Tea and the mystery girl

Set-up ... tourists get into the frame in Shanghai.
Set-up ... tourists get into the frame in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

 

After a chance meeting, Gary Newman is smitten in Shanghai.

Being alone in Shanghai makes you feel like a germ that's been flicked into a beaker full of white blood cells. Everyone seems out to get a piece of you - the women flogging pirated DVDs and fake watches on Nanjing Road, travel agents who claim not to speak English and the swarms of scooters that blaze their way through red lights when you are crossing the road. Then there are the scammers - such as the supposed businessman who has lost his wallet and briefcase and needs money to catch a taxi to his hotel.

What do I look like? Some kind of wet-behind-the-ears backpacker?

After a day spent wading through the syrupy Shanghai air repelling hawkers and swindlers, I am relieved to meet Jenny, a friendly young Chinese woman who speaks English.

''Excuse me,'' she says with a perfect smile. ''Can I have photo with me and my friends?''

It's September, the World Expo is on and Shanghai is crawling with Chinese tourists wanting to pose in a photograph with a bloke whose hair makes him look as though he's plugged his index finger into the mains. Usually, they are either couples or groups of older men but this is the first time I'm asked by someone who is young, twinkly-eyed and female. Clearly, my tolerance of the Chinese tourist paparazzi has earned me some positive karma, which I plan to cash in by wooing Jenny.

''How many people your tour group?'' she asks. ''Only one? Maybe you join our group? We go traditional Chinese tea ceremony now. You come?''

Hell yes.

Shanghai is a bitterly disappointing place if you arrive wanting to immerse yourself in Chinese tradition. At least Beijing has its remnant hutongs, musty temples and imitation communist memorabilia. But this place seems nothing more than a neon-lit mosaic of cement and glass with the phallic Oriental Pearl Television Tower in Pudong as its 468-metre centrepiece.

The prospect of sipping oriental tea with a Chinese princess is not an opportunity I was expecting to materialise among the phalanxes of Nikon-wielding tourists along The Bund.

''You talk my friends,'' Jenny says, as we begin ambling towards the tea house. She walks a few steps ahead to make a phone call. Her friends tell me they're in Shanghai to see the World Expo and Jenny is showing them around.

''How old you?'' Jenny asks when she rejoins the group. She's shocked when I tell her 32.

''I thought you 25! Why you no married? Maybe you need Chinese girlfriend,'' Jenny says with a giggle.

We exchange trivia about our countries. She laughs at how small Melbourne is and I pretend to be amazed by the fact Shanghai alone holds a population the size of Australia's. She tells me she's an acupuncturist - something I've always wanted to try.

All of a sudden, Jenny announces our arrival at the entrance of the teahouse - a nondescript doorway on an unfamiliar intersection. She ushers me into a small room. The walls are adorned with Chinese symbols and the room is filled by a table, four chairs and a Chinese woman dressed in a traditional robe. The wallpaper is peeling slightly in the corners and the place is by no mean salubrious but as a setting for a traditional tea ceremony, it looks the part.

I take the seat next to Jenny. ''She only speak Chinese,'' she says of our host. ''I translate for you. I hope you don't mind my Chinglish,'' she laughs.

The tea ceremony begins. In charming Chinglish, Jenny informs me the ceremony dates back to the Qing dynasty, which rose to power in the 15th century. I'm corrected for holding the tea glass like a woman and instead am shown how to hold the glass like a Qing emperor. I breathe in the scent of each tea before we taste it and I'm told the purpose of each - one is for longevity and another is for cleansing the pancreas - but I'm not really listening.

Jenny's sculpted features and playful Chinglish are an intoxicating blend.

''I think I like that one,'' she says, pointing to a glass teapot inside which the steaming water is being infused by a kind of exotic flower. ''Which one you like?''

I tell her the third and fourth teas are my preferred choices. ''Ahhh. Good choice,'' she says. ''You can buy to take home at end of ceremony - for your mother!''

It just so happens it's my mother's birthday - so I order a box with two flavours of tea once the ceremony is over, as does everyone else.

And then the bill arrives. The prices, written in neat, grey pencil, tell me my share of the price, including my mum's gift, comes to 853 yuan ($130). It seems a lot but everyone else is happily forking out multiple 100 yuan bills to pay for their share and I don't want to seem stingy in front of Jenny.

I open my wallet and discover I'm 400 yuan short. ''Don't worry, I give you money and you pay me back later,'' Jenny says with a smile. ''There is an ATM near here, we go there after.''

We leave the tearoom and walk down a typical, dimly lit Shanghai backstreet towards the bank. We find the ATM and I withdraw the money for her.

As we stroll leisurely, I tell her about Australia and she seems to like the sound of it. I joke she should marry me and move to Australia. She says maybe. Suddenly we're back among the tourists and bright lights and Jenny tells me they have to meet some other friends, the implication being that I'm not invited.

I do, however, procure a phone number and a kiss on the cheek before she disappears.

And then I'm alone again, sweating in the subtropical humidity. I decide to retreat to the airconditioned comfort of my hotel but I realise I'm lost and don't want to fork out more money for a taxi. I begin walking but the air is like molasses. It's not long before the imitation label sneakers I'd bought in Beijing cause my feet to blister and the sweat cascading down my brow washes away Jenny's intoxicating effect like a mug of day-old percolated coffee. In this new-found sobriety, I reflect on the evening's events.

If you've ever been to China, you'd know 853 yuan can buy quite a lot - food, rent and bills for an entire month, or a plane ticket from Shanghai to Beijing.

How did I manage to walk away from a Chinese tea party 853 yuan lighter?

And then I recall the phrase.

The one from the Lonely Planet guide.

The one that reads: ''Nanjing Road East. Single men should guard against English-speaking Chinese women shanghaiing them towards extortionate drinks at local bars and cafes.''

I've been Shanghaied.

 

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