Holiday Thievery

You hear it every year from your Chinese friends at about this time: “Be careful with your wallet and your bag. It’s almost Chinese New Year, and the thieves are out in force so they can take home something extra for the holiday.”

I’ve only ever had one crappy cell phone stolen from me in China, but I’m extremely paranoid. The possibility of getting pickpocketed is on my mind constantly when I use public transportation or walk in crowds. I guess that’s a good thing, because it keeps me from getting victimized. On the other hand, it makes trekking through town a lot more taxing.

I thought my wallet was lifted on a bus recently as I was distracted by the snow. I even reported my credit card stolen. Carl found my wallet for me under my bed (d’oh!).

When the credit card company sent my replacement card, I got a notice in my mailbox to go pick it up at the post office (for security reasons). It looked exactly like a regular package notice, though, and Carl is expecting a package, so he went to claim it, with his passport as proof of identity. Despite not being me and showing them the wrong passport (i.e. not mine), they still gave it to him! Unbelievable.

Then when I called in to activate my replacement Visa card, I also had to unfreeze my Mastercard card with that bank because it was frozen when my Visa was reported stolen. Hoping it would be quicker, I used the English language service. As proof of identity, they required such difficult information as my home address, home phone number, and cell phone number. I had to make them wait a few seconds while I looked up my new home phone number because I haven’t memorized it yet. (Not fishy at all, right?) They asked my current credit limit, and I got it wrong. They still re-activated my card! Unbelievable.

If this country really gets into credit cards, credit card scamming is going to be huge. Back to the thieving, though.

Micah’s bag just got stolen. It’s really stupid, because all it had in it was kindergarten English teaching materials. The bag itself was probably worth the most from that take. Bastards!

What can you do when surrounded by all this holiday thievery? Well, just be careful. And if you still fall victim? Curse the waidiren! (外地人 are Chinese people that come from out of town. The stereotype is that they all come from poor rural areas and have little or no morals. The Shanghainese are pretty bad about blaming waidiren for all the city’s evils. I enjoy the irony of pretending to join in on the scapegoatery.)

Inspiration for this post: ShenzhenRen’s post on the same topic. (Well, that and my real life experiences.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I have fortunately never been picked, though losing bikes and scooters kind of makes up for it, I guess.

    Wonder what the fallout from the new movie 天下无贼 is going to be–are tourists this season going to be extra careful at temples and on trains because they saw Andy Lau nab a duffel bag full of cell phones?

  2. To all those out there:

    If you leave yourself UP for the opportunity, you deserve it.

    It can happen any time, any where, in any country, rich or poor.

    I saw a bumper sticker the other day on a pickup truck in Berkeley, California. It read:

    “Don’t steal, the government hates competition.”

  3. Wilson: That was in Berkeley? I would expect to see that Houston or somewhere in redneck country.

  4. This one brings back some memories for me too…

  5. Are Shanghainese really using the term “waidiren”? Or is that only when they’re speaking Mandarin? I thought they used to call all out of towners “country bumpkins” in Shanghainese.

  6. When I was travelling through Sichuan during the beginning of my winter break in 2003, I had my cellphone pickpocketed. It was a cheapo phone, so it wasn’t that devastating. The frustrating thing was that the only place I could get a new SIM card with my old number was if back at the China Telecom in Nanjing (!). Since I wasn’t planning on going back anywhere near Nanjing for the rest of my break, I just went without a cell phone for the rest of my vacation. Ended up worrying a couple of friends and nearly missing another friend’s wedding.

  7. “If this country really gets into credit cards, credit card scamming is going to be huge.”

    What type of scamming is not huge in this country?

  8. Honestly though, the Shanghainese should be cursing the government for not taking better care of the lives of the ‘country bumpkins!’

  9. Heh. Good post. Yes, they’re everywhere, and I guess Shenzhen is not the worst, but it seems like it from my standpoint (hit twice in the last month, and I’m pretty careful). Thanks for the link.


  10. I’m spending only a month in Beijing before going back to Harbin and although I’ve only been here for a week, I’ve already heard Chinese discuss this problem multiple times. The way the Beijingren tell it, only 外地人 steal. I met someone whose host family forbids her from riding the no. 2 subway line around the outside of the city in hopes of protecting her from the outsiders, but doesn’t mind if she rides the no. 1 line through the city.

  11. …and a timely post, too, John. As you know, the hottest movie out here right now is Feng Xiaogang’s “A World Without Thieves” (天下无贼). Theives scamming thieves scamming a young Gansu 乡巴佬 aboard a long-distance train. Out just in time for the Spring Festival season. Several tricks of the trade are displayed.

    In the meantime, everyone in China stay safe out there.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: January 13, 2005 at 1:34 am

    Maybe I’m just extremely careful (or paranoid), but I’ve never had anything stolen on ANY of my travels abroad. I always wear deep-pocketed jeans or khakis and stuff my money waayyyyy down there. For the really important stuff (credit cards, red-faced Maos), I keep it in a money pouch under my pants, placing the valuables near my other valuables. With backpacks, I buy little locks that I fasten to the zippers.

  13. Hey Chuck! Long time, no see/talk. Are you based in Hangzhou, still?


  14. Did you guys hear about the RECORD defecit in November? Of course, the US politicians and media love blaming China for their economic problems. The last sentence in an article I just read:

    “One of two things has to happen: either the dollar has to fall more and make things more expensive to consumers, or overseas demand has to pick up sharply,” he said.

    I highly doubt EITHER is going to happen. The American consumer is so demanding, spoiled, cheap and fickle (again, refer to the highly debated Wal-Mart discussion we had before here on Sinosplice) and the products America makes are hot dogs and beer.

    You can imagine the horror I encountered when I went to every store in Berkeley to look for a quality, MADE IN USA Cal Berkeley logo hoodie as a gift, only to find every hoodie selling for $49+ and they were made in every country except America. WTF!!! I was hoping the ever popular MADE IN USA Russell or Champion hoodie would be found, but it wasn’t. Have they, like LEVI’s, outsourced to other countries?

    Give me HIGH QUALITY, give me MADE IN USA, and unlike most of my fellow Americans, I will pay for it.

  15. Da Xiangchang Says: January 13, 2005 at 3:30 am

    Well, I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but if Wal-Mart’s selling a Chinese-made dumbbell set for $20 and some sports place is selling American dumbbells for $60, I’m going with the Chinese-made stuff. Of course, this will only work with simple, nearly indestructible items! I don’t trust Chinese products that are complicated. In Shanghai, my Chinese-made TV, DVD player, and shower rod all broke within a period of 2 weeks!

    And no matter how patriotic I get, I ain’t ever buying an American car. It’s the same principle: I want quality for my money.

  16. I think the most fradulent country in the world when it comes to credit card fake…… Thailand. It’s been so bad there for many years that most card companies will not even go in there. And I’m sure you are right – China will soon lead the pack whenever plastic gets common.

  17. Unlike most Americans, Wilson, you probably CAN afford to buy American.

  18. Anonymous Says: January 13, 2005 at 8:55 am

    With backpacks, I buy little locks that I fasten to the zippers.

    Will that work? I have heard that htieves slit backpacks, an action quieter than unzipping it. Maybe the way to protect a backpack is to display hints that it contains no valuables, just dirty underwear.

  19. Combining those comments on money pouches and dirty underwear:

    Used to be I’d see people selling special anti-theft briefs on the streets of Jilin. Underwear with a special zip pocket in the front to hold cash for long journeys away from home. I’d imagine you’d have to plan things out in advance though, since extracting money wouldn’t be too convenient at the time of purchase.

  20. I have heard that htieves slit backpacks

    They do; that was my December hit, and it was so quiet I didn’t know it until the next day. Bastard only got a box of dental floss, though! 😉 Special devices and special locations are probably the best solutions. I wasn’t kidding about wanting a wire-mesh money belt. Any entrepreneurs reading? You could make a mint in Shenzhen with special theft-prevention gizmos (I fantasize about exploding dye packs for handbags).

  21. Luckily, the only thing I ever had stolen in China was my bike (what else is new!). I guess the surprising thing was that it got stolen a mere two hours after it was purchased, from my apartment staircase. I didn’t even have time to figure out how to make it ‘unattractive’, before it was gone, locks left behind smashed and all.

    Several people said it was probably the 外地人 who were camping out on the playground of the residential compound. Honestly though, it could have been anyone in Hangzhou; and seeing how later in the year an upper-floor apartment got burglarized courtesy of a bamboo pole (at least, that’s the story), security around there was harldy on the ball.

  22. The Real Carl Says: January 13, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    @ Carl

    You cannot post on Sinosplice as Carl. I was here first and I am the authors roommate. GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!!!

  23. Regarding the movie 天下无贼, there was an editorial in a recent Shanghai newspaper reacting against a critic’s review of the movie. Apparently the critic wanted the movie banned because it would serve as a training manual for thieves. Of course, the editorial author objected to this, pointing out that all thievery in the movie took advantage of movie tricks like computer effects, invisible wires, etc. Also, he protested that if you ban this movie for promoting thievery, you might as well ban a host of other movies for similarly nit-picky reasons.

    And yeah, my backpack was stolen but I keep all things of value in the front pockets of my jeans, so nothing of monetary value lost (only sentimental value, sniff).

  24. Lock your doors, too!

    For those of you that regularly make the China Blog circuit and have read John’s latest entry about “Holiday Thievery” at Sinosplice or Sam’s “Thievery, part XXXVIII” at Shenzhen Ren, I offer one piece of supplemental advice for the Spring Festival hol…

  25. thief guru comes to shanghai

    thief guru comes to shanghai

  26. Asia by Blog

    Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, usually posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. For tsunami relief information, please see the Ts…

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