Damn – we almost made it to the four-year mark of our adventure without a police incident. Almost.
First, though, just a quick word about Shanghai. This is our third stop here since we started this adventure, in part because it’s a convenient regional hub and in part because it’s a big city we usually like. It was a good place to set off from for Japan so here we are.
It’s a lovely, civilized city that couldn’t have felt further removed from our time in the far more provincial Yunnan. Because the detailed spreadsheet we keep of all our spending reminds us of what we liked, we could easily return to a couple restraints that were good, including in particular the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria down on the riverside (the “Bund”) for perfect Perfect Manhattans.
This time, in contrast to previous stops in Shanghai, we stayed in the French Concession, an area that was effectively ceded to the French from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. While there has been a lot of development in the decades since China reasserted control it retains great personality with low-rise buildings and cute parks, feeling in some ways more like being in New York’s Greenwich Village than in China.
The French Concession was lovely, but one thing that just annoys the hell out of me in Shanghai’s core is the way male tourists are harassed on Nanjing Road – the main pedestrian shopping street in the city – by women offering “services.” Sometimes it’s not even so subtle, as when the woman just came up and asked “Sex?” It’s bad enough when Mark & I are walking together but when I walked it alone they were just all over me. I thought maybe if I put my headphones on to listen to music while I was walking back to the hotel they would leave me alone. Oh, no, now they would grab me by the arm to get my attention. That was really, really annoying. I kept thinking, “Why do we have to put up with this? Isn’t this supposed to be a police state?”
Oh, right, the police. On our last night we went to Lost Heaven, a restaurant we’d been to two years ago. They serve good Yunnan food, so we figured it would be a good send-off as we leave China and our three weeks in Yunnan. The meal was fine, but paying for it didn’t work so well. The restaurant takes advantage of Visa’s Dynamic Currency Conversion scam. This is the thing where the vendor offers to charge you in your home currency instead of the local currency. Sounds convenient, right?
What they don’t volunteer is that they tack on a service charge of anywhere from three to five percent and give you a bad exchange rate to boot. On top of that, if your credit card charges a fee for foreign transactions – ours doesn’t, but many do – they will still add that charge. It is a foreign transaction fee, not a currency conversion fee, and it’s still a foreign transaction even if they charge it in U.S. dollars.
In other words it’s just a scam that pads your bill; it provides no real benefit. But it gets worse, as here in China there’s a particularly virulent strain of the scam. Here you get the choice of being billed in either U.S. dollars or Chinese RMB. When you choose RMB, though, you still get charged in U.S. dollars, with all the fees added. That is, they ask “Do you want A or B?” You say A, but they’ve already assigned B. We only know that from experience; as far as you can tell you’ve checked the RMB box and only when you see your credit card statement do you know you’ve been really, really scammed.
The we got the credit card slip that night, before we signed it we saw that’s what had happened and quickly went online to Chase.com to confirm they’d charged in the inflated U.S. dollar rate. They had. So we told them to reverse the charge and do it again, this time in RMB. They did. Except when II logged in again (thank God for the SIM cards that allow us to be online all the time) it was charged again in the inflated U.S. dollar.
Now we’re frustrated and angry and start arguing with the manager about what they’d done. I can show him how it’s posted online you can see a charge, a refund, aWnd another charge, all in the wrong amount. Mark insists that if they just give us the 47 RMB difference in cash – about $7 – we’ll call it even. They refuse. Now I’m getting really angry, but there’s nothing we can do. I finally tell Mark, “Let’s just leave. We’ll challenge the charge with Chase and get the money back that way. Annoying, but not the worst thing that could happen.
OK, back to the story. We start walking out … and they attack us. Wait, we’ve been overcharged, we try to leave, and you’re fighting with us? I figured out later that they thought they’d refunded our charge twice and that we were leaving without paying anything. That clearly was not the case, as we could demonstrate with the online Chase access, but by then it was too late. We were trying to leave, they were calling the police, and in the process knocking the shit out of us, or at least me (I’d encouraged Mark to get away first to protect his still-sprained ankle) to keep us from leaving. All I could think as they were slamming me to the ground was that they were showing us that Shanghai was still capable of shanghaiing people!
Fair fight? I had probably six inches and 30 or 40 pounds on them; they were 30 or 35 years younger than me. You decide.
Now if we had to do it again I’d like to think that we’d have just paid the charge again – to be clear, paid the overcharge again – and made Chase clear it all up later. But by then there wasn’t a lot of time for clear thinking; I’d been thrown to the ground in the parking lot and was trying to get the hell out of that mess. I did manage to get up and somewhat free, where we all waited for the police. To our enormous benefit one of the cops spoke remarkably good English. I showed him the transactions on my i_hone, demonstrating that we had indeed paid, and – after seeing to it that we all exchanged email addresses, they let us go.
And that was it. We walked back to the hotel and collapsed in bed. Only when I woke up the next morning did I notice blood stains on the sheets from where my elbow and both hands had been scraped into the pavement. As I write this three days later in Tokyo the wounds are still painful though obviously merely surface wounds.
Thus our streak of staying out of trouble with the police on this adventure ended at 1,429 days. I’d like to think that the next time I’ll pay what they want and deal with the credit card company later. I hate being ripped off, though, and if at 61 I still react that way I can’t be sure that the next time will be any different. Oh, if you were wondering, my TripAdvisor review for Lost Heaven wasn’t very positive. I don’t like being ripped off and pummeled to the ground.
Hell of a way to leave China, eh? The next morning, though, it was off to Japan for a month of cherry blossoms, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.