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2008/01/13

Tourist Scams 1: Donghuamen Night Market

There once was a day where tourists who came to the capital faced assurance that they would get ripped off, in fact it was state policy, one price for foreigners, one price for Chinese; one currency for foreigners, one currency for Chinese. Beyond that policy, the majority of the people who you came across were (relatively) honest and well-intentioned. Today's Beijing is far different, while everyone pays with the same currency and (should) pay the same prices, honesty is a rare thing to find in this city. Instead, merchants and vendors will often do their best to get more money from foreigners at every turn. While I tend to avoid the overly touristy parts of the city, there are some that just can't be avoided, and so when I come across a rip off artist or hear verifiable evidence of a scam, I'll make sure to print it here as a service to all those visiting this (once?) great city.

Donghuamen Night Market is extremely famous, though many people, even some who've visited it, don't know it by name. It takes its name from the street of the same name that its on, but many mistakenly call it the Wangfujing Food Street (there is a separate Wangfujing Food Street that is open all day and has far less options), as it is just to the west of Wangfujing. It is well known not because of its quality or tradition, but because of the crazy options that you can purchase there, including bugs, scorpions, and sea horses.

First, let me say that unless you are going to sample some of the wilder options, are staying at Wangfujing, or are limiting your China travels to just Beijing and Shanghai, avoid this "market". There are very few stands selling Beijing specialities like bao du (boiled tripe) and yang za sui (lamb offal in soup), but those aren't the things most foreigners would want to sample anyways. Since the government has come in over the past few years and made the market more uniform in an attempt to turn it into a bigger tourist destination, quality standards and cleanliness have definitely improved, so if you go for the popular yangrou chuanr, you know you'll be getting one of the cleanest versions in the city. Regional options abound, including Guangdong's grilled oysters, Tianjin's baozi, and Chongqing's suanla fen making this market a decent option for visitors who will only be visiting China for a very brief time (and limiting that visit to one or two major cities). As with any touristy area, prices are higher than anywhere else in the city and portions are much smaller.

So there's a bit about the market, where is the "scam"? The boards at each stand clearly show prices, but the item names are all in Chinese and not every item is always listed (especially at the chuanr vendors). The other night when buying a Chinese "wrap" at one of the stands, I asked the price and the vendor correctly stated it to be RMB5, though the vendors next to him were having a discussion in Chinese, one said he made a mistake and should have said RMB10, another said that was too cheap and he should have said RMB15, I paid the RMB5 and as I walked away, I asked if I should really pay RMB15 considering the sign clearly says its RMB5? Vendors often attempt to charge anything from RMB1 to RMB10 over the price of what the signs say, but being able to read Chinese helps and sometimes you just need to walk away.

Granted, this isn't one of the worst scams in the city and being charged what amounts to a little more than US$1 isn't a big deal, it is unnecessary and improper, especially considering that there are little more than 200 days until the Olympics. These petty attempts to squeeze money out of the unsuspecting or unknowing are wrong and give the city a black eye.

Knowing all this, why do I still stop by on a regular basis? Mainly, its proximity to my apartment makes it a good spot for a really fast meal. Plus, a steaming hot bowl of yang za sui and an ear of grilled corn is an excellent meal and provides the heat needed to face another cold winter's day in Beijing.

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