge the quality of the calligraphy and who can give you an advice on reasonable prices.
I had read about the art students prior to going to Beijing, but unlike other tipsters we were approached constantly not just at the major sights; we were stopped in shopping malls, while walking on quiet side roads and one morning we made a quick coffee stop and two students were circling the exit like a pair of sharks waiting for us! All the students were polite, if a little devious in their approach sometimes - usually along the lines of asking could they practice their English, which we were happy to do, but which then led to their ‘art spiel‘. We were approached at least six times a day. Initially we listened to them and then made polite excuses but after a couple of days it did become tiresome so we cut off the conversation from full flow by saying “we’ve been” - and this seemed to do the trick.
Unique Suggestions: Not sure if it's a trap as such, we didnt go. From other tips it appears to be another sales pitch, so just be prepared for that if you chose to go and view.
Fun Alternatives: Not all approaches are art students, we were in a bookshop on Wangfujing when a young man asked for the time, I answered him half-expecting another art shot but it wasn't - he was genuinely just trying to converse with us. So, an approach could be a genuine attempt to practice English, but most times it isn’t and unless you want to go and view, and buy, their art make it clear as soon as the art word is mentioned. "We've been" works wonders.
In the forbidden city some "art students" may come to you asking you to take some time to visit their work.
They are friendly and speak good English, so the first sensation is good. If you take a time to see their work, you will be taken to a nearby cafe and souvenir shop and you may stay there for long minutes visiting "art".
Unique Suggestions: If you have forgotten to buy some souvenirs to your wife or family, maybe you can find some "fine art". But do not forget to bargain!
Fun Alternatives: You can always tell the aproaching student "thanks but I am not interested" and continue with your visit...
It is quite common knowledge amongst frequent visitors in Beijing, that in Tinamen square, you will be approached by young students of art. Actually they are salesmen and the art they want to sell is most likely not of their own. We were warned and sure enough, we were approached. But they are nice people and we went with them to their art studio.
Unique Suggestions: You can go to the art studio, but say that you are a tourist on a budget and just look at their calligraphy.
Fun Alternatives: If not interested in Chinese art, say that you have been in Beijing many times and have been approached by "arts students" frequently.
If you walk around the area near the southern end of Tiananmen Square, chances are you will be approached by a duo of art students keen to show you their galleries. They will take you to a gallery, where they will show you lots of art, and (surprise, surprise) try to sell you some. Ummm... I actually bought some calligraphies, but my point is: People only appoach you, if they want to sell something.
Unique Suggestions: If you want to buy something, pretend that you're not interested. Bargain. If you don't want to buy anything, have a look around, then quickly get out of there!
In the Forbidden City (and in other tourist locations) we were approached by ”Chinese Art students” claiming that they would have an exhibition in Norway soon and they wanted us to come along to look at their paintings to get feedback and new ideas. We never did go along to see what it was all about so I can’t really comment on it :-) Maybe they just wanted to practice their English but when it happens over and over again we got a bit fed up.